On The Crest Of The Wave

Sniffer” is humiliated when he’s caught smelling a co-worker’s hamburger wrapper. “New Guy” gets pelted with a burger on the side of his head. These characters aren’t from a new prime-time sitcom. They’re the “Lunch Break” gang—a group of twentysomething office workers who weather 30-second dramas in a series of Burger King spots by Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

To dovetail its first work for the chain with the series finales of Friends and Frasier, the Miami agency created a spot in which the “Lunch Break” characters remind viewers that, in a season of fond farewells, BK’s gang was sticking around. “We pretended like, why can’t these spots be viewed as a small sitcom?” says Andrew Keller, creative director at CP+B. “It was kind of making fun of us and other people.”

By tying into those two series finales and generally looking to capitalize on the hip status of sitcoms like The Office, the BK work is hardly unusual. Much advertising aims to harness and exploit pop culture’s latest fads, trends and shared experiences. But how successful is such a strategy? In an environment where what’s hot has a life cycle of hours, even minutes, can chasing fickle consumer tastes be a futile exercise?

“I don’t think you can catch fads,” says Sam Hill, president of Helios Consulting Group in New York and author of 60 Trends in 60 Minutes. Hill says agency trendspotters are having an increasingly difficult time determining what will be here today and gone tomorrow and what has real staying power.

Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations in New York and author of Trendspotting: Think Forward, Get Ahead and Cash In on the Future, says advertising relies on cultural trends too often. “A lot of times, people glom onto a fad because they know it’s easy to do and it’s a way to hold on to a job,” Laermer says. “They say, ‘Let’s do it now while the trend is hot, because at least we know it will get some traction.’ I think it’s kind of cheap.”

On the other hand, considering its ephemeral nature, advertising might be the perfect venue for tapping into—even creating—fads and trends. “That’s kind of inherent in advertising. We’re a very fleeting industry,” says Joe Johnson, creative director at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. Johnson last year tapped into the buzz surrounding Viagra with a humorous ad for Miller Lite that showed a man walking around an office as people noticed how virile he looks. “Did you talk to your …” a woman asks, as if she is going to say “doctor.” “Bartender,” he says, explaining that he has switched to Miller Lite. “That commercial ran for six weeks, maybe, then it’s off and you’re on to the next thing,” Johnson says.

It’s best to exercise restraint, Johnson advises, and not tie an entire branding effort to a single cultural happening. (The Viagra spoof was a one-off.) “It’s a really good tool in your arsenal, but it shouldn’t be the only one,” Johnson says.

These days, mass media and the Internet can pump fads through a life span of hours, rather than weeks or months, says Trendwatching.com’s founder Reinier Evers. That dynamic can give a trend a meteoric rise—and a dramatic fall. Take, for example, Ugg boots. Introduced in 1978, they enjoyed gradual, steady popularity among surfers and other consumers in California. Then last fall, they exploded in popularity, becoming a fashion must-have in places like New York seemingly overnight, and then, just as quickly, losing all appeal—even a fashion faux pas—through oversaturation. “The real problem with Uggs was US Weekly,” says Schuyler Brown, director of trendspotting for Euro RSCG in New York. “One photograph of Kate Hudson in those things and then every girl in America needs to have a pair. And then it’s a frenzy.”

Creatives must deal with such transitory phenomena gingerly. “The trick is to tell the difference between something that’s going to last for two months or six months,” says Gareth Kay, director of planning for Modernista! in Boston, which used musicians such as Rufus Wainwright, who were “bubbling up through the mainstream,” in a series of Gap spots a few years ago. If you fail to distinguish short- from longer-term trends, Kay says, “you end up with brands that appear schizophrenic.”

Still, many feel it’s a worthwhile gamble. “You have to be a little more diligent about which trend will last, but the rewards are so great, it’s worth the effort,” says Miles Turpin, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi in Torrance, Calif.

Saatchi created an ad last month for the Toyota Corolla that spoofs car-focused reality shows like Pimp My Ride. The ad shows a woman with an old automobile begging the camera for a car makeover; she ends up with a brand-new Corolla. The creatives considered story lines focusing on knitting and crocheting, and also discussed using William Hung, the infamously bad American Idol singer. But they weren’t convinced that hipster knitting and Hung’s underdog appeal would last. Shows like Pimp My Ride and Monster Garage, on the other hand, were sustaining their cachet. “We want to make sure the trend lives at least as long as the media buy,” Turpin says.

Tracking trends’ longevity isn’t just guesswork. It has become a quickly evolving science. Once upon a time, agency trendwatchers might have run phone surveys or conducted basic research. These days, everyone can check the pulse of the newest trend simultaneously, thanks to the Internet, a more global marketplace and easy access to even the most remote analysts. “It’s harder as a profession, because everyone has access to everything,” says Euro RSCG’s Brown.

