Why Bruce Springsteen Appeared in a Jeep Super Bowl Ad

Bruce Springsteen is catching some flak for appearing in a Jeep ad. He does not need the money. So why would the Boss do a commercial? Here’s the answer: he wants to keep his personal brand relevant and visible. And that’s a lesson everyone should heed, no matter who you are or what you do for a living.

Bruce Springsteen broke through during the album-oriented era when heavy radio airplay, touring, and mass-media PR helped his music find an audience. When MTV came along, Springsteen adapted to the video format by learning how tell stories visually. His career became bigger than ever. But even then, video was a mass-market play.

Then digital changed everything.

Today, Springsteen can only hope to gain a sliver of anyone’s attention while his music competes with Fortnite, Netflix, Facebook, and a ton of other distractions that did not exist in the 1970s. Music has become background noise while we exercise on our Peloton bikes. The idea that an artist like Springsteen can expect anyone to listen to a record album from start to finish is laughable.

To his credit, Springsteen saw what was coming when Napster exploded on the scene in the early 2000s and killed the record album. He found new ways to stay relevant, such as performing at the Super Bowl in 2009 (which introduced him to Millennials and older Gen Zers who were about 12 years old at the time), speaking at the oh-so-trendy SxSW festival, and doing a Broadway show. He also relied on one of his great strengths — concerts — as the touring industry exploded in the 2000s in way it never did in the 20th Century.

But Springsteen cannot tour during the pandemic. A commercial (especially a Super Bowl commercial) amplifies an artist’s voice the way radio used to do when Springsteen hit it big. He’s doing what he needs to do in order to keep his brand relevant and visible.

He’s not the only Baby Boomer artist who has learned the lesson of brand relevance in the digital age. Many, many others have gone down this path. One of them, John Mellencamp, used to skewer artists for doing advertisements with corporations. And then he licensed his song “My Country” for a Chevrolet advertisement around 2007. His fans howled with outrage. But he had seen the writing on the wall when artists of his generation were not getting the attention they used to receive. As he explained in a 2007 Rolling Stone interview discussing the licensing of “My Country” to Chevrolet:

Chevrolet is talking to me, and I ask, “How many times are you going to play this commercial?” They said, “You’ll have more airplay than on any record you’ve ever had.” I couldn’t believe it. I believe it now.

Or as Mellencamp put it to The New York Times, “The bottom line is, I’m a songwriter, and I want people to hear my songs. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not suggesting it for anybody else. This is just what I did this time to reinvent myself and stay in business.”

What are you going to do in order to reinvent yourself and stay in business as the world changes around you?

Nike Stays True to Its Brand Values by Pulling the “Betsy Ross Flag” Sneaker

Nike just raised the stakes for what it means to be a culturally relevant brand.

As first reported in The Wall Street Journal, Nike is pulling from store shelves its special edition Air Max 1 USA shoes that had been created to celebrate the July 4 holiday. The shoe design incorporates the image of a U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle, commonly referred to as the Betsy Ross flag because it was created during the American Revolutionary War. But as Nike was rolling out the shoe to retailers, the company encountered a hitch: activist, former NFL quarterback, and Nike brand partner Colin Kaepernick reportedly told Nike that he considers Betsy Ross flag to be offensive because it has been co-opted by extremist groups and because it symbolizes a time when slavery flourished in the United States.

So Nike is pulling the Air Max 1 USA from stores. As a Nike spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal, “Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured the old version of the American flag” (a bland statement that misses an opportunity for Nike to articulate what it believes and why).

By heeding the advice of Kaepernick, Nike is demonstrating that its relationship with the embattled former NFL quarterback goes beyond a one-time advertising campaign. In 2018, Nike made a bold move by aligning itself with Kaepernick — then embroiled in a bitter dispute with the NFL over his refusal to bend the knee during the playing of the National Anthem during football games. The company released an ad that featured Kaepernick with tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.”

The ad fostered a public discussion about race, the symbolism of the American Flag, and the role of the athlete in society, mostly because of Kaepernick’s visibility and name awareness. In doing so, Nike added a layer of meaning and cultural context to its famous “Just do it” tagline — a brilliant move that resulted in Nike’s sales to jump. The ad worked for a number of reasons, namely: its audience was (and remains) receptive to brand activism and Nike has taken a stand on social issues for years. By being culturally relevant, Nike connected with its customers.

Nike could have stayed in a narrowly defined lane of relying on Kaepernick to be the face of the brand with more advertisements. But Nike has now shown that Kaepernick is more than a spokesperson. He’s a counselor affecting how the business operates.

Kaepernick is not the only one to take offense with the Betsy Ross flag. In 2016, a Michigan school superintendent issued an apology after students waved the flag during a football game. The superintendent said that the flag is “a piece of history co-opted by white supremacists who see it as a symbol of a time in our nation’s history when slavery was legal.” In addition, Twitter users began speaking out against the Air Max 1 USA along with Kaepernick.

Nike read the social signals, listened to its appointed counselor, and took action. In doing so, the company has sparked a backlash and also a discussion about the history of the American flag and its appropriation in contemporary society. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has ordered the state to rescind financial incentives for Nike, and social media is exploding with criticism but also support and commentary. The ensuing conversation is likely the first time many people have learned that the Betsy Ross flag has been co-opted by modern-day extremist groups:

The long-term impact of the action remains to be seen. For now, the backlash underscores the reality that Nike is raising the stakes for what it means to be culturally relevant: by halting distribution of the Air Max 1 USA, Nike is connecting its actions to its ads.

When Voice Assistants Peddle Potato Chips

The Pringles brand is returning to Super Bowl LIII 2019 on Sunday, Feb. 3.

Now I know we’re really living a voice-first world.

Pringles has released three teasers for its Super Bowl LIII spot. The star of the ad will be a  — wait for it — voice assistant. At a time when advertisers are loading up on celebrities such as Chance the Rapper to hustle products, Pringles is relying on a faceless, Alexa-like voice assistant to sell us on the emotional power of Pringles flavors.

The ad, which will play during the second quarter of the Super Bowl February 3, will sell the viewer on the appeal of “flavor stacking,” or combining Pringles flavors in interesting and tasty stacks. The teasers depict an “emotional smart device” (in the words of a Pringles press release) that laments not being able to taste Pringles. In one teaser, the device sighs, “I cannot taste Pringles. I can only order them.” 

The ad will also supported by “a fully integrated marketing campaign including PR, digital, social media, e-commerce and product sampling.”

Whether a depressed voice assistant will inspire Super Bowl watchers to start stacking Buffalo Ranch, Wavy Applewood Smoked Cheddar, or Screamin’ Dill Pickle Pringles remains to be seen. But the fact that a well-known consumer packaged goods company would shell out $5 million (the approximate cost of a 30-second spot for Super Bowl LIII) for an ad that makes a joke involving a voice assistant shows just how rapidly the voice-first economy is evolving. 

Last year’s Super Bowl featured an ad using Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, but the point of the ad was to playfully sell Alexa itself. Pringles is banking on the likelihood that people are so familiar with voice assistants that an ad can incorporate the voice metaphor to sell its own product. Here’s what the number say: According to Accenture, half of online consumers globally use digital voice assistants, up from 42 percent one year ago. Accenture also notes that smart speakers are among the fastest-adopted technologies in U.S. history. In the United States, most consumers are aware of Alexa even if they’ve not used it.

The risk, though, is that the joke becomes dated as technology evolves. But if the ad helps Pringles move product in the near term, perhaps it won’t matter. 

Now let’s see if an Alexa knock-off can get us to start stacking chips.