Creativity needs its muses. Many times, creatives turn to pop culture to help build their ideas, thus leading them to using a reference. As we all know, as satisfying as landing a reference is in conversation, a missed reference can yield tumultuous results. The same applies to advertising, yet I find myself agreeing with the rationale behind it. Using a relatable reference can help break through the clutter most people give contemptuous treatment to. Tying in a reference to an advertisement needs to be carefully planned. There are often two pitfalls many companies fall into.
First, a reference should never be highlighted more than the product.
One of the most hyped commercials coming into this year's Super Bowl was Honda's Ferris Bueller spot. Depending on how you feel about the spot, the social conversation Honda expected didn't match the promise it entered with. The reference was loud and clear. The problem is that the spot was dangerously close to being a Ferris Bueller commercial. In fact, a portion of the conversation it entered with was fueled by the misbelief that there was going to be a sequel.
The second mistake many commercials make is throwing in a really good reference just to throw it in. Throwing in a good connection helps break the communication barrier. For instance, the Will Arnet Hulu commercials do an excellent job at leveraging audience's interests. It is a risky business tying in a show that was canceled due to lack of popularity, Arrested Development. Still, Arrested Development has a die-hard cult following that still worships the short-lived show on Netflix. This connection to Arrested Development has the potential to be a powerful one. Hulu is making a statement: "We love this show too." They are sharing an inside joke with the audience. If landed, this serves a strategic "Like" to the audiences’ interests. The only issue with this reference is that it’s a double-edged sword. Much like in a conversation, any outsider to an inside joke is left in a very confused state. Hulu's spot may be praised by Arrested fans, but hiding an inside joke in a commercial is risking the connection with an outside audience. Look no further than its YouTube page results for proof; there's nearly a 50/50 split on likes.
The greatest reference is one that is seamless and consistent with your message. This FedEx spot is a few years old and features an extended version of the movie Cast Away with Tom Hanks. What really makes this a great example of adding a strategic reference is that the commercial can stand alone without it. Unlike Hulu, the punch line would still register with an audience that hasn't seen Cast Away. This was more of “gimme” because Tom Hanks played a FedEx worker in the move. Still, any spot that requires the audience to logically (and easily) place the brand into understanding the message has gotten through to the audience. Ferris could have been driving any car. A properly integrated message relates to the consumer. They feel in the loop. After all, advertising is a conversation, and according to Lee Clow, Global Director of TBWA, "Brand are very much like people."