Television Commercials

How to Advertise With Authenticity (Or At Least Look Like You Are).


Right now, authenticity is one of the buzziest buzzwords in the business world. It’s generally taken to mean some nearly ineffable combination of transparency, realness, genuineness, legitimacy and honesty. Some people believe that a lack of authenticity did fatal damage to a recent presidential candidate’s shot at the White House (do not send me emails about this). And it’s a quality that the consumers most marketers consider most valuable – those born roughly between 1976 and 1996 – absolutely require in the brands they engage with.

Of course, I’m talking about millennials, those undeniably savvy consumers who’ve grown up with instant access to troves of online information about brands and products and with perfect awareness of themselves as a target market. They know marketers are always trying to sell things to them and they know that most of those things are not going to fundamentally change their lives or make the world a better place, so let’s not pretend that they are.

See, at the same time Millennial consumers crave authenticity, they categorically reject marketing messages that are deemed “too earnest”, perceiving that as a sign of either cluelessness or cynical duplicity (this is one place that Pepsi’s ill-conceived Kendall Jenner commercial went off the rails, but only one place, and enough has been said about that already).

So where does that leave a marketer who needs to demonstrate the authenticity, the legitimate realness of his or her brand without getting too earnest or serious about it? How, for example, do you create something as patently synthetic and deliberately mercantile as a TV commercial that doesn’t set off Millennials’ hyper-sensitive bullshit alarms?

This Looks Like A Job For Metamessaging

One way to do it is with a technique that I’m calling metamessaging. Forgive me for piling onto the “meta” bandwagon but in this case the term is apt. The prefix “meta” comes down to us from Greek through Latin and connotes beyond, above or transcending whatever term follows it. In literature, meta usually refers to something that refers back on itself or, more specifically, something that pokes fun at the conventions of a genre.

So, in advertising, metamessaging refers to ads that poke fun at the conventions of advertising as a way of demonstrating that we’re all on the same side of the table, here.

Since everything is artificial, let’s make the artifice apparent.

There’s a trend afoot in television commercials with the underlying message, “Look, you know we’re trying to sell something. We know you know that we’re trying to sell something and, finally, you know we know you know we’re trying to sell something. So let’s drop all pretense. We won’t even attempt to surreptitiously establish an emotional connection between our brand and you, the viewer. We’ll discard all those traditional, rhetorical tools like pathos, ethos, empathy, story arc, character, setting and all of that stuff.  After all, those techniques are innately untransparent and inauthentic.

“Instead, we’ll make a connection by admitting, in fact, demonstrating, that this is a commercial, and that we know you know it’s a commercial. See, we’re not stuffy, old conventional marketers. No! We’re all in on the gag together. Now, don’t you love us?”

It’s the advertising equivalent of actors “breaking the fourth wall”, stepping out of their hermetic onscreen or onstage environment to address the audience directly (Think of Frank Underwood’s asides and soliloquies in House of Cards and do not send me emails about Kevin Spacey).

Here are four commercials that illustrate the trend. They each use metamessaging in slightly different ways, but they each proclaim loudly and proudly, This Is A Television Commercial And We’d Be Sincerely Grateful If You’d Consider Buying Our Stuff. They’re all running currently, as I’m writing this.

AT&T “More”

AT&T Grab 2

The spokesman who’s standing too close to the camera thinks he’s standing too close to the camera.

Demographically diverse, attractive and sharply dressed spokespeople slowly fill the shot, one by one, each making a different sales point about the “moreness” of AT&T’s offering. They address the camera until, around 00:15, one guy drops the Transparency Bomb by blatantly referring to himself and his onscreen colleagues as spokespeople and promising you even more spokespeople to come.

The denouement comes from the last spokesperson who’s so close to the camera that he’s not even fully visible. “I think I’m too close,” he says, acknowledging the presence of the camera and the fact that he’s mostly out of frame. We are truly though the advertising looking-glass.

Sprite “Vince Staples/Random Teenagers”

Sprite Grab

You know this is a Sprite commercial. And we know you know it’s a Sprite commercial. So let’s just have a big sign that says Sprite Commercial.

This commercial, featuring rapper Vince Staples, comes out of the gate presenting its advertisement bona fides. In fact, you need a scorecard to check off its numerous meta references.

(1) The setting actually displays the words The Sprite Commercial on a giant sign.

(2) This is clearly directed at the 12 to 18-year-old demographic who drinks fructose-sweetened carbonated soft drinks, but just to make that abundantly clear, Vince greets another actor with, “Hello, random teenager.”

(3) As an actor begins his oh-so-familiar “guzzle shot”, to the accompaniment of some corny music, a huge wave of liquid washes over him, representing instant refreshment. But wait. This clichéd sequence is interrupted by Vince, setting up the closing product shot.

(4) “Make sure they see that logo”, Vince says. “Right there, into the camera.”

(5) Finally, Vince announces. “OK, the commercial’s over” as the scene cuts abruptly to blackness.

There’s no hidden agenda here, consumers. Not one bit. This is a Sprite commercial that’s all about Sprite commercials. Get it?

Xfinity xFi Wi-Fi “Dinnertime”

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 3.18.42 PM

Hang on a second, voice guy. See, we all know that we’re living in an Xfinity commercial so there’s nothing odd about speaking to an off-camera man.

This commercial for cable provider Xfinity’s xFi Wi-Fi service starts out looking pretty conventional. We see warmly convivial families gathered around dinner tables through the ages as a voiceover describes dinnertime as a time for family connections. Around 00:15, we arrive in the current day and see a family at a dining table, “connecting” via digital devices and ignoring one another completely.

At this point, mom looks off camera and asks the disembodied announcer to stop talking, “One second, voice guy.” The announcer hears mom and obeys her request (very meta) and she uses her own smartphone to pause the family’s Wi-Fi signal, forcing the family to talk to one another in person.

In my unsolicited opinion, this is an excellent commercial. Metamessages aside, it presents a relevant, human benefit based on a unique product feature in an entertaining and engaging way. It’s also the only ad I can think of that pitches the ability to turn off the advertised product as an exciting and unique attribute.

Nationwide Insurance, “Peyton Manning/Brad Paisley/The Jingle Sessions”

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 3.29.19 PM

Brad Paisley sings “What did I just get into”, to the tune of “Nationwide is on your side”. It’s meta piled upon meta.

I’ve saved the most meta for last. It’s not just a commercial that acknowledges it’s a commercial for a brand. It’s a commercial about the jingle for a brand. The “Nationwide Is On Your Side” jingle was introduced 48 years ago and it’s so ingrained in the American psyche that Nationwide and their ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, believe all that’s required to drive home their brand’s message is to reference that famous, seven-note phrase.

In this ad, former quarterback Peyton Manning (who’s been in so many different commercials that he’s practically a metamessage unto himself) gives singer Brad Paisley helpful input on how to render the jingle, “in your heart”. There’s never a mention of anything about Nationwide, no attempt to differentiate the brand from dozens of competitors. It’s just a single, musical phrase, repeated over and over and over and wrapped in some amusing bro-banter.

Does Metamessaging Work? Insight From A Sample Of One, Certified Millennial

 As I was writing this, I had the opportunity to bounce the premise off a millennial friend (who’s not in the advertising or marketing business). The only one of these commercials she remembered seeing (they’re all running currently, as of mid-November, 2017) was the AT&T spot described at the beginning of this article. She’d only seen that one because it had run in the New England Patriots versus Atlanta Falcons football game the previous Sunday. And she only saw that because football games are the only conventional television programming she and her friends watch with any regularity.

She did have an opinion on the AT&T commercial. She liked it a lot. She described it as “Brash and nervy” because, “It pokes fun at the same thing I’d poke fun at. It’s preemptive fun poking. We’re all sharing the joke. It’s sassy.”

My friend gets it because AT&T gets it. The commercial worked for her precisely because it acknowledged, without the slightest trace of earnestness, that it was selling cellular service and pounding out more and more features with more and more self-acknowledged spokespeople.

