The kids, excited to see Despicable Me 2, were a typical rowdy, loud bunch, even as the lights went down in the theater. But then the strains of poignant piano music filled the auditorium as a man struggled to free-climb a mighty fir, dwarfed by its size in the mist-shrouded vastness of a pristine forest. The kids were instantly mesmerized. An earnest female narrator informed us that, “Man is a determined creature…no matter the circumstance, opposition, or even understanding…” As she said these words, an infant on the screen watched with naïve curiosity as a handful of black sand drifted through his pale fingers. My own seven-year-old daughter, sitting beside me in the darkness, took her hand from the popcorn and reached for mine. As her buttery fingers clenched my own, it was clear that the gorgeous images and stirring words were getting to her. An astronaut drifted through space, framed against the otherworldly beauty of a majestic nebula, the pupil of his eye contracting in wonder as the announcer noted that man has an inherent calling to seek, improve and transcend. The whole audience was silent now, captivated. What were we watching? Was this a trailer for an upcoming film? Was it some kind of public service announcement? For what?
And then the reveal came, and my seven-year-old exploded in laughter, thunderingly loud in the hushed theater.
“It’s a car commercial?!!” she giggled in an echoing stage whisper. And it was. It was a car commercial for–hang on. I have to check again–oh yeah, for the new (wait, I mean the extremely new) 2014 MDX SUV from Acura. Here’s the spot. It’s called “Made for Mankind.”
“That’s hilarious, Daddy!” my daughter told me, letting loose my fingers to go for more popcorn. “I thought it was for something important!”
This is a perfect example of what happens when a brand tries to create an emotional connection through the use of story without understanding (or perhaps without caring) how story really works. It seems like everyone is desperate to create memorable content these days, desperate to grab hold of the power of story to lend extra impact and authenticity to their brands. But story is all about meaning–that’s where the emotional impact comes from–and if you’re willing to totally sell out the meaning in order to gratuitously connect it to your commercial message, then the emotional response you’re most likely to generate will be outraged laughter.
The kids really enjoyed Despicable Me 2. On the car ride back to our neighborhood, as they were trading favorite lines and moments, one of the kids brought up the Acura commercial.
“That was even funnier than some parts of the movie,” he said.
“Yeah,” my twelve-year-old chimed in. “The only thing that would have been funnier is if it was for hamburgers.”
“Or underpants,” my seven-year-old suggested. The whole carload broke up laughing.