Chestnuts should roast on an open fire–not dominate advertising. Yet TV commercials have trotted out tropes for years, even decades.
You know them well–too well: The doofus dad. The babe at a bar who’d choose a longneck and a nerd over a Chardonnay and Channing Tatum. The teen quick to compliment mom’s casserole. The low-fat yogurt that’s a sensual delight. The rugged pickup that self-cleans after a mud bath. The mom thrilled that her toddler has made a mess she can expertly clean.
Those are TV ads viewers are likely to mute or fast-forward. So why do advertisers disgorge endless loops in a sea of sameness?
“You only have seconds to get attention and telegraph your message and an emotion, so it’s tempting to fall back on something you know has worked before,” said Amy Markley, creative director at Chicago’s Tom, Dick & Harry Creative Company. “Often these ads speak to things we long for. But they also get stale fast.”
Here are ad exec’s top eight TV ad cliché’s–and theories on why they endure.
The Beer Babe
In a crowded bar, a likely future Victoria’s Secret Angel guzzles a long-neck as she searches for a nerd to nuzzle. What makes him irresistible? Not a Rolex, Rolls, or bulging biceps, but a Bud Light, Corona Light, or Heineken.
“No matter the brand, the ad seems to take place in the same bar, so much so that you suspect it’s a parody,” Markley told CMO.com. “Even during the Super Bowl, when advertisers try to innovate, you’ll still see the dull dude get the gorgeous girl. It’s the male beer drinker’s fantasy.”
This formula blossomed in 1998 when former Miss USA Ali Landry sashayed into a crowded room of plaid-shirted nobodies while munching Doritos. No calorie-counter was she. Licking her fingers lasciviously, she turned to the panting males and winked. Not only did that ad launch a zillion lookalikes, but also Landry’s career. Sixteen years later she’s still at it, most recently unleashing her wantonness with a bag of chips at a laundromat.
This sex sell can be triggered by another motive: When the flogged item has few appeals of its own, a marketer may divert with cheap thrills, said Reuben Webb, Stein IAS executive creative director and author of “101 Clichés.”
Sex, yogurt–who can tell them apart?
Apparently not dieters, if you’re to believe Dannon. For its Oikos yogurt, actor John Stamos seduces a woman not with his charm but by letting a swash of the creamy low-fat protein linger on his lip. Dannon also would have you believe Jamie Lee Curtis is having a “Greek affair” as she dons dark shades and dodges paparazzi while furtively savoring Activia, which she calls “my first love.”
“It’s always a woman who’s happy to be licking a spoon,” Markley said. “Diet food becomes a sensual experience–an indulgence. Not only will you be satisfied eating, but almost sexually. It delivers on so many levels.”
The recipe stirs interest, said Michael J. Neuwirth, Dannon’s senior public relations director. Not only does Dannon rank Stamos’ ad among its highest in 70-plus years, but USA Today’s AdMeter pegged it a top-10 ad during the 2012 Super Bowl.
The inept father is an industry in himself. He can’t build a science project without catsup spattering walls or water the yard without soaking his wife’s carefully set picnic table.
“We cannot afford political incorrectness,” said Dennis Ryan, chief creative officer at Minneapolis’ Olson Agency. “If you make fun of mom or the kids you’re a bully. Dad’s the safest target.”
Ryan would rather banish this banality and borrow from Pixar’s skillful humor. “They’re consistently great.”
But the Clorox Company cleaned up with dumb-dad “Volcano,” which aired for two years, said Amy Hsiao, associate marketing director. “Confidence in the strategy remains, and we continue to leverage it today.”
Family Feast As Travelogue
A smiling, multigenerational family passes bowls of delectable pasta and plump moist chicken breasts at a sun-dappled pine table in a Napa Valley vineyard.
“It suggests food is natural, like the pine table, and captures moments we long for: Everyone’s happy and no one’s using cell phones,” Markley said. “A part of me gets sucked in, even though I know the reality: You’re stuck in a parking lot with a long wait before being seated next to a crying baby.”
Such food porn amid the great outdoors infuses other family chains, such as Outback, with the same goals as Ernest and Julio Gallo in the mid-’80s. “Advertisers want to make the vision so beautiful people can’t turn away,” Markley said. “But we don’t buy into it as much as we used to.”
Yet Michael Ruby, vice president and executive creative director at Stein IAS Americas, forgives Applebee’s, Chilis, and TGIF for another staple: the man whose head swivels as he gapes at each dish going by. “Is it creative? No, but it’s functional: These ads communicate new menus and deals effectively,” he told CMO.com.
The Mess-Delighted Mom
Mom beams as her older son teaches her toddler how to make chocolate milk overflow onto the kitchen island before spilling to the floor. After she purrs in a voiceover, “When we’re having this much fun, why quit?” she eggs him on with, “Again!”
Of course! Mom is equipped for such emergencies, a message echoed by Clorox, Swiffer, and many other household products.
This plays on parents’ desire to be in control, Ruby said, “and if they contain a kernel of truth, they’re more successful. No, I wouldn’t be happy if my son poured over his glass. But it’s a scenario I’ve lived, so it’s recognizable.”
Macho Men On Dirty Roads
The shrill car-lot huckster shaking a fist full of money has retired, but not the Marlboro man. Machismo rules, as grizzled blue-collar workers battle near-tornados and hairpin curves on muddy trails to arrive spotless.
“You don’t even have to be in the room to recognize the overly serious radio voiceover, presented with ridiculous driving situations,” said John King, CMO at Fallon Worldwide. “It’s not how vehicles fit in most of our lives. They sell an idea–just as cologne ads do–not a real car. It’s a category desperately in need of change.”
Yet oft-parodied Lincoln MKC ads with Matthew McConaughey work, King said, because the actor rings true claiming, “I was driving a Lincoln since long before anybody paid me to drive one,” McConaughey said in the car-maker’s latest ad. “I didn’t do it to be cool, to make a statement. I just liked it.”
If only creative directors studied Ram’s two-year-old “God Made a Farmer,” where ordinary folk use dusty pick-ups in ordinary ways, Ruby said. “The voiceover is plain-spoken, direct, and aggressive, before ending with silence,” he said. “Viewers identify, and the writing is sharp. That ad took guts.”
Two famished teen boys race to the fridge and are thrilled to find nothing but a small box of packaged pizza rolls–just as they were enchanted by Kraft casseroles in 1982 and Hot Pockets in 1992.
“In almost any food commercial, kids compliment mom,” said Gerry Graf, founder/chief creative officer at Barton F. Graf 9000. “I have three children–ages 15, 13, 10–and I’ve never heard any of them say to my wife, ‘Thanks, mom. That was delicious!’”
It’s no coincidence that the bigger the brand, the more likely the bromide, Graf told CMO.com. “These packaged goods come from mega-corporations that rely on focus-groups,” he said. “Put the ad before 20 moms, and they may say they like it. In real life, they’d ignore it. Corporations would rather play it safe than go with their instincts.”
Man On The Run
If most sports shoe makers can be believed: Only athletes need apply.
Too often, David Beckham, Derrick Rose, or other well-oiled machines with chiseled chests and carved calves race in bold sneakers by Adidas, Nike, or Reebok.
“We all aspire for greatness,” said Kim Getty, president of Deutsch LA. “But a recent Nike ad is so much more powerful. It shows a boy out for a run, but as he nears you see he’s not particularly in shape. The commercial recognizes a truth: You don’t have to be Kobe Bryant to strap on shoes and make it happen.”That’s a lesson marketers should heed, Markley said. “You need to step out to be truly engaging.”