For $4 million dollars, one can buy half a minute of air time during the Super Bowl. With that kind of money being tossed around, you can bet top dollar was spent on the hottest talent in the advertising industry, those most able to influence you to buy a product.
The skills of advertisers today are sublte, sophisticated, and well beyond the public’s awareness of how they are being influenced. When you are standing in a grocery store, why do you gravitate towards one specific brand on a wall of similar products? You may be surprised to find out that while sometimes our decision may rest on a rational list of pros and cons, it can also be a feeling we get that leads our heart and our hand to pick up a certain product. It just feels right or better to do so. The reason usually leads back to advertising.
Hearts move most easily with stories. You may notice that commercials use a story-driven model to sell their stuff. Compare that with an ad where they merely display their product on a white background while an off-screen voice lists the benefits of using it. Even if the benefits are amazing, the commercial isn’t compelling. There’s something unsatisfactory about it. Stories satisfy.
Stories gain their power to sell when they are appropriately linked to the product. This is best done by metaphor and imagery. In the Super Bowl, there were some commercials where they had an engaging story, yet failed to properly tie their product to it. You may remember the chaos of the Dober-huahua commercial, but do you remember the product that was supposed to sell? A bright red Audi, which was tagged onto the end of the ad like an afterthought. The run-amuck Chihuahuas with CGI Doberman heads had nothing to do with the car, neither in metaphor nor imagery. It was ineffective, a failure. Other ads were successful and sophisticated.
Part 1 – Hyundai
Hyundai made a strong showing with their auto-emergency breaking commercial. The commercial takes you through the young life a boy from toddler to teenager. In the very short span of 15 seconds, Hyundai shows us 6 scenes where Dad saves us from imminent harm. Note my language in the previous sentence. It isn’t someone’s dad, even though that is who is shown. It is “Dad” and he is saving “us” from harm. This is part of the art of a good commercial. Let me explain a bit more.
Hyundai first creates an archetypal dad, one that heroically saves the day from our follies. He’s a dad who is watchful and protective, a dad who keeps us safe from the harm we inevitably are about to step into. To a young one, such a dad may feel like Superman, and Hyundai has added in elements of that hero to help us get the correct perspective. In one scene, Dad rushes in from off-screen to grab his kid just before his speeding bike hits a parked car. In another scene, the unaware kid is about to be kicked in the face by an overweight kid on a swing. Dad saves him at the last moment lifting him up up and away, safely in his protective arms. They also give Dad a human touch of clumsiness and distress to make him more relatable. He collides with a flaming bbq. He gets hit with a pinata bat. All this time, Hyundai is playing a sweet song in the background with lyrics like “You can count on me,” “I can count on you,” and “I’ll be there.”
Hyundai then ties this archetypal dad to themselves. In the final scene, the teenager is learning how to drive with Dad in the passenger seat, again watching protectively. The teenager, being distracted by a pretty girl, almost crashes but is saved by Auto-Emergency Breaking. This is where Hyundai’s magic happens. They ask, “Remember when only Dad could save the day?” Now, not only has Hyundai inserted themselves into Dad’s role, but they have also saved Dad as well. They are protecting the person who’s been protecting you all your life. If there is anyone you can trust to keep you safe, it must certainly be Hyundai.
Part 2 – Budweiser
Ever notice Budweiser doesn’t actually show their product in their commercials? How does one sell a thing without even talking about it? Budweiser has learned something very important about human psychology. Feelings are more moving than rational lists, and we are moved most easily by stories. Budweiser has chosen, perhaps, the strongest of human feelings, that of connection.
Savvy as they are, Budweiser has designed their Super Bowl commercial such that each moment shows connection or makes you feel it somehow. One may count 15 instances in the 60 second airing. The short story of the commercial has an escaped puppy quickly become friends with a horse he found in a barn. They are forcibly separated and then reunited. Many of Budweiser’s recent commercials have this same theme of reconnection after separation. For example, this year’s second big Super Bowl commercial involved a soldier, separated by war returning home to his loved ones and a surprise parade thrown in his honor. Also, in the 2013 Super Bowl advert, Budweiser has a young Clydesdale separated from his caretaker, only to be reunited with him later at a parade. That kind of story can be very moving. Perhaps your mind has already wandered to a time when you were separated from those you hold dear . . . and how good did it feel to reconnect with them after that absence?
Having a moving story isn’t enough. A successful advertiser needs to tie the story to its product. How did Budweiser do it successfully without ever showing its product? Remember how Audi and their Dober-Huahua commercial failed miserably even with showing it’s product for a sustained 12 seconds? The answer deals with association and metaphor.
