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Deconstructionist Advertising: The World’s Most Interesting Ad Your Ad Could Smell Like. In the World.

As if I hadn’t already spent entirely too much time thinking about the Burger King king recently, I decided to see if he had his own Facebook page. Everybody is Facebooking and Twittering and being social these days, so I fully expected to find a King page. Shockingly, he doesn’t seem to have one. So I went to the Burger King Facebook page to see if maybe he was lurking there. But before that page would be my friend, it wanted to “authenticate” me by helping itself to my personal information. Now that’s not something I allow even when making real friends in the real world, but when I refused, the Burger King page told me that “something had gone wrong” and wouldn’t allow me to look. That left me wandering around Facebook feeling vaguely social but with no particular place to go and a half hour before I was due back in reality. And then I stumbled onto a page for the World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World.

The World’s Greatest Spokesperson in the World, in case you’ve missed him, is Bob Wiltfong, an actor playing the role of a fictional legendary spokesperson who has been hired to be the new spokesperson for Nationwide Insurance. Which makes him the actual spokesperson for Nationwide Insurance. While this sounds kind of “meta,” he’s one of a growing group of pseudospokespersons that includes Dos Equis’ The Most Interesting Man in the World and Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like. All this self-reflexiveness reminded me of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish–and not just because I was getting hungry.

The Pepperidge Farm Goldfish brand was a pioneer in something we call deconstructionist advertising, advertising that intentionally (and usually comically) attacks some key precept of advertising–for example by breaking the fourth wall and drawing attention to the fact that the commercial is actually a commercial and that everyone knows it, including the people in the ad. Today, brands are breaking the fourth wall all over the place, but Pepperidge Farm broke the wall and new ground over a decade ago with “the jingle singers,” who sang a jingle about singing a jingle about Goldfish snack crackers. Perhaps you remember their song, which noted to the accompaniment of happy-folksy pop music that Goldfish were “the wholesome snack that smiles back until you bite their heads off.”

This self-reflexive, deconstructionist, playing-with-the-medium approach has become more and more popular–probably because the best examples work like gangbusters at cutting through the clutter of the crowded advertising landscape. It’s easy to imagine that the deconstructionist approach works largely because it is funny or, going a little deeper, because it’s so absurd that it catches the audience off guard. But we think something else is going on. For decades, a lot of advertising has been built on a broad exaggeration of the importance of products in our lives and thoughts. We’ve been told that the right toothpaste could land us a girlfriend, that a can of body spray could get us laid or that real happiness could be had for the price of a (fill in the blank).

This approach is as patently inauthentic to our experience of real life as it is ubiquitous, so we’ve developed a kind of cultural immunity to it. All of the BS has become background noise into which the vast majority of brand communications simply vanish without anyone noticing. Which is why those first deconstructionist Goldfish ads were so refreshing. It wasn’t just that they were funny or unexpected but that they felt honest in a sea of exaggeration. In their own strange way, by being really honest and overt about exaggerating while trying to sell something, they recaptured a kind of authenticity that was missing from most advertising. Goldfish’s nail-on-the-head deconstructionist jingle singers, for all of their apparently crass and obvious salesmanship, captured a kind of optimistic innocence that jibed really well with the personality of the Goldfish brand itself.

The best of the new crop of deconstructionist campaigns continue to work in the same way, not because they are absurd for the sake of absurdity–that’s just the latest form that commercial exaggeration is taking–but because they speak to an audience starving for authenticity. Good deconstructionist ads play with the accepted conventions of how advertising works so that they can move past the inherent inauthenticity of the medium and say something true and sometimes even deep about who a brand is or what people will get out of a relationship with it.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery