Wednesday, February 03, 2016

On Advertising and Aspiration

It's Super Bowl week, which means it's ad season.

For my first eight years out of college, I worked in advertising. To agency people, the Super Bowl is Christmas. The people creating the ads you see during the game are industry rock stars and it's always entertaining to see what clients are dropping gazillions of dollars on.

It's been twelve years since I was an agency employee, but having worked in the industry still colors my worldview. When I look at ads, I automatically try to figure out the strategy behind it.

Kenny MF'ing Powers: Shiller of Shots
That's why I found this short blog post so intriguing. It's a quick comparison between two current liquor promotional campaigns: one for Jack Daniels' limited edition Sinatra Century whiskey, which draws on Frank Sinatra's affinity for the brand, and one for Southern Comfort, which stars comedian Danny McBride.

As a general rule, liquor advertising is an exercise in aspiration. When you're trying to convince someone to buy your booze, you appeal to who they want to be. During my advertising heyday, the power of aspirational cocktails was obvious every time I walked into a bar filled with wannabe Carrie Bradshaws spilling their cosmos on their Forever 21 going out tops.

But back to the present. That post about the Danny McBride Southern Comfort campaign mentions that the brand's sales are on a downward slide - in fact, net sales dropped by 7% in the first 6 months of 2015 and the brand is currently being sold off by owners Brown-Foreman. On one hand, I'm sorry for SoCo's soon-to-be-former owners - and for Wieden + Kennedy, the very smart agency behind the campaign. I'm sure they're disappointed. But should they be surprised?

While I think that Danny McBride is super funny, I certainly don't aspire to be him. Yes, I realize I'm not the target market. I also realize the  campaign does its best to gussy up McBride as SimCity James Bond and spin him as an off-kilter Most Interesting Man in the World. But underneath it all, he's still Kenny Powers. And does anyone aspire to be Kenny Powers, even if he's wearing a tux or hanging out with a flamingo?

My guess is that while SoCo's target demographic - likely 18-34 year old guys - think he's funny and would like to hang out with somebody like Danny McBride, they don't want to personally be him, the same way they'd aspire to be Frank Sinatra. Again, even if he's in a tux, with or without a pink bird.

Southern Comfort's advertising didn't always miss its mark. As soon as I read that post, my mind wandered back to the mid-90s, when the brand ran a campaign I absolutely loved, including one of my favorite ads of all time:
The original ad. Source.

I connected with this campaign, built around the tag line "Take It Easy," so completely - and at the time, I was the right age for the brand. 

Even then, I laughed a little at the notion that anybody would order Southern Comfort on the rocks at a bar. I have done too many SoCo and lime shots to think that's a reasonable drink order. But what I think is so smart about this ad is that it manages to be aspirational without overpromising. It doesn't suggest that SoCo drinkers will become Sinatra - but it does communicate that they'll live lives that are both fulfilling and laid back. 

For shots-doing kids in their 20s, trying to figure out their lives, that's some pretty powerful stuff. The McBride campaign delivers on laid back, but it misses in terms of fulfillment.

Now, I don't know the metrics. Maybe the "Take It Easy" campaign didn't do well - I can't find any sales data old enough to find out - and even if SoCo was selling like hotcakes back then, liquor sales are of course driven by more than advertising. 

But ads do matter. And ads that make us want something more...I think they matter most.

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