Sochi

Brands stay serious with Sochi ads

February 7, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

In contrast to the beery humor of Super Bowl ads, Olympic advertisers go for the heart.

By Daniel Roberts, writer-reporter

FORTUNE -- Perhaps the most "Super Bowly" ad of this year's Super Bowl was a lengthy Bud Light spot that packed in celebrities like Don Cheadle and Arnold Schwarzenegger with the band One Republic, all part of an elaborate surprise night out for a non-celebrity Manhattan bro in his twenties.

That kind of ad, successful though it was, may no longer be the norm for Super Bowls in the future. In a year when the most popular ads were a tearjerker from Budweiser starring its age-old Clydesdale horses and a puppy, along with a Cheerios ad showing a breakfast-table exchange between father and daughter, slapstick ads like those from Doritos felt out of place and dated.

Still, over half of the ads that ran during the game were in some form humorous. From Stephen Colbert's head inside a pistachio to Tim Tebow rescuing dogs from a burning building, they wanted to make you laugh.

MORE: The branding wizards behind the Stephen Colbert Super Bowl ads

The vibe you'll get from this year's Olympics advertising couldn't be more different. "It has to do with the audience," says Ian Schafer, CEO of the agency Deep Focus. "Super Bowl ads try to appeal to the male id and do things filled with shock value, lots of humor. Olympics ads are pretty traditional. And they're definitively more female-oriented."

Procter & Gamble (PG) is following that recipe by appealing to mothers. Its "Pick Them Back Up" campaign, according to social video marketing company Unruly, is already the most shared Winter Games campaign of all time. (Of course, that's thanks to the ever-multiplying array of social media platforms and devices on which we watch video.) There's nothing very funny about the emotional ad -- which has had 14 million YouTube views -- in which mothers repeatedly pick up their children when they fall, helping them grow from babies to teens to Olympic athletes. P&G took the same tack two years ago at the London Olympics with "Best Job," a campaign about the hard work mothers do to raise an athlete. It worked then, too.

In fact, of the top 20 most shared Olympics ads so far, released in advance of the Games by brands like P&G, Visa (V), and Molson, not one is funny. Richard Kosinski, president of Unruly, which is tracking the most viral Sochi ads, says the emotion viewers seek during the Olympics is starkly different from the Super Bowl. Unruly examines two qualities that drive someone to share a video ad: The first is psychological response. "Americans love funny," says Kosinski. "If you look at the U.S. norm for the top psychological response, hilarity is one of the things that resonates best. But in Brazil, exhilaration is the top psychological response." Thus the ads, even those that run in the U.S., are responding to global tastes. The Olympics are a worldwide phenomenon treated with somber respect -- perhaps not the place for, say, a Heinz ketchup bottle making a fart noise. The second reason to share an ad is social motivation. Kosinski says the primary motivation these days is shared passion or zeitgeist: "The Olympics are a perfect example of zeitgeist, an event that is of our current time."

MORE: Big Olympics losers? Sochi residents

If a brand's spot doesn't reflect the zeitgeist, it has to hope people will share it for some other reason -- it's hilarious, or shocking, or controversial. It isn't enough anymore for a person to merely view a video; advertisers crave social media shares. Engagement, not clicks, is what counts. In that vein, J.C. Penney (JCP) attempted to get some play during the Super Bowl by sending out tweets laced with typos. ("Toughdown Seadawks! Is sSeattle going toa runaway wit h this???") Later in the game, the account revealed it had all been a planned stunt to promote its own Sochi product, Team USA gloves: "Sorry for the typos. We were #TweetingWithMittens." On Twitter, that met with a lot of laughs, but also a lot of jeers.

You might think having your brand mocked on social media doesn't matter -- that any press is good press -- but that may not always be the case. "Oh, I think it matters," says Schafer. "There are a couple of brands that advertise in the Super Bowl strictly to help their unaided awareness. So, the company that sells weather-liners for trucks [Weathertech]. But if you've already got name awareness, if you're already Chrysler, you're trying to cement yourself within somebody's consideration set. You're not going to get put in someone's consideration set if you're being talked about negatively." Indeed, Chrysler and Maserati, both owned by Fiat, went with serious ads focused on themes of patriotism and drive, and both felt flat. Chrysler's spot with Bob Dylan, in Schafer's analysis, "aimed to do something provocative but it blew up in their faces a little bit because of the melodrama." Maserati utilized 10-year-old actress Quvenzhane Wallis, much to the chagrin of media folks on Twitter: "Dylan selling cars, Prince on a sitcom, and the little girl from 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' in a Maserati ad. So ya, you're depressed," tweeted @davepell.

Those brief spurts of activity -- when a brand slips into the mainstream conversation for a few hours or even when it achieves the holy grail of becoming a trending topic -- aren't that valuable in the long run anyway. "Social media mentions are fleeting," Schafer says. "These are not necessarily meaningful interactions if they happen just once. Just because people are talking about you doesn't mean they're being pushed to make a purchase." It is far more productive when a brand spends all year cultivating a real personality with its social media account. Pulling one funny prank on Twitter during one popular live event won't move the needle in a lasting way. But advertisers like Oreo and Charmin have earned praise for being interesting or funny enough all year to get continual interactions from consumers.

MORE: Olympic sponsorship: Is it worth it?

Still, J.C. Penney succeeded in entering the collective conversation. Esurance did the same with its ad that aired just after the Super Bowl ended: Actor-spokesman John Krasinski, sitting in front of a giant cube of cash, told people to tweet the hashtag #Esurancesave30 for a shot at winning $1.5 million. Unlike J.C. Penney, their stunt had no twist or joke to it: They cut right to the chase and made a direct ploy to get people tweeting about them, and it worked.

Just one problem: When a hashtag explodes on Twitter the way #Esurancesave30 did, it attracts spammers, bots, and jokers. Click any super-popular hashtag and you'll find unrelated tweets that have hijacked it, from pay sites to spammers to regular people tweeting lewd, offensive things. In Esurance's case, the issue most detrimental to its brand was that scores of copycat accounts emerged that purported to be Esurance official accounts, but were not. (Visual hints: These do not have the "verified" check mark and in most cases had one extra letter in the handle or some other easy-to-miss indicator.) The unreliable tweets flying around associated with Esurance were not ideal for the brand.

What all of this means is that you shouldn't necessarily expect to see advertisers aping J.C. Penney's or Esurance's Super Bowl stunts during the Winter Games. In addition to the limited duration of buzz, and the dangers of spam, brands run the risk of alienating consumers during an event that the world takes very seriously. The winning brands at the Olympics will likely be the obvious ones: Those that have devoted big budgets to official ads, ads that look likely to be entirely serious and sentimental. Other brands will try to enter the conversation; few will succeed. "When you pay to get on there, you're going to be seen," says Schafer. "But when you tweet during one of these things, there is a ton of noise."

In the age of the melodramatic Olympics ad, and now, perhaps, the new age of the melodramatic Super Bowl ad, humor and spontaneity come at a cost. If a company looking to skip the expense of buying a TV ad tries to gain free brand buzz by way of a social media shortcut, it's going to have be extremely clever, funny, or edgy. And mean jokes about the venue or the athletes probably won't fly.

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