To get an edge, agencies go to elaborate lengths to explore lifestyles and the trends they produce. As an example, take the world of colleges. To understand that world, says Tom Julian, a trend analyst at Fallon in New York, talking to Gen Y experts isn’t enough. “We have to go from Tucson to Los Angeles to Vegas to Pittsburgh and live in student unions vicariously, spend time in retail settings and then tap into academia,” Julian says.

Such research also helps agency sell trend-based ideas through to clients. Last year, Euro RSCG hit upon the burgeoning popularity of the musical group OutKast—specifically, the song “Hey Ya!”—through an “in-depth cultural audit,” one of the agency’s trendspotting products that involves a 10-step process employing cultural influencers, global talent scouts and other means to identify hot trends long before they reach critical mass.

“At the beginning of October, the ‘Hey Ya!’ video was online, but hadn’t been broadcast, and the album wasn’t out yet,” says Brown. A line in the song urges the object of the singer’s desire to “shake it like a Polaroid picture”—a perfect plug for Polaroid, a Euro client that was looking to refresh its brand and keep itself visible with the younger, hipper set until the upcoming launch of its new product line. “They needed an injection of pop-culture energy,” Brown says. Euro got OutKast to use Polaroids onstage during MTV’s and VH1’s award shows, and got the cameras placed in front-row seats during the Grammy Awards in 2004.

Telling Polaroid that Outkast would be a huge hit with a hip demographic was “a gamble,” Brown admits. “But this is where trendspotting comes in handy.” Brown knew that the band, from Atlanta, played well into the recent popularity of southern rap and that its underground following among both hip-hop and alternative-music audiences indicated real crossover potential. (OutKast went on to sell more than 3 million copies of its Speakerboxxx/The Love Below album, which features the song.)

Change itself has become something of a trend. Coca-Cola introduced a new drink last year called Sprite ReMix, with the idea that the brand name would stay the same but the flavor would change every 12 months. (This summer, it switched from Tropical to Berryclear.) “We developed ReMix to keep variety seekers of our brand in our franchise and to play off this trend we see in society about always changing and always looking for what’s next and hot,” says John Carroll, group director for Sprite at Coca-Cola in Atlanta.

Focus-group participants were believers. “They liked it because they’re used to that with music, fashion and style. It creates a lot of buzz and chatter for the brand,” Carroll says.

Ogilvy & Mather in New York expanded on the remix idea, partnering with record executives to produce remixed music on vinyl records for DJs, creating a Web site with hip-hop trivia and an online game. Tropical was launched with a spot showing a DJ playing James Brown’s “Make It Funky,” as remixed by Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes, with quick shots of people who “rewrote the rules,” such as Muhammad Ali and P. Diddy, and the tagline, “Remix the rules. Remix the flavor.” Berryclear was launched at South Padre Island, Texas, during spring break this year, with concert tie-ins and sampling opportunities. One radio spot features an original hip-hop song remixed by different DJs.

CP+B’s Keller says it’s best to think of advertising as just as fleeting as the trends it uses. For BK, he says, “we have our main platform, which is, ‘Have it your way,’ but within that we realized that advertising is disposable. It’s a trucker hat, an Atkins diet. The faster we react to fads, the faster they’ll go away. As marketers, we can take advantage of that. But the risks are that your brand becomes schizophrenic and doesn’t benefit from the cumulative effect of multiple advertisements.”

Perhaps that’s why CP+B’s BK spot spoofing the Janet Jackson Super Bowl fiasco (it shows a man wearing the same nipple ring) ran only once. And even that may have come too late—weeks after the hooplah had faded. “We weren’t as fast as we could have been,” Keller admits. Still, he says, the speed with which the commercial was produced—five days from shoot to airing—speaks to the reaction time of today’s campaigns.

Similarly, in June, Fallon in New York put together a campaign for Virgin Mobile to air on the MTV Movie Awards that played off the network’s overcautious approach to the event. After what happened during the Super Bowl halftime show, which MTV helped produce, the network taped and edited the movie awards instead of airing them live. In about a week, Fallon put together ads that showed pictures of bunnies and toys with copy describing risqué scenes the ads would have shown were it not for the sensitivity factor.

While David Perry, director of production at Saatchi & Saatchi, notes that total production time has gotten longer as layers of bureaucracy have grown, it is possible to sometimes bypass time-consuming testing. “If you want to take advantage of an incident on the Super Bowl, you can say, ‘Everybody get out of the way. We have to do this by Friday,’ and the normal processes are skipped,” he says.

Of course, agencies can bypass trend-chasing altogether if they create the trends themselves. CP+B tried that with the “Subservient Chicken” Web site for Burger King, which allowed visitors to type in commands and watch a man dressed in a chicken costume obey them. “Subservient Chicken represents a new idea every five seconds,” Keller says. Even if one group of consumers tires of the chicken, another is waiting in the wings—regionally, nationally, internationally—to discover it, Keller adds. “It’s about how to give a brand a sustained life in a world that turns over constantly.”

But tread carefully, warns Fallon creative director Ari Merkin. “It’s a small window,” he says. “If you miss your opportunity, your brand can look a bit silly. It’s sort of like sending a belated birthday card.”