Pop Culture Clash

The Super Bowl came and went, just as it does every year, and the conversations that followed it focused just as much around the advertisements as they did on the actual game. While the Super Bowl was at least an exciting game this year, the ads were certainly interesting in their own right. As I sat drinking beer and watching it all in a relatively packed restaurant, I paid careful attention to both the advertisements and the response of the loud, presumably drunk crowd around me. After all, I was there for the ads, and while I could have just watched them from home on YouTube, I really wanted to be able to hear what others around me thought of the ads in real time.

I don't want to like these commercials, but it's impossible not to.

I don't want to like these commercials, but it's impossible not to.

Of course, the crowd favorite this year was Budweiser’s “Lost Puppy” ad. As it played, I heard the girls at one table “aww”-ing while the guys at another table commented on how cute the puppy was. The only thing I could think about was how brilliant the ad’s creators (Anomaly) were. I mean, from a creative standpoint, there is nothing groundbreaking here. It’s simply an ad about an extremely cute puppy who gets lost, makes it back home, and is saved from a wolf by his iconic horse friends. What does this have to do with beer, besides the Budweiser hat that the puppy’s owner is wearing? Well, not much — and that’s fine. Even though Budweiser has done puppy ads in the past, with their “Puppy Love” ad running during last years game, it doesn’t seem to matter. Budweiser knows that people love puppies, so why change it? For the record, I am not complaining. The Budweiser puppy is exceptionally cute and I expect we will see another entry with it during next years Super Bowl — even if the premise is somewhat of a layup.

Two other commercials that seemed to get some love were the Walter White pharmacy ad and the Liam Neeson Clash of Clans ad. Both of these focused on a pop-culture reference to some well known and liked personality in an unusual situation. Walter White at a pharmacy helping some suburban mom pick up her prescription is funny because he, as most people know, is a murderous drug lord, not a pharmacist. Sure it’s a little cheesy, but everyone in my small, makeshift focus-group of a restaurant seemed to respond positively to this one. I think the positive response here comes simply from the recognition of a fan-favorite TV character in the commercial. You could swap out Mr. White being the pharmacist for him being a taxi driver, or a chef, or a personal trainer at a gym — it wouldn’t matter. I think people would react the same simply because it has Walter White in it.

I wonder if he actually plays the game.

I wonder if he actually plays the game.

The Clash of Clans ad with Liam Neeson was similar in premise but had, in my opinion, much better execution. Everyone knows Mr. Neeson from the “Taken” movies, among others. He is always a badass guy with an intimidating voice who delivers terrifying monologues for his would-be enemies on screen. So, why not take that and make him do the same thing to a random online stranger while he waits for his coffee? The surprise factor here was also a big part — many ads for the Super Bowl provided a teaser to audiences before the game, or in the case of the “Lost Puppy” ad, released a week before the game. Audiences had no idea that this one was coming. It begins as an average phone-app commercial with CGI warriors battling CGI dragons — but then breaks the 4th wall and suddenly we weren’t watching an ad, but a battle someone was having. That someone was Liam Neeson — and he is angry. I heard many people laughing, saying that this one was their favorite of the night, and statistics seem to agree. Pixability, a website that did a study of the Super Bowl ads, says that this ad was both the most liked and most commented on ad on YouTube.

So, it seems that successful or popular Super Bowl ads have the commonality that is the inclusion of some sort of pop-culture figure or reference. I mean, the Liam Neeson ad was extremely popular, so is that all it takes? Well, T-Mobile will tell you that’s sadly not the case. Kim Kardashian could be considered the epitome of a pop-culture figure, so having a commercial featuring her should be a winner — except it wasn’t. Kim’s T-Mobile commercial has been rated as the most disliked and least favorite advertisement out of all of the ads that ran during the Super Bowl. Apparently you can’t grab any old pop-culture icon, stick them into a commercial and have it gain a good response. I don’t think it’s a secret that many people don’t like Mrs. Kardashian. It could be for a number of reasons, be they that she is vapid, self absorbed, unintelligent, or attention seeking (to name a few).

The face of T-Mobile.

The face of T-Mobile.

So T-Mobile decided to run an ad that focused on all of these dislikable attributes in the context of a faux-PSA about cell phone data…and expected what? For people to like it? I think T-Mobile missed an opportunity here for some self-deprecating comedy, where Kim addressed all of these things in some way and made fun of herself. Me, Kim, and the rest of the country could all laugh together at how dumb she is, and that could have made it a likable commercial. I probably would have liked Kim more if she was able to make fun of herself. The ad never went there, though. In fact, it seemed like it was kind of serious. It gave out the vibe that she actually wants you to use T-Mobile because that way you can actually keep track of her selfies (because yes, Kim, we all care about you so much).

So are pop-culture references the key to advertising success? Obviously not always. Hopefully this serves as a lesson to some would-be advertisers going into the field. Pop-culture references have the potential to be very powerful in terms of likability and shareability (is that a word?) — but it needs to be done right. It’s important to find out what people think of the pop-culture reference you are making, and portray it in a way that will resonate. Liam Neeson’s badass persona and Walter white are both very likeable, popular, and were shown in a funny way that really resonated with audiences. Kim Kardashian, on the other hand, is generally a more dislikable personality and was shown in a way that was not particularly funny — and the response confirmed that. Though I’m not sure that we can consider the ad a failure, since any publicity is good publicity, right? All I can be sure of is that I need to download Clash of Clans and hope I can fight battles with Liam Neeson — I mean AngryNeeson52.