Budweiser has spent a lot of money training us to associate certain things with them. In the soldier’s parade commercial, no one had a clue as to what the ad was about until a certain moment. All that we needed to be shown was a horse’s leg in the parade. For many people, it clicked immediately whose commercial was playing. The Clydesdale have become Budweiser. We no longer need to see the product if we see the horse.
The association is strategic both in imagery and metaphor. First, in association, the horses themselves already somewhat resemble a pitcher of Bud. They both share that warm brown color in their body, and the horses have white trimmings like the foamy head of good beer. Red is also an important color. The horses are often pulling a red wagon or are shown with a subtle red harness. This relates us to the red of the Budweiser beer can. Second, in metaphor, the horses are often shown as a team of 4. This is a metaphor of connection, and as we look at that team, we might feel some degree of what it is like to be so close and in concert with them, to be part of that team.
Now that we understand how the Clydesdale became Budweiser, we can appreciate the deeper levels of influence in the commercials. This happens in metaphor. The puppy finds a Clydesdale and immediately has a connection with it. The horse is certainly our Bud, so that puts us, the viewer, as the puppy. The puppy is then torn away from our horse friend, and we actually feel some pangs there. The commercial focuses on the sad puppy eyes, and we aren’t made of stone. The puppy attempts to be with his friend and is thwarted 3 times in rapid succession. Note that this is a quick repetition technique similar to Hyundai’s commercial where they showed 6 instances of Super Dad saving the day in 15 seconds. It is really being hammered in via metaphor that we are being kept away from our beloved beer.
Puppy and friend are finally reunited. It is no accident that it is Budweiser’s iconic team of four Clydesdale bring the puppy back as it was being whisked away in a car. In metaphor, we now have Budweiser as savior/hero reconnecting us with our dear friend, who also just happens to be Budweiser.
It should be becoming clear how many levels down these adverts can work in our minds. This author has a distaste for beer and most alcohol. However, after repeatedly watching the advert many times over in preparation for this article, I can’t deny there is now something like an affection for the beer. It is a curious thing.
Part 3 – KIA
The next three commercials we will discuss are particularly interesting because they attempt to rebrand their product. Clearly, heavy lifting is required to create new associations and feelings in you within the short ad space of one minute or less.
Our current associations with KIA are not flattering. Let’s be honest. It is an economy car that is bought by below average income-earners. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. It is just their niche which they have happily been filling, until now.
I can just imagine the daunted look of KIA’s advertising agency when they were told they have to sell a luxury car. We automatically distrust the association like we would distrust Penzoil-branded taco meat. “KIA” and “luxury” don’t properly belong in the same sentence or anywhere else in the real world. Therein lies KIA’s clever trick. We just might possibly accept it if we are placed in a world where logic is suspended, where everything you know is turned on its head, a world where you can’t trust what your lying eyes are telling you. Such a world is that crafted in the Matrix.
The strategy is to invoke the world of the Matrix and then submerge us in it. If KIA reveals that the luxury car is theirs too soon, we will reject it. They need to put us deep into the Matrix first. As a hypnotist whose job is to lead clients into further levels of trance, I found KIA’s approach interesting.
We first need to enter the Matrix from our regular world. Dropping us into it immediately would be too abrupt for the new association to set in. Morpheus reprises his famous blue pill/red pill scene in the commercial with red and blue keys. “It is the world of luxury that has been pulled over your eyes,” he cautions a couple. They opt for the red key, and as soon as we see them get in the luxury car, we are in the world of the Matrix. This is reinforced when the driver says in disbelief, “This is unreal” while Matrixy reality-warping noises play subtly in the background.
As the viewer, we are only shallowly in the Matrix. The people in the car are fully in it already. To get us viewers into the deep end of the pool where our toes can’t touch ground anymore, KIA uses techniques similar to a hypnotic induction that leads to trance. They have Morpheus begin to tool with your senses: sight, touch, and sound. By leading people on a journey through their senses, they are much more likely to accept suggestions given to them.
“This is what luxury looks like,” Morpheus informs us as he gestures inside the car. There is a bit of magic in the camera shot here. The windshield through which the shot is taken has city lights strolling across it. Aesthetically, it is nice, but it partially obscures the passengers and it draws attention away from the dialogue. Surely, this apparent flub wasn’t accidental in this $8 million commercial. KIA is using a technique news networks have discovered in recent years. Perhaps you may have noticed that they bob or sail the camera around in a certain way or that they render a digital American flag waving just so in the background. When they do this, you may have noticed how difficult it is to look away. It is engrossing, nay, entrancing. Once in trance, suggestions tend to stick better.