But did it work as a persuasive message? Probably not exactly the way AT&T would hope. Here’s the rest of my friend’s review:

“Commercials may help with initial introductions, to see what’s out there in a broad sense (like browsing through a dating site and throwing out the dogs). But I always need some real, unscripted voices behind the things I buy. If I was looking for new cell service, I’d look at Reddit or other sites for reviews. Maybe ask some friends what sucks about their carriers. But even a cool commercial wouldn’t sell me. This specific commercial just didn’t annoy the crap out of me.”

So, metamessaging is one way to “not annoy the crap out of” our audience. I hope that isn’t the best that advertisers can hope for in the long-term. But it may have to do for now.




Money Talks. And Sometimes It Yells, “Shut Up!”

Part One of an (at least) two-part series on Marketing and the Culture wars.

On January 8, 2017, The New York Times published an article in the Sunday Review section with the title How To Starve Online Hate. In it, writer Pagan Kennedy (great name) describes how Nathan Phillips, an environmental science professor, visited the right-wing website, Breitbart News, for the first time, just to see what all the recent fuss was about

Breitbart Headline: Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy

On the website he was surprised to see an advertisement for Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the very grad school where he’d gotten his degree. Why would an environmental science program willingly spend money to advertise on a website that’s famous for denying climate change?

Breitbart Headline: Climate Change: The Greatest-Ever Conspiracy Against The American Taxpayer


Right wing website Breitbart News

The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t. Anybody familiar with how programmatic online ad placements work will understand how something like this can happen. People don’t buy online ads, algorithms do. Even the most major, mainstream marketers often don’t know exactly where and when their ads run (don’t get me started).

By letting his alma mater know, to their surprise, exactly where they were spending some of their advertising dollars, Professor Phillips became one of a new form of activists. In the past several months, a Twitter group called Sleeping Giants has sent screenshots to more than 1,000 marketers whose ads ran amidst “hateful” content. More than 500 of those advertisers – including some sizable, mainstream marketers like Lenovo, Novo Nordisk, Chase, Clarins and Visa – have pulled their ads from those websites.

Naturally, there’s been all sorts of entertaining hullabaloo over this, with loyal readers of sites like Breitbart News threatening to boycott marketers who pull their ads and people on the other side of the argument pledging to buy more from brands who refuse to give ad money to the perceived bad guys’ websites.

One Million Moms, a conservative group dedicated to fighting back “against the immorality, violence, vulgarity and profanity the media is throwing at (our) children”, has been using a similar strategy for years, calling out marketers who run ads in media that promulgate what they perceive as undesirable values.

One Million Moms campaign against indecency in the media

One Million Moms campaign against indecency

One Million Moms Headline: Urge Red Lobster To Pull Sponsorship From Impastor

In some instances, they take issue with the ads themselves, such as a Zales jewelers commercial depicting two women exchanging wedding rings and vows.

One Million Moms headline: Zales Attempts to Normalize Sin

Whether your sympathies lie with the Giants or the Moms, any true capitalist has to acknowledge that this is exactly how the world should work. To the venerable five P’s of marketing; Product, Price, Place, Promotion and People, we’re going to have to add a sixth P, Principles. From now on, a brand’s principles are going to have to at least appear to align with those of the people it wants to sell to.

If your detergent brand stands for cleanliness and wholesomeness, how can you justify paying to place an ad on a violent TV show, or a sitcom that features a sexually active pair of seventeen-year-olds? If your car brand stands for safety, then explain why you give money to a website that makes marginalized groups feel unsafe.

It’s going to be up to individual marketers to decide how to wrangle this. Can you afford to alienate group A if it gets you more business from group B? Can you message to group X and hope group Y doesn’t find out?

More and more, marketers are going to be forced to take sides in the culture wars. It won’t be comfortable, but it will be interesting.


How To Starve Online Hate
Pagan Kennedy
Nathan Phillips
Breitbart News
Nicholas School of the Environment
How programmatic ad placement works
Sleeping Giants
One Million Moms
Zales Jewelers Love and Pride Collection

More Potent Marketing Messages and the IKEA Effect

In Predictably Irrational, author Dan Ariely describes the phenomenon whereby human beings naturally attach a lot more positive emotion to possessions that present a bit of challenge to obtain. He calls this The IKEA Effect.

Marketing messages can work the same way. Sometimes “Some Assembly Required” can be a very powerful thing.

A fairly recent example of this, and, in my opinion, one of the most effective works of advertising of the past five years, is the American Express “Don’t Take Chances, Take Charge” TV campaign in which everyday objects like clothing, furniture, a shower curtain and even a pair of closet doors (my favorite vignette) display sad faces while the voiceover describes how they might get stolen, lost or broken.

The faces turn happy as the copy tells us how Amex insures purchases against those very vicissitudes.

This happy yellow airplane proves I'm smart and helps American Express earn trust.

This happy yellow airplane proves I’m smart and helps American Express earn trust.

Aside from the fact that these are exquisitely crafted little films (the Bach cello music is a brilliant accompaniment), what I find particularly riveting about the ads is that you need to watch them for a few seconds to get the joke. It’s not immediately apparent that the wallet, mug of cappuccino and leather chair are “sad”.

But, by the time your brain can actually form the concept of “hey, what’s going on here?”, the coin drops, the light goes on, the synapses fire and your brain sighs with relief. You experience what I call the “aha high”. It’s the little endorphin squirt that makes you feel, without really even being aware of it,  “I get it. Thank you for proving how smart I am, American Express. I feel good about myself and I feel good about you, too.”

If you want me to trust you, don’t prove that you’re smart. Prove that I’m smart.

I don’t have any research here in my hands that demonstrates the efficacy of the American Express commercials, but I do know that I recently worked on a strategic development project for a big retailer in which we discovered the real, emotional components of the elusive thing called “trust.” One somewhat counter-intuitive insight was this:

if you want me to trust you, don’t try to prove how much smarter than me you are. Instead, make me feel smart for affiliating with you (Note: this has some pretty significant implications for any organization that sells “expertise”; whether that expertise is in home theater systems, enterprise resource planning or marketing strategy).

There are a lot of ways to make a customer feel smart. One real good one is to let them do some of the final assembly of your message all by themselves. This can be a scary proposition for some marketers. The comfortable approach would be, once you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of getting their attention with your ad or promotion or message, tell them everything. Spell it all out in clear, simple, short words. Don’t count on your audience to “get it”. And don’t dare omit anything, because you never know what part is going to connect.

But I believe sincerely (and so does Dan Ariely, who’s a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke University and a frequent TED speaker, so he must be right) that it’s our job as communicators to figure out what’s going to connect, and craft our work in a way that allows our audiences to “get it”. If we do that, they’ll value our messages more highly and we may just earn a little more of their trust in the process.

I like to watch “men like you”. I’m just not sure I want to be one.

This Australian commercial for Bundaberg Rum is hilarious. It’s beautifully produced and a hoot to watch.

I love the casting. I love the wardrobe (especially the fez). I love the song lyrics. “We pound in spikes with our bare hands…We’ll ignore that thing called Murphy’s Law.”

Brilliant. I’ve watched it ten times.

These guys look like a lot of fun, even if they are, in the end, colossal screwups. I wouldn’t mind spending a few hours in their company (if possible, in the safety of a nice, unsinkable bar), but I’m not sure I want to be one of their company.

If “men like us like Bundaberg Rum”, do I really want to be one of those men? Do I want to drink this brand and declare myself a member of this merry, but ultimately feckless band?

If you read the comments around the spot, you see lots of references to “puncturing the pomposity of most spirits advertising.” And how the clients are brave for embracing a strategy that dares to position their booze as the brand for “regular blokes”.

And I absolutely get that.TBFY

But I think back to the days when the continents were separating and I was a young pup copywriter on the Budweiser business and the This Bud’s For You campaign. That work positioned Bud as the brand for the American version of “regular blokes” by making those blokes, and the hard but crucial work they do, look heroic.

Maybe this is one of those wonderful and fascinating differences between Commonwealth and U.S. audiences that smart planners love to point out. Blue-collar Americans love to see themselves elevated because, as Americans, we all believe that we all belong at the top of the heap. The Blue-collar folks of the Commonwealth are accustomed to being a bit beaten up. In fact, they may well revel in their place in the (don’t tell me it doesn’t exist) hierarchy.

