Sunday, February 02, 2014

Super Bowl Supercraft

Not sure which football teams are playing, but I sure as hell know that VW is up against Kia, Hyundai, and a hundred others!

There'll be a lot of analysis of the Super Bowl ads, but it will mostly be superficial. People will say "I liked this one" or "I liked that one." There might be the occasional comment on the idea or the strategy, but not a lot.

And we definitely won't talk enough about craft.

At the end of the day, that's what consumers consume. Not the idea or the strategy. They consume the music, the performances, the cinematography, and most of all - the storytelling.

So I thought it might be fun to go into a little depth about the craft of one single spot, an ad that I reckon has been expertly crafted.

It's this year's Budweiser Clydesdales ad, 'Puppy Love', by Anomaly New York and director Jake Scott, which at time of writing already has 29 million views on YouTube. Before the game has even started.

Here it is.

So, the craft.

First, the music: 'Let Her Go' by Passenger, could not be more appropriate to the story, plus is highly emotive.

Performances: can't fault them. Oscar for the animal trainer, especially.

Casting: again, dead-on. The farmer character is perfectly handsome yet rugged. The puppy adoption lady (despite apparently being a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model) here becomes the epitome of wholesomeness.

The trickiest role to get right was the would-be adopter. The puppy must end up with the horse, and we don't want this to cause the audience to feel sorry for the thwarted adopter.

All is achieved very cleverly. First of all, he's a bit of a dick - he's wearing sunglasses, at a farm. And most importantly, when this wannabe adopter is first given his puppy, he's checking his phone.

The implication is clear - this douchebag doesn't deserve a puppy.

And that brings us on to storytelling. What a masterclass. First of all, any good story makes us care about the protagonist. But most storytellers don't know how to do that. (Especially in ads). They think the way to make the audience care about a protagonist is simply to make them likeable, which is why we end up with so many characters (especially in ads) who are attractive and smiley.... but we don't care about them. In fact many great stories feature protagonists who are dislikable, even actively evil - such as Tony Montana in Scarface or Michael Corleone in The Godfather - and yet we become deeply involved with them.

Simply put, we care about a character who has a clear goal that they care about, and struggles to get to it. Someone once said that a movie consists of 90 minutes of a character failing, until they win. (Or lose, it doesn't matter, as long as the result is definitive). Luke Skywalker gets kicked from pillar to post, until he finally blows up the Death Star. Harrison Ford barely wins a single fight in the Raiders of the Lost Ark films - he is repeatedly captured, beaten and insulted - until the final scene.

The more they struggle and suffer, the better. Take Gatsby. He's a spoiled rich wanker. Why the hell do we care about him? Because he goes to an unbelievable amount of trouble - putting on all those immense parties - because he wants Daisy.

Sorry, back to the puppy. He wants the horse. And he struggles a hell of a lot to get to it. 

He burrows under the fence...

...opens a heavy door with his nose...

 ...cops a soaking...

 ...but still goes back under the fence again.

That's why we care. Because he's struggling and striving for his goal.

So is the horse. Here he is jumping a fence, to get to the puppy.

The audience identification is cemented with one 'cheat shot'. The entire story is told in the third person (camera as observer)... except for this one shot where we see the horse from the POV of the puppy.  (The same trick that Spike Jonze pulled off in his famous Ikea 'Lamp' spot).

After getting the audience to invest so completely in the puppy as a protagonist, it's supremely rewarding for the audience when he and the horse finally get together. But that's not all. The final shot also makes the audience believe that the farmer and puppy lady will get together - a piece of thematic 'doubling' that makes the climax even more satisfying.

Oh, one more thing.  Since this is a post about craft, I'm not going to discuss here whether the ad will be commercially effective or not, though I strongly believe that it will (American newspapers are already calling it "the most adorable Super Bowl ad ever"). But there is one craft aspect that's crucial in advertising though not relevant to storytelling in general, which is branding. 

The more the audience feels they are watching a beautiful emotional story and the less they feel they are being sold to, the better. And yet, obviously the ad must be well-branded, because mis-attribution is a disaster, from an effectiveness point of view.

The great advantage here is that Budweiser has been running these Clydesdale ads for years - since 1933, in fact - and it's a property the brand is strongly associated with. So the spot is intrinsically branded.

