Marketing Message – Finding the Right Balance

The BIG GAME is over, and hopefully you took a peek at our super bowl ad review. If not, check it out on our blog page from last month – Bottom line, whether you bet on the Bucs or the Chiefs, you probably didn’t win or lose as much as Redditors betting on GameStop. 

Truth be told, there was more at stake in this year’s Super Bowl than money, a trophy, and a ring. More than at any time in history, marketers/advertisers were under immense pressure to “deliver something different”. Indeed, after a year that gave us a pandemic, politics and polarization, the marketing industry was feeling as if they had to “give something back” – something to cheer about, laugh about, and most of all, not think about. To make us feel something in our hearts, or in our bellies, because there is always too much on our minds. 

To address “the need”, advertisers grappled with two schools of marketing:

  • The school of assumptive empathy, and 
  • The school of self-deprecating self-awareness. 

Probably strange sounding “schools”, but it was the best way for us to categorize the varied approaches during the super bowl advertising fest. Is one better than the other? Well, we’ll leave that assessment up to you. 

From our perspective, the school of assumptive empathy dominated the AD scene during the first several months of the pandemic. Ad after Ad after Ad assured us that we were all in this together, even though most brands had no clue who we were, or whether we’d lost jobs or loved ones. In every single product category, brands felt compelled to tell us the sun would come out tomorrow, if only we’d bet our bottom dollar on their latest sale. 

No doubt, recent studies have indicated consumers indeed want brands to take a bigger stance on social issues. But aren’t those surveys really a self-fulfilling prophecy? It’s like asking people if they floss or eat their vegetables. The people predisposed to answer always say yes. But reality lurks in the silence of those who can’t be bothered or wish marketers would just leave them alone. Our opinion is that too many brands have over-estimated their moral authority and importance in people’s lives. 

Yes, every brand needs a purpose, and the customer experience should deliver on that promise. To that end, many brands are generally good at connecting the dots between what they sell and what they support, as well as how they answer the phone, design their website, and treat their employees. We should all take note, because infusing a brand with humanity is vastly different from presuming to know what you care about, how you voted or whether your own moral compass needs recalibration by a posturing commercial. 

For us, a better way to “get credit” for caring is to do something good for people, like repurposing your ad dollars to support local business, or better yet, redesigning your business model to pay things forward every time you make a sale. Countless brands are doing this now, and their success is educating older, more traditional companies that a sustainable business model also means sustainable profits. This year’s big game featured an artful ad by Chipotle that perfectly captures the delicate balancing act for brands interested in promoting purpose. 

The second school of marketing – the school called self-deprecating/self-awareness – featured brands who “get it”; that no matter what, you are ultimately trying to sell them something; so they adopt “in-on-the-joke” irreverent advertising.  You might recall the old public service announcements: “Please excuse the interruption of your regularly scheduled programming.” All commercials are interruptive, unless they manage to be more entertaining than the programming that surrounds them. In other words, make us smile. A laugh would be a bonus, and a guffaw might get you a Cleo, or Effie for sure. 

Remember that if you get someone to smile, a chemical reaction occurs, endorphins get released into the brain and stress levels drop. When you consider our collective daily anxiety, a bigger deal than you might think, a lighter, funnier commercial is certainly more welcome than a ham-fisted grab at my heartstrings or a maudlin moment of solidarity. 

The reasons we watch football isn’t all that different from why we like our favorite ads – a rush of adrenaline, an escape, and a visceral kick to the gut. The Super Bowl gave us many ads that proved likability can lead to memorability. 

As you ponder the year ahead, deciding whether empathy or entertainment is best for your brand is a tough call, particularly as the national mood continues its bipolar dance. The abject failure of public institutions is why brands have been suddenly forced into the public debate, so CMOs face increasing pressure to comment on issues they are ill-equipped to address.

The pandemic may get worse before it gets better, and news media is now dependent on a business model that keeps us polarized in order to drive ratings. And since it’s unlikely the government – you know, the people who brought us the Department of Motor Vehicles – are going to solve things anytime soon, we may continue to hope brands will show us the way. 

Getting it wrong makes you seem tone-deaf, so whatever school of marketing you’re in, study hard. 

At 78 Madison, we know it takes fresh insights, engaging storytelling, and fearless creativity to create smart, and strategic brands. Lets start a conversation – We’re a full-service marketing communications firm – advertising agency – located in Altamonte Springs/Orlando, Florida.