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 one of the main characters 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 kinder, 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 aren’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, 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 centred 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.