Stuart Elliott:  Oscar Ads Offer a Glimpse at the Shape of Advertising

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives
Cover image for  article: Stuart Elliott:  Oscar Ads Offer a Glimpse at the Shape of Advertising

A month-long trifecta of advertising came to a close Sunday when the 90th Academy Awards were bestowed -- and Madison Avenue may have saved the best for last.  The binge of high-profile commercials started with Super Bowl LII, continued with the 23rd Winter Olympic Games and concluded with ABC's Oscars broadcast.  All told, during those 30 days Americans were exposed to an estimated $1.5 billion worth of pitches, and for my money the Academy Awards ads were, on the whole, superior.

It's a long-established idea that such TV big events are desirable showcases for marketers because they're live, making it less likely that viewers will zap or zip through their spots.  There are other potential benefits, too, among them "brought to you by" billboards, integrations, placements and commercials in real time.

All that was on display during the Academy Awards, along with a roster of blue-chip brands, many of them debuting commercials the way they do during Super Bowls and the Olympics.  The goal was to impress the Oscars audience, which tends to skew educated, affluent and female.  It's no coincidence, then, that in the wake of multiple social movements resonating with that demographic -- #MeToo, #TimesUp, #NeverAgain -- the spots during the show were focused on diversity, inclusion, social progress, feminism and change.

Thankfully, we were spared any ads for that silly "Jane Walker Black" initiative from Diageo, which smacks of tokenism; my Facebook friends are having a field day with it, suggesting other makeovers like Jacqueline Daniels, Faye Goose, Captain Morgan Fairchild and Rosie Cuervo.  Oddly, also missing from the broadcast were any ads for beauty and cosmetics brands such as Olay or Revlon, Oscar mainstays for decades.  Did they believe they'd be criticized for lookism?

That actually may have been prudent given the backlash to a commercial introduced during the show by Twitter that sought to celebrate female empowerment.  The spot, with the theme "#HereWeAre: Standing With Women Around the World," was roundly condemned as too little, too late from a social platform that has struggled to protect women from trolls and other harassers.

Another problem: many people who watched the Twitter commercial thought it was from Unilever's Dove brand, which is known for advocating for women's issues.  I, too, was among the confused; the spot ends with an image of Twitter's bird logo, which bears a resemblance to Dove's dove.

Thankfully, the Twitter commercial was an exception.  Other advertisers made their points with a lighter, less preachy hand:

Nike, with a powerful ad, themed "Until we all win," which showcases Serena Williams declaring that "there's no wrong way to be a woman."

Samsung, with a bouncy spot for the Galaxy S9 that features stars of Hollywood and YouTube encouraging Generation Z to "Make it yours."

Walmart, with a trio of clever commercials directed by three women with marquee names: Melissa McCarthy, Nancy Meyers and Dee Rees.

Cadillac, with a spot including more women than you'd expect in ads from that brand.

T-Mobile, with an anthemic, we're-all-in-this-together commercial themed "Are you with us?"

Nest, with a commercial about a young man receiving a pre-prom, respect-your-date talk from a surprising source.

There also were numerous commercials with diverse casting, narrators or announcers, such as a funny spot for McDonald's $1/$2/$3 menu with Chrissy Teigen; a teaser for the final season of House of Cards with Robin Wright as President of the United States; an upbeat commercial for AARP with a spiel delivered in rap-poetry style; product-centric "More for your thing" commercials for AT&T, narrated by Lena Waithe, the African-American actress and screenwriter; the Common commercial for Microsoft that previously had appeared during the Olympics and Super Bowl; and spots for the Google Assistant themed "Make Google do it," featuring John Legend, Kevin Durant and a moon-walking female astronaut.

To be fair, not every commercial was a winner.  The "meh" moments included spots for Bubly, a new PepsiCo sparkling water intended to compete against La Croix, and Verizon, with awkward pitchman Thomas Middleditch.  Some brands, in the What Were They Thinking Department, offered up their regular, run-of-the-mill commercials, including Discover Card, Geico and Zyrtec.

On the whole, though, the commercials were a bright spot during the long, draggy show, whose ratings may have suffered because casual viewers of the Oscars -- generally unfamiliar with the nominees and wary they would be lectured or scolded on social issues -- stayed away.

That may change next year, if Black Panther gets the Academy love that was denied this year to Wonder Woman.  Are there Nielsen meters in Wakanda?

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