Brands Being Human

Subaru is doing great work for the SyFy’s  Being Human.  Here’s one example:

This is an insider ad.  You have to know the show to get what’s happening.  These are werewolves.  They’ve gone into the woods to “turn.”  The brand has found the spirit of the show and “had a little fun with it.”  Romantic feeling is imposed on something that will shortly turn nasty and violent.  Clever.  And this is absolutely in the spirit of Being Human which plays with genre expectation constantly and well.

Here is Being Human in action.  In this scene, Sally, the ghost, discovers that her house is up for sale and she decides to discourage home buyers with a ghostly trick.  Ooooooooooo!  In this scene, remember, she is invisible.

Generally speaking, Subaru has done a great job claiming a nest of companionable, cozy, domestic meanings for the brand.  It has attached itself to “family” as well as any brand in the biz.  (And that’s saying something, considering that so many brands are trying to make this connection.) Recall the Subaru ads that feature dogs aging and kids practicing for their driver’s license.  This is great work but it may leave the Subaru brand defined as something perhaps a little too domestic and of-this-world.

The Being Human work manages this problem beautifully.  A brand that verges on the humble and everyday becomes suddenly exotic and even daring.  The Subaru meanings expand wonderfully.

Notice how elegantly this is accomplished.  The Being Human work is site-specific and exists, in effect, only for the Being Human audience.  There is no danger  that the broader Subaru market will see this work and no danger that it will transform their “cosy” associations with the brand.  This is brand surgery.

Another thing I like about this approach is that it is the opposite of product placement.  Instead of jamming the product into the show, the show is allowed to find its way into the “brandscape,” to use John Sherry’s term.  And both the show and the brand profit.

Product placement is often an absolute tax on a show.  You know that moment when the appearance of the product suspends your suspension of disbelief.  You might as well stop watching and thousands no doubt do.  I don’t care how much the show makes from product placement.  In many cases, the artistic price is too high.  Plus, as a strategy, this is just plain dumb.  It says in effect, “People aren’t watching our ads! Ok, so let’s force them to look at the product!  We’ll make them watch us!”  You’ll make them watch you?  This is your idea of persuasion.  This is your idea of managing meanings? Really?

There’s another Subaru ad for Being Human that feels, to me, less successful.  It shows three actors acting like characters from the show.  See it here:

This execution feels wrong to me and it serves I think as a useful test of where this strategy can work and where it fails.  When the ad is merely leveraging the creative original, it feels like a pale imitation and it provokes, I think, a relative loss of value.  By which I mean, more is taken from the show than is returned to it.  The brand is merely exploiting the dramatic riches of Being Human and not taking possession of them for larger creative play.  In the immortal words of T.S. Eliot, “bad poets borrow, good poets steal.” This spot borrows where the first one steals.  This is not as bad as product placement but it isn’t a lot better.

Carmichael Lynch, the agency in question, has done great things for Subaru.  There is a cultural sensitivity at work here that really is exceptional.  And our opening “werewolf” ad breaks new ground.  Letting the brand out to play in an ad, in this way, is to let the brand out to play in the world.  And this is one of those cases, where brand and ad are working together, borrowing meanings from one another, to their mutual benefit.   Both brand and show get bigger, richer, and more interesting.

But what might be more remarkable is the fact that the Carmichael Lynch work takes Subaru almost no other automotive brand is prepared to go.  This is daring.  It is clever.  It participates in popular culture.  It makes the brand a living, breathing presence in the life of the consumer and our culture.  It takes the brand a little closer to being human.


Dean Evans, CMO, Subaru

I am hoping Carmichael Lynch will send me names of the creative team so that I can give them a mention for this really exemplary work.  Watch this space.

2 thoughts on “Brands Being Human

  1. Sam Ford

    This is indeed a great example, Grant, of how advertisers can start to reach particular communities based on similar sensibilities/interests. Audiences are increasingly savvy as to how ad-supported media works. When companies can find more clever ways to signal their connection to the program they are advertising on and invest the extra creativity in making something that demonstrates their respect for and interest in the program that is bringing the advertiser and the audience together, it can be a much better use of a media buy and can show audiences that they aren’t JUST a company buying a :30 spot during the show.

    A couple of advertisers for the soap opera As the World Turns experimented with this a couple of times in years past. I remember an ad that ran for awhile for Tyson. One of the characters on the show was on the phone with someone giving a laundry list of everything she’d been up to in the past couple of weeks in quick succession…wrecking marriages, kidnapping someone, interfering in her children’s lives, scheming to steal a job at work, and so on. Then she ends with, “And you?” And “Powered by Tyson” came up at the bottom. For another, Cheerio’s recounted how, six weeks ago Dr. Bob was in a coma while his son was angling to take over as hospital chief-of-staff. Now, Dr. Bob woke up and is getting the hospital back under his control. Then, Cheerio’s, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, recounting how you could have been taking the “Cheerio’s 6-week challenge” in that same time period.

    Both of these weren’t expensive commercials to make. They only aired during As the World Turns. But I–and I am sure many fellow viewers–remember them almost a decade later, because they showed a respect not just for the show itself but for the spirit of certain characters and storylines, etc.

    1. Grant Post author

      Sam, great, thanks for this illuminating comment, and yes, “showing respect” is at issue. Otherwise the brand ends up being a kind of roman Centurion standing their in the middle of programming but manifestly not part of the world around him, manifestly an imperial presence. How to make the brand companionable. That’s the deal. Thanks for your comment! Best, Grant

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