Super Bowl Ad Disrespects People, Fails Miserably

Perhaps you caught the 2015 Super Bowl ad for Chevy Colorado Trucks? No, not the ad that harkened back to the unfortunate blackout of earlier years. That particular Chevy Colorado Ad was a big success with consumers, because it “trolled everyone” and “disrupted” the big event, according to the trade publications. But what about the other ad for the same truck, the one that nobody seems to be talking about? (Yep, in the exorbitantly-priced Super Bowl, there were two totally unrelated ads for the same truck).

Think back through your beer-haze to February’s game. This second Chevy truck ad featured “real people, not actors,” employing a focus group-style format. In these groups, the ‘moderator’ showed two identical pictures of the exact same man, the only difference being what was behind him— a truck in the background, versus a compact sedan.

Chevy Ad image for Super Bowl post

Remember that one? I wouldn’t necessarily fault you for forgetting it.

The crux of the ad was that respondents (single women, kids, other men, etc.) were sure the “truck guy” was much more handsome, sexier, and stronger in his handshake than the sedan guy, among other things. The ad made it clear that everyone finds a guy with a truck to be more “manly” than a guy who drives something else. The slogan capping the ad read, “You know you want a truck”— closing the deal by… offering an endorsement for all trucks, ever? A category sell that was lazy, and also relied on the hackneyed tactic of making men feel insecure about their masculinity in order to induce a purchase.

As much as I could go on about the failures of 1. attempting to trigger deep-seated insecurities in men by undercutting their maleness and 2. to sell a category rather than a product— that isn’t the focus of this post. This post is actually about the storytelling technique, and the unintended message that came through loud and clear— almost louder than the intended.

The majority of the action in the ad was driven by the focus group itself— which inevitably shed a critical light on the absurdity of how people can behave when in focus groups. It was, perhaps, intended to be a cutting critique of research, something creative teams have long-regarded as detrimental to their work. In their view, the point of this scenario might have been, “People will say anything, therefore focus groups are stupid”— but thinking of it in this manner is just too simplistic.

In my view, it wasn’t damning of consumers at all— quite the opposite, it absolved them of responsibility for bad or erroneous research results. It simply revealed that human nature is to talk when paid to. It was a stark reminder that when people are asked, they will find an analyze minuscule differences between things (even when there are no meaningful differences at all). That especially when pressed, a post-rational explanation can make even the absurd seem perfectly logical and even helpful. It was much less a critique of people, much less a critique of research in general, and much more a critique of the materials people are given to react to during research, and how they are asked to respond.

This ad was an inadvertent attack on the terrible stimulus that advertisers and marketers put in front of consumers in research, focus groups or otherwise. The Chevy ad featured seemingly farcical stimulus— an exercise in which two pictures were nearly identical— but was this example so ridiculous? When you think about it, it closely mirrored stimulus that is utilized in total seriousness. We have all seen this type of stimulus— very often, marketers and advertisers create it—statements or concepts that parse out minuscule differences that marketers find important, breaking apart tiny things into tinier pieces. Much stimulus is designed to do this, exposed with the express goal of discovering the tiny difference between, for instance— similar words, e.g.: (“do they like the term ‘friend’ or ‘neighbor’ better?”), similar images, (“do they like the one with the baby or the toddler?”), and even between similar shades of a color, “which shade of green says ‘modern’ to you more than others?).” These are small questions that marketers place importance on, but have never crossed the minds of any consumer, who generally have no interest in the small differences we are asking them to comment on.

The real lesson of the ad is that consumers don’t care about the small decisions that concern marketers, but when forced to parse out tiny alterations, will find gaping differences. When given no choice— they will, in fact, talk about insignificant things with great significance, masking the fact that the differences are completely inconsequential to them. They will give things gravity that are in no way deserving of it, and thereby unintentionally throw us off the scent of the things that really DO matter. They do this because they are getting paid; they do this to be helpful, and because it is human nature to complete the task that is presented to us.

Bad stimulus can make consumers look as ridiculous as they do in that Chevy ad. When their role is minimized to parsing out tiny differences and petty details, we completely miss the point of research— especially qualitative, which is to delve and learn, not to comparatively snipe. By presenting them narrow stimulus, we are defining what we think is important to them through OUR lens instead of hearing about their world through THEIR lens. And then we have the nerve to criticize the consumers who are pressed into this situation— as all the while, behind the glass, clients and agencies alike complain about how this batch of consumers are so “picky” or “provincial.”

If they are, we have to seriously consider that it is because we inadvertently asked them to be. That is the role we created for them when we presented that stimulus; one they merely stepped into. Their only sin is obliging us.

There is a possibility the creative teams behind the Chevy ad felt real jubilation at this supposed takedown of consumer research. But rather than dissing consumer research and the people who participate in it, the ad actually held up a mirror the absurd way stimulus is created and presented— something all marketers and advertisers need to take responsibility for, and even creatives are complicit in.

This ad did not perform very well among viewers, although the client received critical accolades for the other Chevy Colorado spot in the Super Bowl. My guess is that the heavy-handedness in using the focus group scenario actually hurt this ad, as it distracted watchers from the primary point. People at home on their couches were likely busy laughing at the absurdity of the group, and probably forgot that the intended message of “truck guys are macho, so buy a truck.” There is some irony in that the teams undermined their own primary message while reinforcing their secondary one— their not-so-subtle attempt at decrying the “tyranny” of research and its impact on their creative product.

Not that it was much of a primary message to begin with. But that’s a topic for another post.

View the Chevy Colorado 2015 Super Bowl ad here:

For more reading on another failure of bad stimulus, diving deeper into the world of “marketing-ese,” things marketers care about and no one else does— check out this Pitfalls of Poor Research, co-written with me by Asher Hunter from Metrix Consulting in Melbourne.

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