“This is what luxury feels like” Morhpeus tells us in the slightly longer version of the commerical not aired during the Super Bowl.* (At about $66,000 a second, KIA needed to shave a few precious moments from the film. I’m including discussion of the unaired parts because they relate to KIA’s deepening technique). Morpheus slowly strokes the seat in a way where we can really be there with him, feeling the fine contours and texture of the seat along with him.
“This is what luxury sounds like,” Morpheus leads us. He then begins to sing opera. Morpheus has now hit upon all the senses a hypnotist would in an induction that leads to trance. While he continues to sing, we are taken even deeper into the world of the Matrix. As they pass a shop window, we see two”agents” inside activate and become concerned about the luxury car. In the extended commercial, we are taken even further. A young woman in a red dress is shown sitting at a diner, invoking a scene from the movie remembered well by young boys. As she brings her spoon up to her mouth, it begins to melt and bend. Notice how the Matrix references come much harder and quicker after they finished the sense induction. It is at this point, during Morpheus’ operatic crescendo, that cars start lifting off the street to float in the air while streetlights explode like sparklers on the 4th of July. We now have fully arrived in the Matrix
Full arrival in this magical world means that we, the viewer, can be shown things we shouldn’t believe, and we will accept the association. It should be no surprise then that finally we see the KIA logo displayed prominently. We are finally told that KIA does in fact have a luxury car.
Part 4 – Axe
Axe has completely flipped its branding around. Since 2003, this deodorant has promoted itself as a way to attract women. Their commercials show this in the extreme with bikini-clad cuties crazed by the spray from a typical teenage boy. Often, he becomes the main dish of their feeding frenzy as several tackle him to the ground. For over a decade, Axe has rubbed this into us as its single driving association.
How surprising to find Axe at the Super Bowl promoting the exact opposite of that feral irrational lusty attraction. In its stead, Axe shows us a mature love demonstrating both strength and vulnerability in the men who cherish the one woman they want to attract as opposed to making several women aggressive mindless beasts in heat.
Part of the reason for this shift may have to do with the fact that their young demographic has finally grown up. Most of their original customer base likely has a wife and kids at this point. If they want a life-long loyal customer, they can’t be selling teenage fantasies forever. It’s time to grow up. Another motivator may come from their new competition with Old Spice. Old Spice rebranded in recent years with its well-known, “Look at me. I’m on a horse” commercial. Previously popular only with grandpop and aging parents, Old Spice made a move for the youth. In doing so, they cut into Axe’s territory. To recoup its loss in revenue, Axe has to chop into new demographics, which is where this Super Bowl commercial appears aimed.
Axe begins anew with 4 vignettes. As in the other commercials, quick repetition is the game here. You might predict each vignette will repeat the same theme, mature love.
The ad shows 4 men of immense power and therefore men with excess virility. Remember that Axe is extending to new demographics, and it wishes to do this without abandoning the old. Therefore, Axe may do well to touch upon prowess, while not “selling” it as it has done in the past. In the current commercial, power is displayed by military might wielded by average men. We see a tank moving through a war-torn city. We see a military dictator and his orderly hordes of soldiers filling an arena with the strictest of discipline. We are shown military copters transporting GIs. Also, a politician opens a briefcase of mass destruction containing a detonator or missile command device of some sort.
This is where Axe takes a wildly new swing. Axe shows women, strong women, standing up against the might of men. While crowds flee the tank in the city, a lone woman approaches it with fear yet determination in her eye. It may very well just roll over her. While villagers flee the landing of the military copters, a lone woman walks towards them, confronting a dismounting soldier who is now pointing his gun at her, ready to shoot.
Then the most amazing thing happened in the history of the Axe universe, these women, both brave and fragile, beautiful in their vulnerability, disarmed the men. These women take away the men’s might, and not by force but by their mere presence. It is the affection men feel for their love that they willingly, happily, abandon their machines of power. Such might, such tools of domination, are inappropriate in the gentle caress of love. Axe demonstrates this by showing a soldier pop out of the protective armament of his tank. His lover calls out his name in delight and rushes to the top of the tank where he snuggles on her shoulder. We are shown the GI, now out of his copter, dropping his automatic rifle into the mud as his lover embraces and kisses him. She pushes his war helmet off his head as those things get in the way of the affection they wish to share together.
