Darwinian AdVolution: Always Come Up Smiling

The many attempts to analyze, define and capture the current 18 to 34 demographic, aka Generation Y, aka Millenials, has been about as entertaining to watch as a greased pig scramble. That is to say, it’s hilarious. We could take the comparison a step further, noting that neither experience is remotely dignifying for the quarry. Universally labeling this generation, which also happens to be my generation, as lazy, entitled and naive has become a common banner for many figures in business and media to march under. Yet scrutineers may have finally gained some significant understanding and acceptance of Millenials, thanks to the ZenithOptimedia.

Last December, the media agency published an extensive study titled “The Pursuit of Happiness,” examining young people’s changing approaches to achieving happiness, and what impact that has on brand interactions. One of the most important takeaways is a brand that makes Millennials happy is more likely to establish long-term customer relationships with them.

In a recent article, AdWeek highlighted three brands that seemed to be taking notice of this data: McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Dove. Each of these has forgone focusing on their products in recent ads, instead favoring people-centered, optimistic messaging. But just because AdWeek used these three examples together in their article does not mean they have all applied this concept with equal skill or equal success.

Ad. Neanderthalis: McDonald’s

Two weeks ago I entered a McDonald’s for the first time in roughly a year. Don’t judge, I was in a hurry in an area that was sparse on dining options. Anyway, upon entering, I was confronted by a rather confusing sight. Black pleather chairs were set at small modern tables, and the color scheme that once screamed “janitor’s closet” had been replaced with muted pastels. Everything about this restaurant was different from the McDonald’s I had come to know… oh wait, except for the food. It was the same famously bland and artificial meal we’ve all come to know and grudgingly tolerate.

It’s fairly common knowledge that McDonald’s has lost some of it’s security as the global fast food hegemon. Sales and stock prices have taken a hit, thanks in no small part to the fast-casual dining surge changing Americans’ conception of convenient food. The decor change that surprised me was an obvious attempt at manufacturing a similar environment to Chipotle or Starbucks. Yet it does little more than create a disconnect between public opinion and how the brand would like to be perceived.

This brings us to the “Pay With Lovin'” campaign that McDonald’s used as a Super Bowl spot.

Benevolent cashiers, heartfelt human connections and whimsical fun? Not exactly an accurate portrayal of the restaurant chain with the industry’s absolute worst customer satisfaction level. McDonald’s may be spouting joyous platitudes based on the data from ZenithOptimedia’s study, but they lack the first clue as to how that information can be used to build customer loyalty.

The in-store campaign that generated footage for this commercial lasted two weeks. In other words, it was a brief gimmick with no indication of lasting change. McDonald’s needs to stop viewing marketing as a con to distract people from their horrendous reputation, or lack thereof, for quality and service. Reaping the benefits of consumer happiness requires a lot more than a publicity stunt or an interior designer. McDonald’s will need to do away with the disingenuous marketing cons, and its entire business will need evolve to fit a changing market.

Ad. erectus: Coca-Cola

If you read the previous installment of “Darwinian Advolution,” you may remember that I first bestowed the title of Ad. erectus upon American Apparel for their absurdly primitive attempt at managing a Twitter account. A comparison to neanderthals simply would not suffice, so we went further back along the family tree of human evolution for a more appropriate label. Well we have another case deserving of this dubious distinction, and for more Twitter foolishness no less.

Coca-Cola used its Super Bowl ad time to announce an admirable but daunting goal: taking on negativity… on the internet.

Aside from the rather on-the-nose implication that Coke instantly improves any situation, the commercial is pretty enjoyable. It has an upbeat tone and addresses a important social issue. But alas, the poignancy was cut short when Coca-Cola took the party to Twitter with #MakeItHappy.

The basic gist of the social media campaign was people would tweet something sad with the hashtag, and Coca-Cola would turn that unhappy statement into adorable word art. Media blog Gawker was apparently not having any of this Coke-flavored optimism. Using a bot-operated Twitter account, they sent a series of tweets attaching the hashtag to a lengthy excerpt of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Coca-Cola’s automated campaign took the bait, and began creating images of balloon dogs, bananas and smiley faces with some of the most hate-filled text in modern history.

Seth Meyers and Amy Poelher put it best: Really?! Coca-Cola asked people to send them negative statements… on Twitter… and then decided to leave the rest of it in the hands of a computer program? They didn’t think that a little extra human supervision would be a necessary when encouraging vitriol on the internet? Coca-Cola (with Gawker’s help) sent the message loud and clear that they have a pitiful comprehension of online harassment and negativity. Maybe a soft drink corporation isn’t the best champion for the issue.

Ad. sapiens: Dove

Great, another company thinking they can make Twitter a happier place with their advertising. The spot that kicked off Dove’s #SpeakBeautiful campaign was actually rather similar to Coca-Cola’s. So which genocidal maniac did these guys end up quoting? Not a single one, it turns out, because Dove is no novice when it comes to positive brand messaging.

Right off the bat, it’s unfair to group Dove with the likes of McDonald’s and Coke. For the other two, putting an upbeat, altruistic tone to their marketing was a sharp left turn. Dove, on the other hand, has been in this game for over a decade, long before ZenithOptimedia published their report on millennials. Back in 2004, they encouraged women to think more positively about body image with the Campaign for Real Beauty, and they haven’t looked back since.

Over the years, their marketing has used a consistent subject in a variety of ways. Last year, they focused on the hurdles that mothers and their young daughters face with self-esteem. The year before, they showed how harshly women judge themselves with comparative portraits drawn only from verbal descriptions given to a forensic artist.

A big part of why this strategy has been so successful for Dove is how well its products match its messaging. Obviously, nobody believes that spilling a Coke on your computer will make social feeds appear happier, and I think just about everyone can attest do the disconnect between eating McDonald’s and attaining emotional fulfillment. Dove’s approach is far more grounded approach, telling its audience not to be ashamed of their bodies or appearances and that they are worth taking care of with Dove products.

There’s no confusing the intentions of any of these three brands. They’re not charitable organizations; they want to boost sales, plain and simple. What matters is the level of respect they show for audiences in their happiness-focused marketing. If McDonald’s and Coca-Cola think they can win over a tech-savvy, idealistic generation with Twitter bots or publicity stunts requiring less effort than a flash mob, they need a lot more advice than what’s contained in ZenithOptimedia’s “The Pursuit of Happiness.” There’s an obvious difference between the brands that make people happy and the ones that promise to do so for 30 seconds each year during the Super Bowl.


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