Babies and Beavers: Advertising in Tough Times

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As I viewed this year’s crop of Super Bowl XLIV commercials searching for semiotically interesting patterns (thanks to YouTube and Hulu just about everything in the world of television advertising is instantly available for careful analysis), I was struck by the number of ads that simply replayed last year’s strategies. Teleflora, for example, came back with those trash-talking flowers that humiliate a young woman at her office cubicle desk. reprised its “you-hate-your-job-so-look-for-new-one” theme from last year, complete with ludicrous office workers that make other office workers want to move elsewhere. As I viewed the Careerbuilder ad I was struck by just how out of touch it was with current economic realities. Few workers today have the luxury of switching jobs to improve their work environment. In fact, most of the people who still have jobs are desperately holding on to them, not casually looking around for something else because their coworkers are weird. In fairness, creating an ad for an online job search service in a time of high unemployment is no easy task. Too much humor could backfire, causing unemployed viewers to feel insulted by the idea that their plight is not being taken seriously. At the other extreme, too much realism could be a downer: being unemployed is bad enough without having it rubbed in your face. So I have to give credit to the advertising agency that created this year’s Super Bowl ad for While a bit corny, the ad addressed the reality that many of’s clients are currently unemployed, yet was nonetheless entertaining and uplifting. The agency chose to use cute animals. The story line featured a beaver (yes, a beaver) who fiddles country music while his fellow beavers are hard at work. The beaver logs on to to search for a job as a violinist. We next see the beaver move to a large city, where he plays on the streets and in subways until finally landing an audition, which results in him playing somewhere like Carnegie Hall. The final shot shows the beaver driving away in a hot tub–equipped limo with a beaming blond on board. Like I said, it’s a corny ad. But what it was trying to accomplish is quite interesting. By depicting its unemployed protagonist as a cute animal, the ad put a distance between the beaver and the viewer. The viewer could identify with the beaver’s joblessness, but painlessly, because after all, it is only an animated beaver. At the same time, the corny rags-to-riches story is presented with a wink of ironic self-awareness, which avoids insulting the target audience with any unrealistic claims of what can do for job seekers. But at the end there is that rags-to-riches triumph, so an impression of extravagant success lingers after all, giving a positive impression of that might lead a job seeker to choose Monster rather than its competitors. Thinking of the beaver, I was reminded of those E*Trade babies who first appeared during the 2008 Super Bowl commercials during the early stages of the economic meltdown (even E*Trade was divesting itself of its subprime mortgage portfolio at the time). Much like an employment search firm during a time of high unemployment and scarce jobs, a stock-trading operation needs to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of insulting its viewers by ignoring the severity of the situation, or depressing them by dwelling on the dismal realities. Solution: adorable babies with adult voiceovers. So by Super Bowl 2009 we saw two baby boys discussing how they had been creamed in the markets that year, but expressing confidence in E*Trade; one of them bursts into song, “I’m going to fly again.” A sober conversation between two adult actors who had just lost their shirts in the market would not have worked. But a cute and funny ad that addressed the reality of the situation (a terrible year for stocks) while putting a distance between E*Trade and that same reality by using humorous incongruity (those babies talking like adults) managed to make the situation feel tolerable, and even, perhaps, hopeful. How much more advertising will we see in the months to come that has to solve the problem of appearing effectively upbeat in a time of distinctly downbeat economic conditions?  You might suggest to your students that they keep an eye out for such examples and share what they find.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.