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For Marketers, Sentimentality Trumps Slapstick

From Ram to Subaru

Photo: Chrysler

Tugging at the heartstrings: an eternal tactic of marketers of everything from coffee and peanut butter to long-distance phone services and those charities for abused and neglected animals.

But a pickup truck?

A tender spot for the tough Ram, “Farmer” turned out to be one of the most popular ads in all of Super Bowl XLVII—though flashy it wasn’t. The creative, via The Richards Group, was a simple, two-minute slideshow featuring dramatic stills of American farmers set to the thunderous intonation of the late radio personality Paul Harvey. At the end, the screen fades to black before we’re shown the truck’s logo and the tagline, “Guts. Glory. Ram.” No music, no humor, no action—just good old-fashioned sentimentality.

Again, it’s a strategy that’s as old as advertising itself, and one lately employed to great success by marketers as diverse as Subaru (a dad reluctantly puts his little girl on the bus on her first day of school), TD Ameritrade (everyday people live out their dreams not having to worry about their retirement), the Anti-Defamation League (which, to the soundtrack of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” envisions what the world would have been like had Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Anne Frank and Harvey Milk not been taken away from us) and Southwest Airlines (whose earnest, inspiring new spots stand in stark contrast to the carrier’s usual fun-loving brand persona).

Brands that once turned to yuks to sell product are in many cases focusing on inspiring consumers, relating to them on an emotional level and vying for their affections. And as with any good love story, authenticity and honesty are among the most prized traits.

Much has been written about what’s driving such brands’ embrace of sentimentality now. The Great Recession? Consumers grown weary of financial instability, terrorism, ineffectual governance and the plight of the bees? The desire, in a wireless, social media-centric world, to form real connections over fleeting, superficial ones? Not that it means brands are done with laughs—consider the buzziest ad of the moment, Kmart’s sidesplitting “Ship My Pants,” viewed more than 10 million times since being posted on YouTube April 10.

Still, marketers—again, often those not exactly known for their earnestness—are trying it on for size, as consumers signal they’re very much drawn to ads that reflect realism and relatability but thankfully are free of schmaltz.

Take the Southwest campaign, TBWAChiatDay’s first brand-image work since winning the assignment last year. The first in a series of spots that broke last month not only feels uncharacteristically “big” for an airline that has always emphasized personality and playfulness, but it is also as down-to-earth a positioning as the carrier has ever embraced.

In the spot, that bigness comes in the form of a series of trailing shots of a pilot, a basketball player, a ballerina and a corporate executive, each about to enter his or her given “arena”—be it a court, dance floor or boardroom. But just as you think, “Oh man, here comes another over-the-top paean to an industry rife with problems,” the imagery softens to include a surfer, a farmer and a baby taking his first steps. The music also lightens the message, with the singsong chorus of band fun.’s “Some Nights” driving the action.

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