But even then, the ad's makers have included nine separate shots of the Budweiser logo, before the endframe. The logo features on the farmer's cap. But because it is always very carefully shot to be 'visible but not visible', I'd say it does a fantastic job of unconsciously reinforcing the branding, without an overly-commercial presence that could compromise the emotion of the storytelling.

So, apologies for the long post. But I'm only trying to redress the balance a little. 

We don't talk enough about craft.


Jimi Bostock said...

Yes, indeed a nice spot. Certain to keep Bud on the consumer mind ... pity it's a crap beer.

For me, the Radio Shack ad was the winner.

I like a good insight and, as you know better than most, a simple insight it the best.

I don;t know much about Radio Shack and current perceptions but I am betting it is seen as stuck in the eighties. So, the insight is simple.

What I like most is how the creatives have respected that ... the opening line is a cracker ... brilliant co-opting of young people's language, as us old buggers call it.

I am gonna bet that when the year is over, the Radio Shack ad will be seen as the most helpful for the brand and as an old fart I am still deluded to think that is what our job is

Jim Powell said...

I get slightly concerned when ad folk talk about un-conscious cues or un-conscioulsy reinforcing the brand.

How can you tell that a piece of film does that? Do you do that by mentioning visible cues i.e. hats with logos etc?

You can't call on visible cues however slight to make the claim they are sub conscious cue can you?

I agree the branding was subtle verging on negligible.

I also wonder about this selling without selling idea. Are't most adults aware that commercial have a purpose? Maybe they are more aware than the makers of ads?

Are conscious reminders less effect that sub conscious ones? And how do we know? Should we stop asking viewers about their ability to recall who the ad was actually for? Recall from their subconscious is a potential minefield?

If the craft of ad agencies is put on a pedestal the ability to make or even steal emotional stories than subtly brand them (or why bother at all) if we can rely on our sub consciouses does this not alter or perhaps degrade what a creatives role is?

If this is the way forward couldn't agencies stock pile emotionally engaging stories ready for whatever brand they are working on, ready for the subtle branding later on?

Scamp said...

Loving your comments, Jim. Lot to talk about there.

First of all, I do think this particular ad is actually very well branded. To Americans, the Clydesdale horse (especially in the Super Bowl) strongly cues Budweiser. Then the whole ad is about the concept of 'best buds', which is strongly related to the brand name.

Of course it is debatable whether the negligible hat branding would have any effect. I can't see into people's unconscious minds, so I can't be certain. But I suspect it works. A lot of research has been done into low-involvement processing, which suggests that cues such as brand colours do 'sink in'.

Finally, you suggest agencies stockpile emotionally engaging stories. Great idea! Actually, creatives do that all the time. A good creative's mind is a kind of stockpile of ideas, imagery and stories. Marrying one of these with the current brief is part of our skill-set. Of course, the marriage has to be a good one.

Jim Powell said...

Thanks Scamp.

I wasn't aware of the Clydesdale horse was related to Budweiser perhaps because I am British. Now it makes more sense to me.

To me the idea of continually using a brand colours or other visual cues in a brands advertising works. But I think it works because we become conscious of it. Certain colours make us conscious of the fact this will be a Guinness Ad, Economist ad etc. That is really useful to brands.

I am very interested in the idea that advertising will be looking at the findings of neuroscience. In particular the idea that people lack free will and are more emotionally than reasoning.

I worry about the elementary / early findings of neuroscience when it is in it's infancy being used by agencies.

The findings sometimes are given too much support .Or more likely as theses findings are chinese whispered from academia, through pop culture and into advertising agencies get over simplified. i.e. people solely buy stuff for emotional reasons. Or people want to have engaging relationships with brands.

It seems that ad agencies are less skeptical of the findings from neuroscience than the neuroscientists themselves. I am trying currently to work out why that is. 'Neuromarketing' is set to become big business and yet it's results are at best unproven.

I agree stock piling is just one skill set, however is it becoming more highly rated than say understanding a businesses real problem(s)?

Will it be a requirement in the future to be able to list the most apt emotions when advertising in various categories? Rather than understanding how brands grow and advertising's roles in that ascendancy?

Anonymous said...

What if the "douchebag" was in fact buying the puppy for his neglected daughter?

Scamp said...

A puppy is no substitute for good parenting