Two weeks ago, snack brand Popchips suffered a major blow to its public image when it released an ad featuring Ashton Kutcher wearing brownface and speaking in a bad Indian accent.
Amid protests from some well-known South Asians like tech entrepreneur Anil Dash and rap group Das Racist's Himanshu Suri and Ashok Kondabolu, Popchips pulled the ads, and the company’s CEO, Keith Belling, apologized via the company's blog.
You could spend all day asking how anyone could be foolish enough to think a commercial in 2012 should portray minstrelsy of any kind, but the ad also raises a separate question: What is it exactly that modern commercials are trying to accomplish?
In one of the most memorable episodes of AMC’s Mad Men, ad man Don Draper tells Lucky Strike cigarette executives to go with the tagline "It's toasted" to describe their tobacco. "But everybody's tobacco is toasted," argues one of the executives. "No, everybody else's tobacco is poisonous," replies Draper. "Lucky Strikes'... is toasted."
Time was advertising required whole pages of magazines to explain something about a product, even if that thing wasn't necessarily unique or even true. Lucky Strike's tobacco was toasted. Van Camp's "Tenderoni" was "the one and only macaroni product made with egg white." Perma-lift's Magic Oval Panties "can't ride up—ever!"
Today, commercials are frequently similar to Popchips' Kutcher ad, which seemed less like a commercial for food and more like a bad comedy sketch. Corporations put a lot of time and money into researching best practices when it comes to advertising, so there's obviously a method to the brownface madness—but what is it?
"A long time ago, it was all about features and benefits," says Pippa Seichrist, president of the Miami Ad School, a private advertising university with satellite locations around the world. She says advertising used to be more straightforward because we didn't yet have millions of products to distinguish from one another.
"Consider a refrigerator," she says. "You used to have to explain to people what a refrigerator was, and what the benefits were. But then you started to have a lot of parity products, and those explanations stopped mattering."
"Parity products," for the uninformed, are brands with similar functions that compete for customers. Tide laundry detergent and Cheer laundry detergent are parity products, as are Ketel One vodka and Belvedere vodka. Seichrist says the problem of parity products is best summed up by a Japanese advertiser who said, "All products are the same, its just people's experience with them that's different."
With so many comparable commodities entering the market, Seichrist says advertising has become about entertaining consumers, not educating them, something to which anyone who's seen a Super Bowl ad can attest.
Gerard Tellis, a marketing professor at USC's Marshall School of Business, says those commercials are about more than just amusing people to get them to feel joy; they're about emotions in general.
"Evidence shows that emotions are more powerful than information," Tellis says. "In the '50s, '60s and maybe all the way into the ‘70s, ad firms were emphasizing information. But then, over time, researchers realized that human beings make decisions more on emotions and relationships than information."
Consider the Coors Light commercials that began in 2004 and highlighted little more than football hits and a scantily clad set of twins. Throughout the commercials, nobody says a thing about what makes Coors Light better than Budweiser—that's not the point. The point is to let you know that red-blooded American men are in Coors Light commercials, and, if you're a red-blooded American man or aspire to be one, then Coors Light should be your beer, too.
Beer isn’t the only product that relies on emotional appeals to consumers. All kinds of companies began doing it, from Tropicana ads that tied mother-daughter bonding to orange juice to Hummer spots that emphasized the SUV's ability to intimidate other drivers. Quantitative research supports these methods. In their 2009 book Brand Immortality, Hamish Pringle and Peter Field found that ad campaigns with purely emotional content performed nearly twice as well as campaigns with only rational content. Ads that contained only emotional content also performed 5 percent better than those that mixed rational and emotional.
In other words, people buy your stuff if you make them believe it will give them a better relationship with their dad or feel popular and strong. They don't buy your stuff if you tell them why that stuff is good for them.
Just as advertising once evolved from information to emotion, today the industry is evolving once again, from emotion to engagement.
"We live in an attention economy. Our attention is the most valuable thing that exists," says Matt Jarvis, chief strategy officer of 72andSunny, a design and advertising firm in Los Angeles. Jarvis's company works with brands like Nike and Carl's Jr. to get people's attention, a goal it often achieves. The Benetton ads depicting President Obama mouth-kissing Hugo Chavez everyone was talking about last year? That was 72andSunny.
"Every day there are new products and forms of media, but our time isn’t growing," Jarvis says. "Getting people’s attention and getting them engaged is such a paramount deliverable for any piece of marketing nowadays."
Getting consumers to engage with brands not only requires their attention, but also interaction with the brand and a willingness to spread it amongst their friends. In an era when people are increasingly skeptical of corporations—Jarvis likes to say people's decisions are "more considered" now—companies attempt to blur the line between themselves and the buddies you talk to every day. The end result is people liking Wendy's on Facebook, or having a conversation with ESPN via the station's Twitter account.
"Companies used to talk at you," says Seichrist. "Now they want to talk with you, or even just listen to you do the talking."
Though he won't say whether he thinks Popchips's Kutcher campaign was successful or not, Jarvis posits that the intentionally goofy—and unintentionally racist—campaign was designed with engagement in mind.
"During the Mad Men time in advertising, there were three networks and nobody had a remote control. You had a very captive audience," he says. "Today, we’re making communications for people who can ignore us so easily.”
Zambezi, the ad agency responsible for the Popchips commercials, didn't respond to a request for comment. But their Popchips ads weren't the first racist ones, nor will they be the last. You and your social networks are the new coveted advertising vessel, and in order for brands to profit from the word-of-mouth you create, they need to get you talking about their wares in the first place.
What better way to get people talking than controversy? I've discussed Popchips more in the past two weeks than I did in my whole life prior, and I only saw the commercial once, for less than a minute. What I’ve said has been mostly bad, of course, but if the goal for brands anymore is to get people talking and thinking about your product, Popchips won this round.
When I ask Tellis if it’s true that all publicity is good publicity, he says no, adding, “But most publicity is good publicity.” Consider that every time an ad pisses you off: Behind the conference room doors of an advertising agency somewhere, it’s possible a creative is feeling very satisfied with his work.