I’m not surprised how often brands try to leverage celebrities and pop culture characters in their advertisements.
I’m surprised by how often they do it poorly.
LiftMaster is a good example of a company that recently did this well. They used a main character from an iconic movie (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) as the basis for their humorous ad, but it made a lot of sense for them to do so: one of the film’s pivotal scenes happens in a garage... and LiftMaster makes garage-door openers.
Further, it’s actually plausible (even likely!) that an adult Cameron Frye would actually use the product being promoted to protect the car he spent “three years restoring”, because he knows from experience what might happen otherwise.
The resulting spot is both creative and memorable, and because the product fits with the situation and plays a starring role in the commercial, it wouldn’t likely make fans of the film feel like the actor “sold out” by doing the ad.
But it’s not enough to simply take beloved characters from pop culture (or celebrities that portrayed said characters) and insert them into your commercials.
You need to consider whether the ad makes sense based on what we know about the character’s known situation, whether the product is something that could be naturally associated with the figure, and whether the pairing between the character and the brand is distinct and memorable.
Here are three examples from the past year that didn’t work nearly as well as the LiftMaster spot, and some thoughts around what the companies involved might have done better.
QuickBooks Happy Business: Karate Kid
Does anybody who watched the original Karate Kid film (or the subsequent Cobra Kai television series) believe John Kreese would have been a kindler, gentler, less “intense” Sensei if he had only had more control over his Cobra Kai business? Of course not. But an outrageous set-up and a lack of believability isn’t what’s wrong with this ad.
It’s a complete lack of differentiation.
Here’s part of the script from the ad:
“When I started Cobra Kai, the lack of control over my business made me a little intense. But now I practice a different philosophy. QuickBooks helps me get paid, manage cash flow, and run payroll. And now I’m back on top… with Koala Kai.”
The problem is that you can take the text I’ve bolded above and replace it with almost anything… and the ad will still work.
“When I started Cobra Kai, the fact that my feet had warts made me a little intense. But now I practice a different philosophy. Compound W Wart Remover Gel helps my feet look and feel their best. And now I’m back on top… with Koala Kai.”
See what I mean? The plot of The Karate Kid had nothing to do with business management software, and so leveraging the property to promote the product isn’t creative, it’s forced, opportunistic, and disingenuous. Further, attempting to frame John Kreese, the unapologetic villain of both The Karate Kid and the second season of Cobra Kai, as someone with whom we should sympathize is disrespectful to fans of the franchise.
If your advertisement still makes sense when your product is swapped out with an entirely different product, it’s a good sign your ad isn’t differentiated enough. I’m sure everybody remembered the “Koala Kai” ad, but I strongly suspect most wouldn’t be able to associate it with QuickBooks.
And for the love of film, don’t try to rehabilitate a classic villain in a 30-second spot!
Advance Auto Parts: DIE HARD IS BACK
The Die Hard film franchise is centered around Detective Lieutenant John McClane, a hero that overcomes impossible odds to stop terrorists from carrying out their nefarious plans. It’s about action, excitement, and explosions! It’s not about batteries, or about an auto-parts store, and so like the Quickbooks ad above, the association feels forced.
The two-minute spot is certainly entertaining, and you could argue that because it’s nearly impossible to forget the name of the battery now that it’s been associated with the classic film, it will result in a positive impact on brand awareness.
But the ad doesn’t say anything at all about the product itself, or why it’s better than any other battery I can buy. The ad shows me how a Die Hard battery can be used effectively in a fight, and that it can even work after a bullet has split it in half… but is that enough to get me to seek out the Die Hard brand the next time I actually need to buy a car battery? Doubtful.
Unlike in the LiftMaster ad, where the product integration makes a lot of sense, the focus on Die Hard (the movie) detracts from the focus on Die Hard (the battery). And even if you’re using a hero in your ad, the real hero of the spot should always be whatever it is you’re trying to sell.
Hudson’s Bay: A Call To Joy
My wife and I spent the last three weeks binge-watching all six-seasons of Schitt’s Creek; we had never heard of the show before their recent Emmy sweep convinced us to give it a try, but we’ve since become total Schitt-heads, laughing out loud multiple times during each and every episode.
Which is why watching the recent Hudson’s Bay “A Call to Joy” ad was so disappointing for me.
It’s very clear that HBC wanted to leverage the current popularity of Catherine O’Hara and Annie Murphy to promote their brand. But there’s a problem in doing so: for the foreseeable future, when you put those two talented actors beside one another, you’re going to see Moira and Alexis Rose.
HBC could have done one of three things to address this challenge.
First, they could have chosen to use only one of the actors. The ad could have been tweaked such that either one of the talented women could have carried the spot on their own.
Second, the actors could have simply called each other by their real names throughout the commercial. The, “Hello? Hello?” bit we see twenty seconds into the ad could have easily been replaced with an, “Annie? Catherine?” Marco-Polo-like exchange. That would have made it very clear that we weren’t watching Moira Rose interacting with her daughter, we were watching the actors who portray them… although it’s certainly possible this was intentional, in an attempt to get viewers to see “Moria and Alexis” without HBC having to pay any licensing fees to use the characters.
And third, they could have fully leaned into the association with the show and created a “Schitt’s Creek ad”. This is what I wish would have happened, because the series finale of the show sets this up for HBC perfectly.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t watched the show, but intend to do so, skip the next three paragraphs.
Schitt’s Creek is ultimately about a family that learns being wealthy has nothing to do with how much money you have, but rather the people you have around you. In the final episode, David Rose unexpectedly decides that rather than move back to New York City, he wants to build a life with his new husband, Patrick, in Schitt’s Creek.
They decide to buy a quaint-looking home, and in the final scene of the final episode, as the “kids” are saying goodbye to their parents (who are leaving to begin a life in Los Angeles), Patrick says, “David and I can’t wait to host you at our place when you come back to visit.”
Two of the show’s central characters just bought a new home. The family has been invited to visit. And HBC is known for, among other things, housewares and home furnishings. The ad essentially writes itself:
It’s Dad, Mom, and sister Alexis, visiting David and Patrick in their new home for the holidays.
Alexis: “Day-vid! This home is so cute! I love what you’ve done with the place.”
David: “Well, I have impeccable taste...”
Moira: “No, seriously, David, where did you get all of these wonderful things?”
Patrick: “We went to Hudson’s Bay...”
The characters could have introduced HBC's five personas by pointing out various items purchased in the home. HBC could have used the interior of the home as a “window” in their stores. And the audience would have enjoyed a spot that authentically leveraged a hugely-popular show to celebrate the special moments of togetherness that HBC says it was trying to promote.
Granted, securing the rights to use the actual Schitt's Creek characters -- and bringing three more actors on board -- would certainly have cost more money, but it also would have resonated so much more with fans who were most likely to watch an ad starring Murphy and O'Hara in the first place.
If you’re going to use a beloved celebrity or pop-culture character in your ad, you have to make sure it makes sense.
But when you have a perfect opportunity to leverage pop-culture for your products, don’t waste it.
P.S. Shortly after being published in my November 6th newsletter, this article was published in The Message, a fantastic online publication that's quickly become a must-read for the Canadian marketing community. (And I'm not just saying that because I've had the pleasure of publishing a few of my long-form articles with them over the past year, I swear.) The Message has just moved to a subscription model, and if you love marketing as much as I do, I promise the $75 + HST investment for an annual subscription will be money well-spent.