Saturday Night Live

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Schweddy Balls, for real, courtesy of Ben and Jerry.

Schweddy Balls, for real, courtesy of Ben and Jerry.

This is a post about double entendres so I probably shouldn’t mention that it is also about brand extensions. Now, that I have that out of my system. . .Ben and Jerry’s decision to add a “Schweddy Balls” flavor to its ice cream line-up is one of the strangest branding/marketing decisions I’ve seen in a long time. No, make that forever. There’s a lot riding on whether consumers will relate to the not-so-recent, yet oddly memorable Saturday Night Live sketch spoofing National Public Radio at its quirkiest and featuring a guest appearance by Alec Baldwin as holiday food purveyor, Pete Schweddy, owner of Season’s Eatings.

Ben and Jerry is known for its own sinful fare — homemade ice cream with clever counter culture names like Cherry Garcia, Phish Food, and Half Baked. Founders Ben and Jerry are also recognized as social activists for liberal causes. So, what would possess them to introduce a new flavor based on a somewhat obscure SNL skit from yesteryear, more specifically a skit entirely based on testicular and oral sex jokes?

Don’t believe me? You can watch the ice cream’s inspiration here. Not really sure what Ben and Jerry were thinking. Is this a fanboy tribute to Alec Baldwin? Is it a deliberate attempt to tweak social conservatives, who already have their panties in a bunch over the announcement? Is it a surefire way to drum up publicity in an anti-sweets nanny-state environment? Is it a tone-deaf mistake because no one in Vermont gets all the inside jokes in the SNL skit? Hard to say, because this is such a strange and out of left field product launch.

Ice cream is a family-oriented, dairy-farm-fresh food category. Even with Ben and Jerry’s hippie-dippie history, naming a flavor after an inside sex joke is beyond edgy. It is an idea cooked up on hallucinogens, then best cancelled when the drugs wear off.  Then, again if Ben and Jerry are mining SNL for flavor names, they can’t do worse than this audio clip.

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Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" 2-minute SuperBowl spot

Chrysler's "Imported from Detroit" 2-minute SuperBowl spot

Originally, I was only going to devote one post to SuperBowl commercials. However, a lot of blog-worthy controversy erupted over two banned spots going into the game. By last Sunday, the majority of spots were posted to YouTube and elsewhere prior to the game that I was able to blog about my favorites even before kickoff. This week, on to other marketing matters. Well, not quite.

Last Sunday’s SuperBowl set the all-time TV viewership record, 111 million viewers, eclipsing the prior year’s Saints-Colts matchup of 106.5 million viewers, which had finally beaten the long-held record of 106 million viewers held by the 1983 finale of M*A*S*H. Wow, now that’s 222 million eyeballs (give or take a few fans who may have finally dozed off during the Vince Lombardi trophy ceremony).  I would say that all those advertisers who shelled out $3 million per 30-second spot got their money’s worth in viewership.

Well, maybe not, and that’s the reason for Part III. A week later, people are still talking about SuperBowl commercials on talk radio, in social media, around the water cooler, but not especially in a good way.

It’s not like 1984 when Apple’s vision of the digital future smashing an Orwellian present with a Thor-like hammer seized everyone’s attention and imagination. This year’s conversation was all about specific “what were they thinking?” controversies.

The spot that I think came closest to a “1984” statement was Chrysler’s 2-minute gritty ode to the resilience and spirit of Detroit, featuring Eminem, unidentified at first, as he drove viewers around his hometown and the voiceover narrator shared some pretty inspirational thoughts. It resonated with me and a lot of other viewers. At least until I multiplied 30 seconds times 4 and arrived at a $12 million advertising media price tag for a car company that just two years ago was getting bailed out by Uncle Sam. Hard to make those numbers add up. The line between “warm and fuzzy” and “fuzzy math” got a lot blurrier.

Creatively, my favorite work from the SuperBowl is still Audi’s, although not a huge number share my opinion. I hope the car company sticks with this campaign and gives it the exposure it deserves. I posted a link to last week’s blog in five different ad and marketing LinkedIn groups I belong to as a way to get discussion going about the SuperBowl spots. A lot of people weighed in with their own favorites, thoughts on the controversies, and insider baseball. Kerry Antezana, a Creative Director from Seattle, shared this particularly good link to the BrandBowl site that blended stats from Twitter responses to pick ad winners (Chrysler for overall, so maybe that $12 million was well spent).  There were a lot of comments that everyone was underwhelmed by the creativity of this year’s spots, but that even the lamest spots resonated more than social media’s role in all this.

Edginess of spots did not automatically mean people were talking about them. Doritos scored more for their amazing pug on a hunger mission than the cringe-worthy ad where a cheese-flavor-obsessed Doritos lover sucked the fingers of a co-worker and pulled the cheese-dust-covered pants off another.

However, Pepsi Max managed to turn edgy humor into racial controversy on the floor of the U.S. Congress when Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee denounced its stereotypes as a sorry distraction from Black History Month. I don’t think most viewers saw it that way. It was more about relationship humor, but it was neither funny enough nor edgy enough to register much on either the laughs or controversy scale.

The biggest controversy belonged to Groupon, who sought to have some snarky fun with the seriousness of social causes, by having Tim Hutton flip the mention of political turmoil in Tibet around to this week’s Groupon deal for Tibetan restaurant cuisine. Tasteless? Yes. Intentional? Yes, in a Saturday Night Live commercial parody kind of way. Successful? Obviously not, in light of the nearly universal righteous anger it generated. Some of the posters in the LinkedIn discussions noted that it may not have affected Groupon as much as originally predicted, but by week’s end, the company pulled the offending spot.

Closing thoughts. When you are spending $3 million per 30 seconds of SuperBowl time, a little more spent for a focus group might be warranted (not to tweak creative, but to act as a canary in a coal mine). As for the impact of all this? Put in the context of events in Egypt this week, it’s a little silly and a lot self-important. The freedom we have to enjoy the NFL, commercials, and commerce should not be taken for granted. Here’s hoping for a better life for Egyptians, Tibetans, and the rest of the world.

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With all the turbulent changes the advertising industry has undergone in recent years, one constant has been a welcome distraction — the hilarious, note-perfect commercial parodies that Saturday Night Live churns out every show and every season. SNL has undergone its own annual turbulence of cast changes, topical content challenges, and guest host chemistry issues. Yet every season, a different cast produces a number of gems that tweak real commercials or use the prism and familiar formats of advertising to tackle current news stories.

NBC has produced entire specials of these special thirty-second clips and now has an amazing archive of this rich comic material. Breakfast cereals are popular subjects. From John Belushi’s unlikely Olympic athlete powered, not by Wheaties, but “Little Chocolate Donuts.” To the fiber-over-rich, can-you-match-the number-of-bowls laxative power of  “Colon Blow.” But there are so many others, from the all-clay, moldable Adobe car that repairs itself, to the Change Bank that addresses all our needs of exact coinage, to Wade Blasingame, the attorney who will sue dogs.

This season, two spots have done an amazing job of capturing the Zeitgeist. One is all about the pleasures and dangers of social media and its expansion beyond the college campus.

The other combines the allure of those late night chat line come-on spots with the need to diffuse the anger over ever-more intrusive airport security screening procedures.

The next time someone wonders whether advertising is still relevant in the digital age, tell them not to taunt Happy Fun Ball. Then, hit them with a Nerf Crotchbat.

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