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Helen Firth: Sex, Sentiment and Silliness in Super Bowl Ads—But What About the Opportunity to Shape the Cultural Conversation?

By Helen Firth, SVP, Added Value

Was Super Bowl XLVIII a bit of a damp squib? Even before the game, at least one source had already termed the result a foregone conclusion, predicting weeks ago that the winner of the play-off between the Broncos and the Patriots would be crushed by the Seahawks on game day. Whether or not you judged the game an anti-climax, can the same be said about this year’s crop of ads?

Viewed purely as entertainment, many were enjoyable, some were stirring, others heart-wrenching. But several were little more than expensive crowd pleasers; tried—or is that tired?—and formulaic responses to the need for brands to have a presence at the most important annual event in adland.

In such a crowded environment, there’s bound to be an emphasis on grabbing attention, and brands certainly demonstrated a raft of possible ways to catch the viewer’s eye. H&M’s ad for David Beckham bodywear relied on the adage that sexy sells. Bud’s sentimental and much-hyped puppy love spot bet on a heavy dose of schmaltz. Audi’s Doberhuahua chose hyperbole for its dramatization of why compromise sucks. But what about stand-out that actually builds the brand, and increases relevance for its audience at the same time?

We’re not talking here about newsworthiness, or creating controversy to win column inches. A monumental ad event such as the Super Bowl—arguably one of the last where it’s still potentially possible for brands to create national debate—should present an amazing opportunity for brands to lead, not follow—in the cultural conversation. What do we mean by that?

Culture—the stuff that surrounds us, the fabric of the world in which we live—is constantly evolving. An idea can cross the planet and reach millions of people in a single second. And brands need to keep up—it’s vital to understand shifts in culture in order to gauge where your brand should be looking and moving, and to use this valuable perspective to spark inspiration and inform strategic direction. Being in tune with the cultural conversation means being in tune with where consumers will be in the (not too distant) future. For this reason, brands that anticipate cultural change stand a better chance of setting the agenda in their market.

In a nutshell, if you speak in today’s idiom, what you create will stay in the here and now. Speak in tomorrow’s idiom and the future is all yours. The most powerful brands shape the cultural conversation.

So we’re saying that to stay ahead, brands need to keep on top of the way culture is evolving. The good news is that this is possible. Identifying and harnessing emerging signs of cultural change before they happen in the mainstream—often termed cultural insight—is increasingly playing a part in guiding brand strategy and providing inspiration. It’s complementary to consumer insight, and shows us how the context around us influences people’s choices and ways of thinking. It also provides opportunities for brands to evolve it. Undertaking rigorous cultural analysis of your category, or your brand’s positioning territory, can yield new angles on how your brand can stay fresh and relevant—or can clarify and more tightly define what it is your brand stands for in the first place.

Added Value helps brands in all categories do this. We use cultural insight to create springboards—tools to inspire innovation, be it in product, communications, or indeed any form of brand expression. Looking through a different lens injects new thinking, opens up new possibilities, and creates the differentiation brands need to stay ahead.

So we’d like to issue a challenge to brands considering Super Bowl XLIX as a vehicle for their advertising. Rather than resort to well-used ways to shout loudest, why not take the opportunity to truly stand out, by driving the agenda in your category and raising the bar for all? Until that happens, it will mean the year’s biggest opportunity for brands to lead the cultural conversation will remain a missed one.

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