The other 2 vignettes tell the same story in a slightly different way. Whereas the first 2 stories show the men physically disarmed in their affection, the next show the men using their physical power for a sweet and soft display to their lovers. The Asian military dictator, heretofore emotionless, gives a slight nod, commanding his horde of soldiers to each hold up a large colored square. In total, the squares reveal an “I love you” heart picture depicting the dictator and his lover. She reaches over to hold his hand, and a sweet smile breaks through his repressed manner in a way that tugs the viewers heart strings. Finally, the politician pushes the big red button in his brief case. Fireworks explode harmlessly and beautifully outside the window from which he and his lover are looking. Subtly, the fireworks shape a heart, then dissipate. His lover shares a surprised smile with him as he he reaches across the couch to kiss her hand.
Have we not been each of these men? Who hasn’t traveled long miles to be with their partner like the GI did in his helicopter? Whose heart hasn’t sat well-protected in walls of reinforced tank steel only to have the hatch pop open once a certain someone gets close enough? Who hasn’t tried to quiet and repress their emotion yet be unable to stop that love-struck grin from spreading? It is because we relate so well to these men that we can easily “wear” them for a moment and immerse ourselves in the story. We can feel the mature love they feel. That is part of the magic of the commercial, in addition to the quick repetition of the theme. Because the theme is so powerful and shown so frequently, we begin to create a new association with Axe. This association happens in our minds and also physically at the neurological level.
Part 5 – RadioShack
The only thing more surprising than seeing a bunch of aging 80′s stars in a single commercial is finding out that RadioShack still exists. Somehow, that store has scraped along in the shadows. All of our associations with RadioShack revolve around the 80s, which is disasterous for a tech store in the modern era. We think of RadioShack, and we think of old technology. How can we do otherwise? The name of the store itself prompts us back to that time when radios, boomboxes and CB radios were a desired product.
Time is a particularly potent association. This is RadioShack’s misfortune. When something is in the past, it is over, irrelevant, even distant. There is some evidence to show that the neurology which lights up for distance in time is the same that lights up for distant in space and social distance. (The population size in the experiment needs to be larger before one can claim something conclusive). Ever notice how we use “far” and “close” to describe time, space, and social distance? It should not be too odd to realized that, when we dislike someone, they can feel farther away in space; their presence can feel less imminent than a friend who is standing just beyond them. For RadioShack, if we want to pick something up today, we would have to drive all the way to the 80s, which is distant indeed. Any local store carrying the same product in this modern era is much closer.
Time must be rewritten. RadioShack has a heavy task, but they have a good lever in their favor: the unconscious mind is horrible at telling time. When you are sleeping, and your unconscious is free at play, we feel like we wake almost as immediately as we close our eyes. Good times fly by and times of boredom can drag on forever. Our experience of time dilates and constricts regardless of how the clock ticks. RadioShack did well in their commercial by speaking in a way our unconscious understands. They found a way out of the 80s and created new associations relating to modernity.
RadioShack decided that a theme of transformation, perhaps even a type of death and rebirth, was most appropriate to get across their reimage. This is in contrast to the rebranding in the other commercials above who just got on with creating new associations and repeating that link as quickly and powerfully as possible. RadioShack must invoke the old, in order to transform or kill it.
They first invoked the 80s by showing a very 80s version of their store. Fake wood paneling is everwhere. The store is brown and beige, reminiscent of the time when beige was the go to color of electronics like computers and monitors. The signs on the wall proclaim, “Boom Boxes” and “Fax Machines,” and they display some of those ancient and giant beasts. Then, the 80s itself calls and tells the employee that they “want their store back.” This gives a clever effect. When we later see Alf, Hulk Hogan and others plundering the store, we don’t see them merely as the individuals. Instead, we see them as manifestations of the 80s. It is the 80s itself doing this to the store, not any particular icon of that era. That distinction is important for the commercial to work.
The next step is transforming or killing the 80s version of RadioShack. A horde of aged 80s icons burst through the door and ransack the place. Devo is ripping products off the walls. The California Raisins are kicking electronics off the shelf. Even the murderous doll, Chucky, is seen tearing up the carpet by stabbing it repeatedly. Hulk Hogan lifts and carries off a display pillar. Notice that it has subtly switched from items being looted, to the store itself being destroyed in increasingly meaningful ways. While you may not have noticed it, your subconscious likely did. The store is destroyed and we are left with a prolonged image of the dead and gutted store. As they spent $198,000 on airtime for that shot alone, you can bet they really wanted it to sink into your unconscious. The last we see of the 80s is a DeLorean over-filled with loot and peeling rubber as it races out of the area, presumably up to 88 mph. How ingenious of them to remind us of time travel moments before they show us their new store.
