by Michael Neelsen
The Super Bowl is the biggest brand storytelling day of the year. For one day, all the major brands that live and die with seductive imagery, features & benefits, and data & rhetoric suddenly decide to tell a story.
Here are StoryFirst Media’s 5 favorite commercials that aired during the game:
#05: WEATHERTECH “YOU CAN’T DO THAT”
MAIN CHARACTER: The WeatherTech Brand
OBJECT OF DESIRE: To make WeatherTech products in the USA.
TURNING POINT: When every expert tells WeatherTech, “You can’t do that.”
This is a phenomenal example of embracing conflict in an advertisement. Putting the obstacles front and center makes WeatherTech’s accomplishment of producing its products in America feel much more valuable. The recurring turning point of “You can’t do that” presents our main character with a dramatic dilemma: either A) listen to the experts and sacrifice your values by manufacturing overseas while saving costs, or B) screw the costs, maintain your integrity and build in the States.
#04. VOLKSWAGON “WINGS”
MAIN CHARACTER: Darcey’s Father
OBJECT OF DESIRE: To convince Darcey that crossing 100,000 miles is a big deal.
TURNING POINT: (for the audience, not the main character) When Darcey’s Father posits that every time a VW crosses 100,000 miles a German engineer gets his wings.
SECOND TURNING POINT: When Darcey sarcastically suggests that after 200,000 miles rainbows fly out of German engineers’ butts.
This spot is especially good because you easily commit the message to memory. What’s interesting about the story structure is that the first turning point is just for the audience. It’s a perfect example of hiding your message in a dramatic turning point. I’ll quickly break down the turning point into its four components:
The Surprise: “What if I told you that every time a Volkswagon hits one-hundred-thousand miles, a German engineer gets his wings.”
Curiosity: Why would German engineers get their wings?
Insight: Ah, so hitting 100,000 miles must not only be important to VW, but judging from how many engineers get their wings later in the spot, it happens a lot!
New Direction: Well, if longevity is important to me in my next car, it’ll be a Volkswagon!
#03. CHEERIOS “GRACIE”
MAIN CHARACTER: Gracie’s Father
OBJECT OF DESIRE: To get his daughter’s approval that she will soon have a baby brother.
TURNING POINT: When Gracie says, “… and a puppy.”
SECOND TURNING POINT: When Gracie’s father says, “Deal.”
This is a very cute spot that does a couple of things really well. The first is that it justifies the use of the product as a prop the main character is using to accomplish his goal. The second is that it uses subtext brilliantly in its first turning point. The turning point components:
The Surprise: “… and a puppy.”
Curiosity: Why would she ask for a puppy right as I’m telling her she has a baby brother on the way?
Insight: Ah, she’s hinging her cooperation with the new baby on the condition that I buy her a puppy.
New Direction: Yes, I’ll buy her a puppy because that’s a small price to pay to know my child will cooperate with the new baby.
The second turning point is for Gracie’s mother, who already has her hands full with the pregnancy, but must now contend with a new puppy as well! She didn’t see that coming!
#02. WONDERFUL PISTACHIOS “STEPHEN COLBERT”
MAIN CHARACTER: Stephen Colbert
OBJECT OF DESIRE: To sell Wonderful Pistachios product.
TURNING POINT: When the pistachios don’t “sell themselves.”
How about this! A turning point that takes place while another commercial is airing! This 30-second spot actually aired in two 15-second segments sandwiching an unrelated commercial, so the setup and payoff was particularly strong because you didn’t expect the ad to come back. The idea was also devastating to the commercial that was aired in between — the Pistachios ad was so strong I can’t remember what it was!
#01. BUDWEISER “PUPPY LOVE”
MAIN CHARACTERS: The Puppy & The Clydesdale
OBJECT OF DESIRE: To be together.
TURNING POINT: When the puppy is sold away.
Yes, another list that has this ad as its #1. But seriously, look at how perfectly this ad hits all the archetypal storytelling beats:
Once upon a time there was a puppy and a horse who were best friends. The only problem was that the horse was on a ranch and the puppy was next door at a puppy adoption center (Inciting Incident with a Ticking Clock). The Major Dramatic Question is set: Will the puppy and horse get to be together?
In order to stay together, the pair had to do something (Active Protagonists). Well, the easiest thing they could do was if the puppy escaped to hang out with the horse (Dramatic Decision #1). But when the puppy tries that, the farmer picks him up and returns him to the puppy adoption center (Turning Point #1). So the puppy has another idea: sneak out at night when it’s raining because the farmer won’t be out there (Progressive Complication). But the farmer is there (Turning Point #2) and he returns the puppy once more.
The puppy tried to sneak out as often as it could, until one day the puppy was sold to an ominous figure clad in black clothes and dark shades (because humans don’t trust those whose eyes we can’t see), who doesn’t care enough about the puppy to even look up from his cell phone when we first meet him (Brilliant characterization — and a perfect example of how quickly we sum up a character’s intentions just based on how someone look). You can even see in the look of the woman’s eyes that she isn’t thrilled to be selling the puppy to this slick city guy.
It’s do or die time. The Final Dramatic Decision is in the hands of the clydesdale: does he save the puppy or does he stay where the farmer put him? Well, the horse breaks out of its pen and chases the car down, summoning the other Budweiser Clydesdales to stop the car dead in its tracks.
Now, what happens to the city slicker who dispassionately bought the puppy is left unknown, but presumably the clydesdales killed him. 😉
The puppy proudly returns with the clydesdales and, after witnessing such an amazing spectacle (Turning Point #3), the farmer and the puppy adoption owner decide to let the pair stay together (Final Dramatic Action).
You could teach an entire storytelling class with this commercial, and with over 42 million views on YouTube at the time of this writing, it’s proven to be very effective for the brand as well.
Honorable Mention: JAMIE CASINO, PERSONAL INJURY ATTORNEY
MAIN CHARACTER: Jamie Casino
OBJECT OF DESIRE: To avenge his brother’s death (this is a Super Bowl ad, not a Martin Scorsese film, right?)
TURNING POINT: When Jamie learns that the Savannah Chief of Police told the people of the town that “no innocent people were targeted,” allegedly implying that Jamie’s brother brought about his own demise.
Holy hell. This 2-minute spot for a Savannah, Georgia law practice aired locally during halftime and became an immediate internet sensation. Not only is Jamie bold enough to acknowledge the negative aspects of himself (“I used to be a notorious criminal defense lawyer who was employed by some of the most cold-hearted villains”), but when people asked him why he didn’t just make a standard PSA with him introducing himself and stating clearly into a camera what happened with his brother, Casino replied, “You must tell it in a cinematic way. It makes it more appealing. People like movies and it looks like a movie trailer. How can I tell a story that people will want to watch?”