In some parts of the world, “At least we tried” is a rationale for bellying up to the bar, hoisting a dripping flagon and singing a lusty song. In the U.S., it’s more likely to be a rationale for sulking in a dim corner and getting soundly wasted.

So. I’ve probably made enough sweeping and offensive generalizations here to thoroughly hack off some of my British, Australian and Canadian pals. If that’s the case, I apologize. Anybody who knows me knows what profound respect (envy) I have for every aspect of British advertising. My desire isn’t to stir up controversy. It’s just to fish for comments.

And, let me reiterate, I think the commercial is a joy to watch. In the end, maybe that’s enough to make someone love the brand and ask for it proudly next time they’re downing a few with friends. And it certainly establishes a distinctive voice for the brand.

At least they tried. The Anglophilic part of me admires the hell out of that.

Sure. Screw ’em. They’re only our current customers.

A few days ago my wife got an email informing her that it was time to renew her subscription to a magazine that she’s subscribed to for at least ten years. The renewal price was $12 a year (Just $1 an issue! You save 83% off the newsstand price!).

That very same day, I received an email from the same magazine, offering me a New Subscriber Discount Rate of $8 for a year, plus a Free Subscription to another magazine.

Naturally, once we compared notes on the matter, she cancelled her subscription and I bought a new one. It’s a perfect Win/Lose. We saved $4 on a magazine we would’ve happily renewed at full price and we got a free subscription to another magazine. The magazine nets zero new subscribers and loses $4, plus whatever it costs to send us that free magazine every month.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think the magazine publishers are actually losing anything in this deal. They’ve got roomfuls of people with spreadsheets working the numbers on these transactions sixty-three different ways. They’re golden. Besides, most of their subscribers are probably not as sagacious as my wife. They’ll happily click the Renew button year after year because that’s the easiest thing to do. That’s what most marketers count on.

I’m much more interested in what this says about the magazine’s attitude toward its subscriber customers. Obviously, a new one is worth more to them than one who’s been a brand loyal customer for ten years.

Meg Tilly as Comcast. "Where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna hide?

Meg Tilly as Comcast. “Where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna hide?

Going to great lengths to get new customers while neglecting or even gouging existing ones is certainly not limited to the publishing business. Cable companies are notorious for offering extravagant introductory offers to new customers while slowly creeping rates up and up on long-term ones. After all, the cable business is essentially an oligopoly, so most people don’t have lots of options when it comes to where they can buy TV and Internet service. It’s like Meg Tilly’s iconic line in the 1993 version of Body Snatchers. “Where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna hide?”

This Just In: Cable Providers Frequently Less-Than-Equitable Toward Customers.

To be fair, I’ve learned recently that our cable company will happily make all kinds of terrific deals with an existing customer, if you call a secret phone number (which can eventually be obtained by calling their published customer service number), navigate through a moderately dense bunch of prompts and ask, straight out, “what will you do to make my monthly bill lower?”

But, just like clicking that renew button on the magazine’s email, most customers won’t ever do this. They’ll just grumble their way through life in a state of hostile dependence on their cable company (it’s what I would’ve done if I hadn’t been encouraged to seek out a lower rate by my sagacious wife).

It’s interesting to note that, once I’d “negotiated” a new, lower rate from the cable folks, I felt really good about myself, and about the cable company. But that’s a topic for another post.*

If You’ve Already Bought One Of Our Cars, You’re A Clueless Bumpkin. And Probably Fat.

The auto industry is another sector that treats existing customers like second-class organisms. It seems every commercial for “attractive lease rates” ends with something like “…available only to non-GM (or Ford or Nissan or whomever) lessees…” buried in that mandatory salvo of legal verbiflage. In other words, if we’re winning you over from another car brand, welcome, friend. If you’re already leasing one of our cars, well, not so fast.

That can't be a Buick! Buicks suck. And, by extension, so do the people who drive them. Now please buy one. Okey?

