Darkness in a television commercial is intriguing. I’m not talking about a lack of illumination as much as an ominous, negative or even creepy quality of tone, style or message. Think of Verizon’s 2009 Droid commercials. While the iPhone commercials of the same period were all about bright and happy empowerment, Droid advertising seemed to take its cues from Darth Vader.The best of the commercials could easily have been mistaken for trailers for science fiction-horror films. They looked like an alien invasion and sometimes featured people being forcibly converted into human-machine hybrids (here’s a link). Or think about the current “stalker” commercials for Virgin Mobile, in which a young lady stalks the object of her affections using her Virgin Mobile phone as her key tool. Of course, the king of dark and creepy ads would have to be the king himself, the Burger King king. I was just rewatching the launch spot. What an uncomfortable, dark ad! What a series of uncomfortable, dark ads it led to! The king has come under fire lately for failing to build the brand, but that campaign sure was a breath of fresh, black air when it debuted.
Is darkness in advertising anything more than a tactic for cutting through the clutter and amusing the audience by playing against their expectations? Can darkness actually grow the equity of a brand? For us, these are ultimately story questions. Great brand communications, like great stories, are only effective at connecting with people on an emotional level when they express some fundamental truth. With regard to Verizon, Virgin Mobile and Burger King, do the brands reveal some dark truth about themselves in order to make an authentic connection with their audience, or do they just try to obscure the truth that there is no deeper relationship by cloaking themselves in darkness?
While part of the effectiveness of the Droid commercials was clearly that their dark tone created a counter note to Apple’s domination of the category, there seemed to be more going on. The early Droid commercials captured a specific tension in our relationship with technology. We’re fascinated by and drawn to innovative technology while we’re simultaneously suspicious of it and fear it. That’s a big part of what made the Terminator movies tick. We want the power that advanced tools bring, but we recognize their potential to overwhelm, addict or even destroy us. Technology is power, and like power, it can be used for good or ill. Rather than shying away from this tension, Verizon jumped right into the thick of it and intentionally blurred the lines between man and machine. In contrast to the iPhone’s story of happy empowerment, the Droid campaign let Verizon express the attractiveness of raw power and dominance—in all of its dark glory. Because no other brand in the category was presenting its devices in this light and because of Verizon’s long-standing emphasis on power and dominance, we think that the Droid communications did more than cut through. We think the campaign actually built the brand by strengthening its emotional connection with the audience.
The Virgin Mobile stalker spots make for interesting contrast. While the most obvious point of the ads is to get across the message that Virgin Mobile is offering a “crazy” good deal, they are also expressing a tension that is front and center in the communications category at the moment: Technology is enabling ever-greater connection between people in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few short years ago, but this connection comes at the price of our privacy. We want the connection, but we are also overwhelmed by it and suspicious of what so much access might lead to. This is such a powerful meme in the category—and the world in general—that it ripples through almost every brand. Which actually robs the story of some of its potency for Virgin Mobile. It’s not that the story doesn’t express a resonant truth; it’s just that Virgin Mobile isn’t using the story to reveal anything distinct or ownable about itself. In other words, the story seems like a category story rather than a Virgin Mobile story, and consequently it seems less likely to build the brand for the long term.
I believe the Burger King campaign shared this problem. It’s not that the brand wasn’t expressing a dark truth with its ads. It was doing that in spades. It’s just that the truth was equally applicable to the entire fast-food category. What was the truth in the king ads? We have a dysfunctional love-hate relationship with fast food. The king’s first appearance in “Waking up with the King” captured it all. A guy wakes up in the morning to find he’s in bed with the king, a strange, mute, frozen-faced imitation of a person. The guy is a little put off, a little creeped out—as I imagine I might be—but he still can’t resist the fast food the king offers him. The two touch each other lovingly then feel awkward and repulsed, but—and this is important—they stay in bed together.
And that’s it. That’s most people’s relationship to fast food. Fast food is like a dysfunctional, codependent lover that we know we should be strong enough to leave but that we keep going back to because the relationship is easy and comfortable and feels good in the moment. This is truth, dark truth about the appeal of fast food. But the story creates two problems for Burger King: First, the story is not unique to Burger King. That “fatal-attraction” story captures our relationship to most fast food, so the advertising seems as likely to build sales at McDonald’s as at Burger King. The second problem is even worse. Unlike the dark power that Verizon promises to unleash with the Droid, the darkness that the king exposes is clearly weakness. The king is less about revealing the attractiveness of the dark side of fast food and more about indicting those who indulge in it and those who sell it. Yes, it’s funny and engaging in a creepy way, but it seems like a cautionary tale, meant to warn us off fast food rather than enticing us to try it.
After reading some recent interviews with Alex Bogusky, one of the chief architects of the king, who subsequently left advertising for a new gig saving the world, I think it’s possible that this was what the campaign was actually intended to convey—in which case, the Burger King king campaign would have to take the award for the all-time champion of truth in darkness.