Time to make the doughnuts.
Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.
Where, exactly, is the modern advertising catchphrase? Whither the beef?
Even without invoking a certain currently-on-hiatus show that romanticizes the glory days of ad agencies, you might have noticed that the catchphrase, while not quite extinct, has lost much of its resonance in recent years.
This is especially the case for the humorous one-liner wedged into the middle of a TV spot, as opposed to the more self-serious tagline, like “Just do it.” Rather, the most popular ads these days star recurring characters who tend to eschew idiosyncratic utterances. Even one of the best-known spokesmen around, Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” is probably less recognized for his kicker – “Stay thirsty, my friends” – than for the conceptual joke behind his persona.
A major reason behind the shift is the new way we watch TV. We’re no longer a televisual monoculture, glued to the same three or four channels each night and held hostage to their commercial breaks. Now we either skip over ads on DVRs, sort of watch them on Netflix and Hulu or the Internet while sort of checking Twitter on our phones or dispense with them altogether in favor of premium cable or pirated shows. With our diminishing attention spans, advertisers can’t always afford to wait 25 seconds to deliver the knockout punch of a chihuahua professing his love for Taco Bell.
In a previous era, a brand’s ad team could bank on 30 million plus viewers for “Seinfeld” during a specific half-hour on Thursday nights – and most likely seeing its product at one of several junctures. By contrast, the highest-rated contemporary sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory,” averaged around only 17 million “live and same day” viewers last season, adding about 4 million more over the next seven days via less interstitially attentive DVR viewing.
Instead, advertisers are adapting to the Internet, where, for instance, the first “Old Spice Man” commercial has racked up roughly 47 million views since 2010. Many of those were from people posting the ad on their own social media accounts.
One cultural analogy is the current hegemony of dramatic television series over films. We now prefer developing narratives, unfurled over years, to the onetime shot of a movie. Or, as Madeleine Di Gangi, a freelance ad copywriter in Brooklyn, said: “Characters and storylines are meant to appeal to people more than a phrase that just gets caught in your mind. Back when catchphrases were big, they were water cooler fodder – identifiers that you were in the know of the ad that everyone had seen.”
But now, Di Gangi added, the water cooler has been replaced by the Facebook wall (or whatever the kids are using instead). “The focus of ad agencies is to create shareable content that captures the imagination – and in that world, the catchphrase seems a little static,” she said. “Marketers seem so hyper-aware that people are onto them that I doubt they’d expect them to introduce branded lines willingly in their vernacular – unless they’re throwing them on some meme and laughing at it.”
“The thing that’s different now is we’re generally thinking across all platforms, versus just thinking of ‘what’s an awesome TV idea,’ ” said Laura Fegley, creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York. “There’s more of an emphasis on the idea and less on the specifics of the execution,” which means a diminution of catchphrases that would otherwise work only on TV. “If ‘wassup’ was just a digital activation idea, I don’t know if that would have gone anywhere,” she said.
“There are very few viewing occasions that are so mass, except the Super Bowl and I guess the Oscars, where we’re all watching the same thing and talking about it the next day,” Fegley said.
Does the fragmentation of media concern the advertising industry?
“We’re scared by a million things,” she said with a laugh.
They have reason to be. What the digitization of media translates into is a new generation of consumers who are increasingly unaware of brand slogans and catchphrases. “ ‘Wassup’ might be the only one I can think of,” said Cassandra Gillig, 20, a student at Rutgers, referring to the turn-of-the-millennium Budweiser campaign. “I’m kind of bad with this because I’m not too exposed to TV commercials. I haven’t seen one in a year or so.” Gillig said she prefers commercial-free shows on Netflix.
She isn’t alone. “A girl in my gender studies class brought up a Tide commercial that she found to be sexist,” she said, “and everyone in the class hadn’t seen it because it came out in the past year.”
What about something so ubiquitous as, again, the World’s Most Interesting Man? “My dad told me about it once,” she said. “He made a joke about it, and he had to explain the concept to me.”
While critical detachment or outright liberation from the yoke of capitalistic lingo may well be worth celebrating, we are losing something in the new-media landscape. The days of a movie title being inspired by a commercial catchphrase (2009’s bromantic comedy “I Love You, Man,” a callback to the mid-’90s Budweiser ads), or of a presidential candidate referring to a fast-food ad in a debate – Walter Mondale asking “Where’s the beef?” in 1984 – could be over.
We are supplanting the catchphrase with GIF, Photoshop and Vine. As Fegley said, “It’s been replaced by viral videos and the 8 million things we share every day.” The commercial catchphrase, meanwhile, has fallen, and it can’t get up.