“That’s not a Buick!” Because, apparently, Buicks suck. And, by extension, so do the people who drive them. Now please buy one. Okay?

Dissing previous customers seems to be the core communications strategy behind the new Buick ad campaign. In the commercials, people gush over the great-looking new cars being driven by friends and neighbors. But, once being told that the cars are Buicks, the people become incredulous. They say things like “That can’t be a Buick!” Of course, what’s (barely) unsaid is “Because this car looks pretty cool, and Buicks have always been the very automotive manifestation of utter un-coolness.”

I would have loved to have been in the meeting where the Buick brand manager told the ad agency, “Look, the cars we used to make were wallowing, corpulent, sauropods. And so were the people who bought them. But now, thanks to our ability to bring European GM models over and stick a Buick grille badge on them, they’re pretty darned good. Here’s a few million bucks. Go tell everybody.”

“If You Are Short Of Friends, I’ll Tell You What To Do. Make An Examination. You’ll Find The Fault’s In You.”

Mayme White Miller wrote those lines in 1943 (I’m sure I’m not the only person my age who had the poem they’re taken from read aloud by Mom and Dad on multiple occasions) and they’re absolutely applicable in this case. Let’s be clear. I’m in the marketing business. It’s my job, and, frankly, my joy, to help companies figure out ways to sell more stuff to more people for as much money as possible. One way that some companies do that is by offering more favorable terms or, in the case of Buick, more favorable messages, to new customers, while shunning, scorning or even outright soaking previous customers. But those companies do it for two reasons. 1) It works and 2) People let them.

People persist in doing the equivalent of blindly clicking that “renew” button because it’s easy to do. And the cable companies, the car lessors and the airlines (I’m looking at you, Delta in Atlanta) know exactly how much bitching and moaning people will do without actually doing anything to rectify the pain.

People ask, “But, Bill is this right?” And I’ll smile and answer, “Lord, but I do love capitalism.”

*There are numerous studies around that prove that companies that solve a problem for a customer are rated more highly in customer satisfaction than companies that never had a problem to begin with. This deserves its own article. Maybe I’ll tackle this subject soon. But probably not.


In the late 70′s, I was a writer at D’Arcy, MacManus & Masius in St. Louis, working mostly on the Budweiser account.

We were shooting on location at an “authentic”, blue collar bar in LA (despite its authenticity, it had been styled and dressed to the point that its regular customers would’ve scarcely recognized it) and, since the folks who ran the place didn’t want to shut down during prime business hours, we were shooting really late at night.

Naturally, a lot of beer was being poured for the principle actors and for the background people. The process was, “Rolling”, pour beers, deliver dialog, “cut”, dump all the beers into ten-gallon plastic buckets. Repeat.

Take after take. Time after time.

When the buckets got full, a PA would carry them outside and dump them into the gutter in front of the bar.

After a few trips to the curb, the PA was approached by one of about a half-dozen, rough-looking men who were lurking on the sidewalk. “What’s that you’re pouring out?” the man asked.

When the PA told him, “Budweiser”, the tipsy gentleman’s reaction, and that of his pals, was predictably appalled. And when the PA came back inside, he announced that he would absolutely not be making any more trips to the gutter with bucketfuls of beer.

Instead, he started setting the full buckets just outside the door. In a few minutes, he’d open the door and bring in empty buckets.

When our clients from Anheuser-Busch caught on to what was happening, they saw it as a great opportunity to cultivate some brand loyalty. They went outside and gave all the sidewalk “customers” (whose numbers had expanded threefold by this time) bright red t-shirts, emblazoned with the iconic Anheuser-Busch A & Eagle and the slogan “Making Friends Is Our Business”.

My art director partner and I thought it was a pretty questionable PR move to pass out gallons of beer to a bunch of homeless alcoholics, bedeck them with your beer company’s logo and then send them reeling into the streets of Los Angeles in the wee hours of the morning. But we kept our opinions to ourselves, since we lacked the seniority to overtly question a client’s marketing acumen.

It’s safe to assume that Budweiser made some friends that night. But how much repeat, paying business this impromptu campaign generated is open to discussion.