Can a Super Bowl Ad Create a Movement?

Ever tried to start a movement? For most us, the word is inextricably bound with political ferment and mass migrations of people - think Civil Rights, second wave feminism and Obama’s 2008 campaign. Now, we have the next order of movements - movements sponsored by corporate brands.

A prime example is the new Super Bowl ad by SunTrust bank called “Hold Your Breath.” With an avuncular voiceover by actor Gary Sinese, the ad, according to SunTrust, “asks Americans to hold their breath and reflect on what burdens financial stress is placing on them before giving them the next step to go to (”Onward and Upward”).” That’s the movement part: SunTrust has begun a campaign complete with a nifty pop-art microsite with financial quizzes and planning tools to take people “from financial stress to financial confidence.”

So what’s going on here? It really has to do with the structure of a modern brand. Brands today must deliver three classes of brand benefits: functional (excellence of products and services); emotional (things like status, security, validation); and lastly, societal benefits (the way the brand interacts with the world, including CSR and philanthropy). Clearly, this idea of creating a movement belongs squarely within the societal category - it’s a way of authenticating the deepest parts of your brand meaning by removing the language of sales to foster a relationship of trust. 


Movements not Products

To understand this better, I spoke exclusively to the architect of the OnUp movement, Scott Goodson, Founder and Chairman of NY agency, strawberryfrog. “For many reasons, movement marketing is better suited to the world we live in than doing traditional advertising. The fragmentation of the media, lack of difference between products, and the value-based purchase decisions of millennials are a few reasons. Brands that make a stand for or against something connect with millions of people and can engage them in powerful ways,” said Goodson. “It’s in the interest of business to lead and help solve social challenges.” Goodson, author of a book ‘Uprising’ on the subject, relates how certain brands became iconic by replacing a product focus with a movement focus. “When I helped launch the Smart Car, for example it was less about two-door compact driving and more about reinventing the urban environment; in the same way, when building the Ikea brand it was about the democratization of style not just selling sofas.” In my brand practice, we refer to this as the vision statement - the answer to the question, “what does the world look like if you succeed?”.

By the way, I hoped to get the same level of passion from the people at SunTrust but instead received a lifeless email with no salutation from the Communications department that stated:  “SunTrust is a purpose-driven company dedicated to Lighting the Way to Financial Well-Being.”  Alas.


Does the Ad Work?

Super Bowl ads are often windy, overlong affairs - a marquee product that rarely survives the act of inflation. Most of the time, we feel the strain as companies try to pry themselves away from the competition. When I reviewed last year’s crop, my favorites were the dressed-down, compact ones that used montage and rhythm to create a tight 3-act narrative. For the new SunTrust ad, Goodson teamed up with director Dante Ariola (the guy behind the wonderful 2011 Jim Beam Super Bowl spot starring Willem Dafoe.

Shooting on the Arri Alexa HD camera (the same one used on Game of Thrones and the film, Birdman), Goodson’s team and Ariola have created a little featurette that starts with a challenge to the audience to holds its breath - we see brides, hipsters, and athletes taking the challenge as we observe them in discrete vignettes. In the second act, as we approach the critical line of breath holding, Sinise draws the analogy between an oxygen deficit and financial stress, when life passes us by. The denouement is a whirligig of people gyrating, jumping and turning - a celebration of the milestones that presumably can still be lived if we get our financial houses in order. Is it good? No doubt, it’s expertly shot but what it isn’t is distinctive.

The character sketches (shot across California over a span of two weeks) are undeniably accomplished with a mix of overexposed verite shots, wide aperture framing for extreme close-ups and some lush landscapes, but they could be from a host of other ads. The grammar of modern American TV advertising has settled into a banal phase with its own weary semiotics: snow-clad landscapes signal beer; senior dances signal big Pharma; and deserts make us look for the luxury sedan.

The SunTrust ad appropriates some of this coffee-table visual strategy, which is disappointing because it does some things extraordinarily well. For one, the superb sound design obviates music in favor of that rarest of things in American commercials - silence.  A breath opens the commercial followed by a ticking clock and then a flash of lightening (a beautiful piece of rhythmic editing - like a caesura pause in a piece of poetry) which builds to a climax where the clock becomes the primary aural element. The most famous ticking clock may be the one that producer Alan Parsons put into Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and this commercial evokes that admirably.

Another beautiful passage comes in a series of images shot through screens and cloudy car windows that does a nice job of building a sense of entrapment. Again here, Ariola casts aside commercial aesthetics for something much more original and moody, but that happens too infrequently in this spot. Compare that to his magisterial Jim Beam commercial which quoted not from other ads but, in its smoky black and white (shot by one of the world’s most celebrated cinematographers, Emmanuel Lubezky, recalled the burlesque of mid-60s Fellini and the poetry of the later Wim Wenders. That was expressive and moving and wholly sui generis. Ads today work best when they quit their endogamous world of sunlit imagery for something more challenging. I wish the SunTrust ad had gone further in that direction.

Still, the OnUp campaign is creditable and interesting and may do some very good things at a time when three-quarters of Americans are worried about money (a recent SunTrust survey found that 40 percent of Americans do not have $2,000 saved for an emergency and it jumps to more than 60 percent for millennials). Goodson says the optimistic tone of the ad is a response to the mood of the country which is “fearful and conservative. We wanted an inclusive, optimistic message showing a totally unique moment every second of the commercial, that will make people feel like ‘that’s me’.”

Looking ahead, the real test won’t be how well the ad did during the Super Bowl, but whether SunTrust can live up to its claim by embedding the principles of this campaign across its entire value chain. This is the only way that societal brand benefits can emerge - if they seem to be woven into the fabric of the organization; they need to feel like a quest rather than a gesture.

As Goodson puts it, “those purpose-based organizations that embrace an ideals-driven business philosophy and grow, act on what they say.”

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