How to push the creative boat without sinking it: lessons from McDonald's, PepsiCo and Heineken

McDonald's Filet o fish ad / McDonald's

It is pretty obvious that marketers are gradually waking up to the power of emotive advertising. In the 1990s, an average ad on UK TV would probably be trying to persuade us into buying with claims and demos. Today, more ads are arguably trying to get us to open our wallets by connecting with us emotionally with stories that give human drama a lot more prominence.

It has now been conclusively proven that, if done right, emotive advertising can be a source of true competitive advantage. Effective emotive ads generate a lot more memories than their rational peers, and in the world of consumer behaviour, more branded memories equal more sales.

However, getting emotive advertising right is still hard. Mostly because the majority of client-side marketers are new to the genre and have not had a chance to codify best practice that produces effective creative predictably and consistently.

The price that we pay for getting emotive advertising wrong is a lot higher as well. While typical claims-ridden functional ads may not be very effective, they usually flop in silence because they rarely invite a high degree of creative risk. Yet, in order to make an emotive ad effective impact, one has to push the boat on creative – especially when brands choose to look for relevance by exploring pressing social issues. Hence, when these projects sink, they tend to generate national headlines.

Such was the case with PepsiCo and its ill-fated Kendall Jenner ad from the US and with the recent Worlds Apart ad from Heineken, albeit the backlash came primarily from professional media. And so is the case with a recent McDonald’s ad that has just been pulled from the British TV, less than a week after the original on-air date.

Produced by Leo Burnett London, the film tells a story of a teenager who, while grieving for the loss of his father, discovers that the only thing that they had in common was the love for McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich. The ad generated an immediate push-back from the media and general public who saw the ad as an attempt from the restaurant chain to sell more burgers by exploiting childhood grief. It also prompted McDonald’s to issue a public apology and commit to review their creative process.

Witnessing such creative failures can easily lead to a conclusion that brands should draw a line when trying to connect with the audience emotionally. Some marketers will probably choose to stay away from exploring social issues in advertising while others may decide “play it safe” from now own and axe emotive narratives all together.

Both conclusions would be wrong.

All three ads – PepsiCo’s, Heineken’s and McDonald’s – suffer from issues of pure execution, which mostly relate to how the stories were constructed and what part brands played in them. These issues could have been addressed early in the advertising development process while the original ad ideas could have still pushed the creative boat without sinking it.

Using McDonald’s ad as an example, let us first address the question of whether brands have license to find relevance in social issues.

How would you feel if a national retail chain ran a Christmas ad whose theme was loneliness in old age? Would you see this as an attempt to exploit old-age misery to sell more stuff? Would you be offended?

But what if the retail chain in question was John Lewis, and the ad was “Man on the moon”?

The reason why you probably would not find John Lewis’ ad offensive has to do with execution: the end-frame of the Man on the Moon ad raised money for Age UK, a charity that provides lonely old people with much desired and deserved company. John Lewis also produced a range of charity products with 25% of the selling price being donated to Age UK.

Hence, brands do have a license to find relevance in social issues in advertising. But to do so with credibility and sensitivity, the ads have to serve as a genuine effort to raise awareness of the social themes. It would also be wise for brands to find a way to help the cause practically. By this token, McDonald’s could have framed their creative as raising awareness of childhood grief and made a donation to Grief Encounter – which they should probably do anyway.

The second executional issue with McDonald’s ad has to do with the story arc. Any credible advertising research house (i.e. System 1) would tell you that emotive ads only work when they leave the audience happier than they found them. In doing so, they can take viewers on a continuous emotional climb or on an emotional roller-coaster ride, but in any case, the final stop should be considerably higher than the entry point.

McDonald’s ad violates this rule because it opens on an emotional low (we realize that the boy’s dad is dead) and then takes us further down during most of the story (we gradually realize that the boy has nothing in common with his dad). The ad attempts to bring us up at the very end (we discover that the boy and his dad both liked Filet-o-Fish), but it is way too late. We are left feeling resolutely sad for the main character.

The final executional issue with the McDonald’s ad is the integration of the brand into the story. Most marketers instinctively guide agencies to give brands a more prominent if not catalytic or even transformational role in the narrative. This is usually done out of fear that the ad will have poor brand attribution and will, effectively, advertise air.

While this concern is often warranted, it can sometimes lead to stories that are not believable and are emotionally rejected. This is especially true in cases where the link between the brand and the main theme of the story is not immediately apparent and has to be somewhat assumed or invented via a creative license. In these situations, marketers have to accept a more subtle and parallel integration of the brand with the main story line while ensuring that all distinctive brand assets are present and prominent.

In McDonald’s ad, the story attempts to suggest that a fish sandwich is THE only thing that a father and a son had in common. The disbelief and rejection of such a suggestion is enough evoke a set of negative emotions in the audience and render the whole ad as repulsive.

If all three issues mentioned above were spotted somewhere between the ad idea and script stage, the “dead dad” ad could have been re-written and made into a generator of positive emotions, memories and sales (not to mention favourable headlines).

The story could have opened with a similar sequence establishing that the boy’s dad had died, and the boy did not really know him. Then, a series of discoveries made over a few weeks or months - facilitated by the boy’s mum - could have illustrated that the son and the father had a lot more in common than, perhaps, the son had ever imagined. The end sequence could have still brought the mum and the son to McDonald’s and suggested, in a subtler way, that both the boy and his dad ALSO happened to share love of a good burger and fries. The final frame might have served as a fund-raiser for Grief Encounter (or some other charity that deals with childhood grief), and the link could have been further reinforced by a commitment from McDonald’s to donate a certain percentage of sales in May-June 2017 to relevant charities.

Hopefully, this example demonstrates that with a few simple changes to the story line, an ad that explores a pressing social issue could be transformed from a creative disaster into a well-performing narrative. And while Pepsico’s and Heineken’s ads would need treatment in areas slightly different to McDonald’s, the overall framework and the approach would remain the same.

Mastering the nuances of making great emotive advertising is not entirely straightforward. Some knowledge of basic neuroscience and single-source research on ad effectiveness will go a long way, and paying close attention to what worked or did not work for other brands in the industry will provide a few useful shortcuts. But the most important element of the journey is the organisational commitment to take creative risks and the willingness to absorb some external punishment if the boat sinks on occasion. Because the end-goal is definitely worth it.

Evgeny Bik is a an FMCG marketer and innovator.

Connect with him on LinkedIn

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