Matt Williams: sports stars and celebs show why US advertising is the same – but different

I’ve just returned home from a couple of weeks in America. So whilst I’m still struggling to come to terms with swapping sunny blue skies and massive burgers for grey gloomy days and bad customer service, it at least means I can do the usual blogger trick of devising a piece that compares one country to another.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the US. I’m a Brit who actually quite admires the whole exaggerated patriotism thing. I don’t mind the whooping and the high-fives. And I see American Football as an exciting thing to watch on a Sunday night, rather than just gay rugby.

But even I sat there open-mouthed and a little confused every time a TV show cut to an ad break (which obviously happened once every 20 seconds) last week. So why was that? Here’s a couple of random observations.

Celebrities need to earn their corn

You may not have heard of them, but Peyton Manning and JJ Watt are two of the biggest sports stars in America. So they’re both appearing in more than their fair share of commercials. Nothing strange there. But what is unusual is that these guys – and almost all the sports starts picked by brands to be their ambassadors – are asked to do more than actually just stand there and look pretty. They do more than just throw a football or make a tackle – they’re actually asked to act.


Well, sort of act. But the point is, could you imagine Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard being asked to readily make such fools of themselves? Could you imagine any brand asking Wayne Rooney to try and learn a script? No, their only place on screen is to run around a bit, kicking a football whilst accompanied by some cheesy pop song. Joe Hart dipped his toe in the water recently for Head & Shoulders, and likely won’t do that again in a hurry. It’s best left to the domain of ex-pros or Eric Cantona, whose performance for Nike back in the 90s was so surprising that he actually quit football to become an actor.

Not so in the US, it seems every NFL, NBA or NHL player with a commercial deal is ready to put in their best Oscar-winning performance, from Eric Decker for Ruffles crisps to Russell Wilson for Alaska Airlines.


It’s not worth advertising Viagra

Maybe it’s the channels I was watching – although I didn’t think re-runs of Friends and The Big Bang Theory seemed that dodgy – but there seem to be a hell of a lot of ads for prescription drugs on US TV. Luckily I’m not in the market for hair loss treatment or Viagra just yet (give it time), but if I was I think I’d be too terrified to buy any of these advertised products.

Most commercials went like this: three seconds of footage stating “got a problem with x? Then our product can help,” proceeded by 27 seconds of a voiceover explaining all the possible horrifying issues that the drug could cause. “Do not use if you’re allergic to wheat, dogs or dust. Do not use if you’re lactose intolerant. Do not use if you’ve once been to Paris. Avoid contact with humans for at least nine months after using the treatment. Possible side effects include headaches, liver failure, severe hiccups and death. If the treatment gives you an erection that lasts for more than 24 hours then please consult your doctor immediately.” I promise that last line was actually used. And will have ensured that no sane person will ever consider the advertised product. So why waste such prime-time advertising space?

Great brands can make bad ads too (and vice versa)

In the UK we all anticipate a John Lewis ad, an Ikea spot or a Virgin Atlantic campaign. They’re bastions of the British advertising industry – everything they produce is considered, meticulously crafted and powerfully executed. That’s the same with US stalwarts, right? Obviously not. For every one brilliant Skittles execution I saw a sloppy and lazy Skittles spot. For every fantastic Old Spice commercial there was a drab, uninspired Old Spice execution waiting on the next ad break. And for every powerful Chevvy ad there was a cheesy price-led spot that made it very easy to lose faith in the consistency and quality of the brand.

People say it’s never great to put all your eggs in one basket, and I realise that the US is a large and diverse country that requires a different marketing strategy to brands in the UK, but does it really have to come at a cost to the quality of the overarching brand? (Incidentally, one ad that appeared a lot over there was this spot for GE. I still can’t work out whether it’s utter brilliance or utterly pointless. Any thoughts?)

If you like it, then you stick your name on it

A real bugbear, this one. At Engine, our sponsorship agency Synergy spends an awful lot of time reiterating that a sponsorship deal can and should involve so much more than just sticking a name on something. Yet this was the case in abundance over in the US. Of course, some brands across the pond do sponsorship very well indeed – and maybe I’ll get to that in another blog sometime soon – but the abundance of brand partnerships means often you’d have sponsors simply settling for a name check. One TV show was “sponsored in part” by so many brands that I lost count, even though I was genuinely trying to note each one down for this piece.

I’m all for innovative brand partnerships, and often some of the best can prove to be the most effective ways to market a brand, but what do Verizon, Papa John’s or another such brand get out of getting a quick logo in the corner as “the official sponsor of the 8th replay of the 3rd innings of Fox’s 2nd college baseball match?” (That may not be a real sponsorship deal, but it might as well have been).

If you can’t come up with anything new just show your old stuff

That title may be a little unnecessarily demeaning, as I actually quite enjoyed this forthcoming ad. But it seems to be a trend over the past few months for brands and agencies to go all self-referential, to write ads about ads. Maybe if your brand doesn’t have any clear point of difference, then this is the best way to go. And I’ll admit that this Miller ad raised a smile, in the same way that Droga5’s Newcastle Brown Ale Super Bowl campaign raised a laugh when it was released earlier this year.

But are these campaigns for the consumers, or for the rest of the ad industry? You can get away with it once but I worry a little if every beer brand around is doing the same thing. How long before Budweiser launch an ad stating: “Hey guys, remember us? Whassssssssuuuuuppp!?”

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About Matt Williams

Matt Williams
Matt Williams is head of content at Partners Andrews Aldridge.