Everything is new. RadioShack is rebranded and reborn. The entire store seems to be a thick glossy white like Wall-E’s girlfriend. It has occasional splashes of color artistically placed in the style of modern art. The music has shifted from a classic 80s song to a modern rhythm. Even the employees are transformed, having donned slackerwear double t-shirts as opposed to those uptight red polos. Even the attitude and slogan are changed. RadioShack, well-known for carrying small electronic parts for DIY projects is now pushing DIT or “Do It Together.” It is a new store in every way.
Much like the other Super Bowl commercials, RadioShack has a slightly extended version viewable online. They lay on a few more techniques that speak to our unconscious there. Adding lightness and darkness in images can have strong effects on how we feel about it. Generally speaking, if one imagines something they like (perhaps a favorite celebrity) and then turns up the brightness in that mental picture, the feeling they had will also intensify. RadioShack uses this excellently. The announcer’s voice asks us to “See what’s possible when we do things together.” To accent “together” and intensify the good feelings we get from such of word of connectedness, the employee turns on a lamp with perfect timing. Now the whole image is bright. Most of us will be affected by this subconscious, perhaps subliminal, technique. That shot also doubles as a way to showcase their modernity because the employee turns on the lamp remotely with his cell phone! That tech is so fresh that most of us didn’t even know it was out yet.
RadioShack further shows their separation from the 80s in the extended commercial. Much like in the Budweiser ad where the true message is in the relationship between metaphorical characters, like how the separation of the puppy and the Clivesdale represents our separation from Budweiser itself, RadioShack also has created metaphorical characters and uses them to good effect. They had set up earlier that any 80s character represents the 80s itself. So, when Slimer oozes through the wall in his frantic way, we have the slacker-type employee, representing the modern store, rudely dismiss Slimer. He has a curt little message for our green friend, then turns his back on him. RadioShack uses the light/dark technique again here. The employee turns off the light on Slimer, on the 80s, and he does so with the super-fresh phone-controlled lamp. RadioShack believes itself to be the new kid at the cool table, and like the new kid there, loudly disdains the awkward kids in an attempt to hide where it used to sit. Let’s hope it’s commercial is successful enough for us to think that is natural.
The final screen of the extended ad exerts influence in a novel way not seen in the other commercials. They do so with the words on the screen. In large prominent letters it says “D.I.Y HAS EVOLVED. IT’S TIME FOR D.I.T.” First, you read the word “evolved” and tie it to RadioShack. RadioShack has apparently evolved – did you not just see it’s transformation? The marketers have cleverly created the effect where our eyes get stuck on “evolved.” Notice how the “Y” in D.I.Y is missing its period. Was this a careless typographical gloss? With this commerical’s already demonstrated level of sophistication, just assume everything is intentional. They remembered the final period in D.I.T. afterall. What the marketers wanted is for “evolved” to be set apart in some way so attention is drawn to it, even if that attention is unconscious. If you attend closely, you’ll notice that “evolved” is followed by a large gap. A period and a space. Your mind hits that and lingers in that area momentarily. You’ll just have to trust me, a hypnotist, when I tell you it is long enough to have an effect on your subconscious. It is the only gap like that, which is further ensured by writing in all upper-case letters. Note that second similar gap would appear if they had punctuated “D.I.Y.” correctly or used some lower-case letters. They can’t do that because it would ruin the subconscious effect.
Symbolism and Association rule the arena. Gone are the times when a mere jingle carried the day or a simple logo could entice. Advertisers seek to exert ever more influence over their demographics. To do that, they need to go into the very depths of a person, where desire burns and meaning is forged. They need to speak to the unconscious. And they do. They’ve learned the secret language.
This new language speaks in metaphor, creates association, and does so with strategic repetition. It really hammers it in. We’ve seen commercials here repeat a single metaphor 6 times in 15 seconds. Other commercials above might repeat the metaphor many times over within a minute. All this symbolism affects your mind quite powerfully. All you have to do is watch it. At the physical level, your brain is changing shape and firing differently from having seen it. The more times it is seen, the stronger the connection, and the more dramatic the change.
Being aware of these changes in our brains, our next steps are to determine which of these associations we should keep. Some feel compelled to say that we should blast them all out of our heads. How dare a corporation manipulatively influence us out of our money and rob us of our free will! At the other extreme are the lazy and the laissez faire, who will complacently allow certain commercials to work their magic, altering attitudes and behaviors. The middle ground has an interesting job. They must figure out which influences they should keep, which they should combat, and create a philosophical underpinning for their choices.
Look forward to enjoying this in an upcoming post.