How Do Brands Respond to Periods of Uncertainty? By Going Meta

With hopes that the lighthearted campaigns will forge bonds with viewers

Sprite's 2016 ad with Lebron James gives viewers a look at the NBA star on set with a mic, cue cards and lots of Sprite. Sprite
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In Esurance’s latest marketing campaign, actor Dennis Quaid nonchalantly opens the spot by telling viewers that he, star of The Parent Trap and A Dog’s Purpose, is now appearing in an insurance campaign because he is “highly likeable.” He points out the overly dramatic music kicking in, and the kitchen he enters has prop apples, not real ones. It’s all part of a meta-marketing trend that is resurfacing, where a brand and its spokesperson clue the consumer in that they’re watching an ad. Think Anna Kendrick in Newcastle’s 2014 faux Super Bowl ad where the actress addresses the camera head on to discuss the fact that she was almost in a big-budget ad campaign before the brand realized the ad buy was too expensive.

This time around, meta marketing’s return feels more like a larger wave, beginning with Tide’s 2018 Super Bowl campaign, followed closely by Esurance, Izod and RXBar. Each time the trend returns, experts suggest it’s because brands are hungry to forge bonds of trust with viewers during uncertain times. Now more than ever, experts suggest that’s at play.

“There are just the flat-out, bald-faced lies out there today, that when you see a commercial whose whole premise is we have nothing to hide, we are going to tell you that we are just making a commercial. … I think it’s disarming and refreshing,” said Christopher Lehmann, managing director of consulting firm Landor’s San Francisco operation.

It was a major reason why Izod’s fall marketing campaign stars SNL’s Colin Jost, who is aware he’s in an ad, and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Mike Kelly, CMO and chief innovation officer of Izod parent company PVH, said the short answer for going meta with its campaign was that trust levels in all areas of life, especially advertising, are continuing to struggle. A 2017 Statista report showed 55 percent of people found pre-roll ads unfavorable (and 18 percent had no opinion), while 72 percent found pop-up ads untrustworthy. Adopting a marketing strategy of complete transparency seemed like the key to encourage people to buy Izod year-round.

“I’ve watched all the decades of creating all these big fantasies, and some brands need to do that and should do that, but I don’t think our customer responds to that. You create this big fantasy that if you buy this shirt you’ll get the blonde, the dog and the chalet in Switzerland. This is not true,” Kelly said.

For some brands, the decision to use a meta strategy has a lot do with their category and consumer perception of that category. Some recent meta campaigns have been for CPG brands, health and energy bars or insurance companies. “With everyone out there claiming to make your clothes as white as they can be or smell as nice as they can be, I think people look at it and say, ‘I don’t know who to believe anymore,'” explained Leo Burnett evp, executive creative director Brian Shembeda (who worked on Esurance’s meta campaign).

Lehmann believes any brand can pull off the meta tactic, if done well. “It just takes brilliant writing,” he explained. “Again you introduce that element of surprise and cleverness, the wink if you will. Esurance gets away with it in particular because it’s in the insurance category, but they’re a new kind of insurance category, a millennial insurance category. I would imagine that audience is a little bit more savvy in social media and marketing.”

For other brands, like Tide, meta marketing is a way to build trust (although the brand says its campaign was not specifically designed to deter people from the raging Tide Pod crisis), connect with people and make them feel like they’re part of the joke.

When Tide dropped its 100 seconds (four ads total) of Super Bowl advertising, the brand wanted people to “become our accomplice” by using that meta humor and breaking the fourth wall, according to Saatchi & Saatchi ecd Paul Bichler. It also shows people watching at home that the brand knows viewers are clued in enough to see through any traditional advertising gimmicks.

“Talking to them in a transparent, fun way and acknowledging that indeed there’s a technique in which advertising communicates … is trusting that the audience is smart enough to connect the dots,” he added.

Added Lehmann: “To be successful with a meta campaign you have to absolutely stay true to who you are and you have to find the clever way to deliver that message. You can’t just begin a commercial with, ‘Hey, I’m making a commercial’ because that is just a weak way out.”

Want more meta? Here a few other standouts from the past:

1. E*Trade, “Monkey” – This wild Super Bowl spot from 2000 is incredibly bizarre, but iconic, for telling the audience straight up, “Well, we just wasted $2,000,000.”

This story first appeared in the September 24, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ktjrichards Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.
Publish date: September 24, 2018 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT