Television campaigns have long featured recurring characters, conventions and taglines. The reason is simple: in a world of infinite media clutter these devices help commercials rise to the top of the heap, arrest attention, and, when executed with the greatest deftness, entertain – all while advancing a brand and its message. From the ubiquity of Progressive Insurance’s Flo to the Chick-fil-A cows to the Energizer Bunny, today’s TV advertising landscape is riddled with examples of such repetition. How successful such customs are may very well be eye-of-the-beholder stuff, but in water cooler conversations that occur both literally and virtually, it is apparent that some are beloved, while others are loathed. This observation has led your Friday Forecast bloggers to ask: Why is this so? What makes some campaigns work and others send you scrambling for the mute button… if not the bathroom? Let’s take a closer look at two campaigns, one that we believe achieves this with the greatest poise and another; well, not so much.
Let’s begin with one that works: The AT&T commercials that feature Lily Adams, the wizened girl-next-door who acts as clerk and problem solver at the mobile carrier’s local retail store. In each of the scenarios, Lily, who is played by actress Milana Vayntrub, confronts an individual, couple, or family who describe a situation that is relatable and funny. So, for example, in one of the more recent spots entitled “You Too”, Lily hands a bearded guy his iPhone 7 who turns and, via stream-of-consciousness voice over, reveals that he believes he has gotten a deal so good that he has gamed the system and, in his zeal to get out of the store before the truth is discovered, slams into the glass exit door. Why does this work? Because any viewer who has ever had a cashier give them more change than they had coming knows what it feels like to hurriedly walk away as they contemplate the situation’s moral ambiguity. Lily, ever aware of human foibles, is always in on the joke, which only makes her that more endearing.
Contrast that with the Chevrolet ad, “Real People, Not Actors,” that feature another bearded actor, Potsch Boyd, and that follows a repeated scenario which has now been used for over two years and goes something like this: on a grandiose set, men and women who reflect the car manufacturer’s target audience discover that a certain Chevy vehicle has earned a JD Power award. They react with shock and awe once the vehicle is revealed and act as if they are the midst of a reality show where points are earned for overtly zealous body language and guttural response. This ‘award-reveal-response’ mechanism is repeated over and over again using hocus pocus such as an elevator with cascading cars that heaves into action. While the focus group participants gape wide-eyed at the sheer breadth and scope of the trophy hall and associated unsexy cars, the audience at home has likely already changed the channel to “Love It or List It.”
So why does one campaign sing and the other screech? Let’s examine the ways:
It Can’t Just Be Likable, It Must Be Loveable: In order for an advertising convention to work repeatedly it can’t just be good enough – it has to be great. Take, for example, the Liberty Mutual campaign that shows hapless automobile insurance consumers explaining why they were duped by their current carrier amidst a backdrop of Lady Liberty. The tales they tell are cute and likable enough, but not that compelling. Contrast that to the visceral thrill ride of All State’s Mayhem who, in each spot, unleashes a fresh and funny torrent of your worst nightmare, and the difference is a plain as day.
The Audience Has to Care: Amid the list of features and benefits that would compel you to buy a car, where would a JD Power award rank? Likely somewhere after brand, vehicle category, model and style, functionality, gas mileage, price, included and/or optional features – we could go on, but you get the point. Contrast that with a mobile phone plan and/or a sexy new phone, a decision that about half of consumers have in play every two years. Such devices have essentially become an extended body part, so one can argue that AT&T has an easier task. But let’s put it another way: which campaign engenders more favorable feelings about the brand. Which one entertains you, makes you laugh, and rings true? Which one annoys you and seems contrived, even phony?
Expectations Must Be Subverted: In the broadest sense, a viewer watching a Mayhem ad knows what lies ahead: disaster. But the particular scenario is different each time and so part of the fun and why the campaign is so effective at grabbing your attention, is that you want to see what exactly is going to befall the protagonist while this devil sits on his shoulder (note that the protagonist is always a man, a form of the well-intentioned but foolish husband and father character that has been a staple of virtually every sitcom since time immemorial). With Chevy’s advertisements, the only wrinkle is the range of awards, vehicles, and the physical apparatus used to make the reveal. There’s no real punch; nothing to keep you captivated beyond some mild sense of curiosity about the mechanics of the set. It is undone by its utter lack of originality.
It Should Hold Up to Repeated Viewing: Finally, whenever a scenario is repeated, the payoff has to be so satisfying that the commercial holds up to repeated viewing. In an ideal world, it is so clever that the shush your spouse or kids when it comes on again. This is especially true in categories such as insurance where the degree of frequency that assaults the average viewer can be numbing. This is an advantage GEICO has with it $1 billion plus ad budget that supports endless creative variations to augment its recurring talking gecko character, that all end with the same sonorous tagline you are now free to repeat aloud.
What this all boils down to is one thing: creativity. Whether it be lovable, relatable characters, familiar scenarios, or over-the-top humor, repetition only works if it surprises and delights. That’s the best assurance that those eyeballs an advertiser is vying for are transfixed, maybe even shedding tears of joy, and simply not rolling back in their heads.
Colleen Ferrier is a seasoned direct marketing expert who specializes in guiding integrated direct-to-consumer campaigns with an acute focus on ROI. Her broad experience has included management oversight of marketing, operations, media, and international distribution. The campaigns she has been instrumental in helping lead to success across her 15+ year career include Pillow Pets, Little Giant Ladder, Dream Lites, and Stompeez. Ferrier has a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Augusta University, Georgia.
Rick Petry is a direct marketing veteran of over 25 years who has been involved with campaigns that have generated over $1 billion in sales. He provides creative services to both B2C and B2B marketing campaigns and recent projects have included Actegy/Revitive, Education Connection, GOLO, Joybird, and OYO/DoubleFlex. The author of over 200 articles on direct marketing best practices, Petry has a Bachelor of Arts in Cinema/Television from the University of Southern California and an MBA with a Concentration in Marketing and Sales from Marylhurst University.