Your Super Bowl Commercial Isn’t Funny. Now What?
Why Comedy Is The Most Effective Way to Advertise
You’re sitting in front of a TV as big as a drive-in screen. It’s the Super Bowl party from last year. You’re flanked by a few close friends, a bounty of snacks and the advertising know-it-all who critiques every commercial. We all know that person, someone who cackles on about camera lenses, cares whether the talking baby was a special effect and refers to the narrator by his first name. Then, the Squarespace commercial finishes and everyone in the room looks around like, what just happened?
For the last three years, Squarespace Super Bowl commercials have been savaged in the USA TODAY ad meter, ranking among the worst. Below are the spots from 2014 to 2016, if you dare watch.
It’s time to ring up your know-it-all friend from last year's Super Bowl party, because this week’s homework assignment is to create a better Squarespace commercial for Super Bowl LI.
Let’s start by reverse engineering an iconic Super Bowl spot from 2011, “The Force” by Deutsch L.A.
The issue with most Super Bowl commercials is that audiences remember the joke, but not the brand. So, when people on the web started referring to the Volkswagen commercial as the “Little Darth Vader” spot, there could have been a problem. However, in this case, the ad transcended popular culture and became the most shared Super Bowl commercial in history. It’s pretty safe to say everyone saw it enough to remember the name Volkswagen. And here’s why…
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The set-up with the kid in the Darth Vader costume, played by Max Page, was excellent. It told us the commercial is set in the real world, where the child has no actual mystical powers. Using the “Imperial March” (Darth Vader’s theme song) reinforced the character’s intent to be like Darth Vader. Clearly understanding the character’s intent is important to making the punch line pay off.
The ending could have gone many directions. Darth Vader could actually be his father, for instance. The way Deutsch decided to end it was perfect. Volkswagen wasn’t trying to sell the key fob starting feature. What they were really selling was a fun moment between father and son. It’s an example of values marketing. In values marketing, the advertiser is trying to say that they understand what the consumer values in life. Volkswagen is saying that they’re just like you (the consumer). They get you. The final title card says the Volkswagen Passat is priced at $20,000, a good price for a young family, just like the one featured in the commercial.
In a great commercial we need to enjoy the set-up as well as the punch line, so the agency shot many different scenarios for the set-up and picked only the ones that worked well. All of them had funny little moments to help us enjoy the ride. The set-up signaled that there wasn’t going to be a big belly laugh at the end, just a little smile. When the car turns over, we clearly see how this impacts Little Darth and how the moment impacts the parents. Restarting the muscular opening bars of the “Imperial March” after the car starts is inspired. Structurally, this is textbook joke telling.
With all of that in our back pocket, let’s figure out what might be a better direction for your Squarespace Super Bowl commercial. First, we’ll assume that they’re marketing to small-business owners. Next, here are a few entry points I like to use to spark ideas. Give them a try.
Know your customers’ frustrations. Explore their pain. Mine it for humor.
Write a script about a small-business owner who is literally the busiest person in the world, or a small-business owner whose rival is literally the luckiest person in the world.
Ruminate on the fact that people are fallible. Write with a greater expectation of the world and then show off the imperfections.
Write a script about a small-business owner’s team that is incapable of doing even the smallest tasks right, or that physically uses wads of cash to solve every problem.
To paraphrase Louis CK, comedy is talking about the reality of a situation that no one else is willing to talk about. My suggestion is to camp there for a while.
Write a script that cross-cuts between two story lines: a small-business owner’s unbridled joy from firing the company web designer (his wife’s brother), and tactfully breaking the news to his wife.
Obsessions are sad. Blind obsessions are funny. A dramatic character will stop and weigh danger, while a comedic character will blindly jump right in.
Write a script about a cocksure team of Russian hackers obsessed with breaking into the new unhackable DNC website.
Who is the person (or thing) that will have the biggest problem with Squarespace’s success? For example, the long-running (now defunct) campaign for Chick-fil-A with cows encouraging people to eat more chicken.
Write a script about the exploding population of unemployed web designers from the perspective of the panhandlers and hobos that they’re crowding out on every street corner.
Play against celebrity personas.
Write a script about Donald Trump creating his own personal portfolio web page after winning the election.
And finally, your assignment is to write ten scripts better than last year’s Squarespace commercial.
UPDATE: Squarespace has posted its Super Bowl 51 commercial ahead of the game and it's a vast improvement! They've done the work for us, so pencils down. And enjoy!
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
Want more tips on writing humorous commercials? Read, "29 Simple Comedic Devices That Make Advertising Irresistible."