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Ads That Speak the Language of Social Media

Madison Avenue is offering consumers a status update on just how pervasive social media have become.

The language of social media — “fans,” “friend request,” “like,” “social network” and, yes, “status update” — is increasingly appearing in advertising, whether or not those ads are running in social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Such ads are also increasingly being aimed at mainstream consumers, not just the younger consumers who were the early adopters of social media.

The appropriation of the trappings of social media for marketing purposes is an example of a tactic known as borrowed interest, by which brands seek to associate themselves with elements of popular culture that are pervasive enough to be familiar to the proverbial everybody. Social media’s new starring role in product pitches signals that agencies and advertisers believe they are sufficiently prevalent to refer to without producing puzzled reactions.

“We were using social media in our ads because it’s so understandable,” said Bridgett Judd, group director for strategic innovation at the Los Angeles office of Saatchi & Saatchi, part of the Publicis Groupe, describing a campaign for the Toyota Venza crossover. The campaign was centered on “the redefinition of ‘social’ and socializing” by parents and their adult offspring and how “there are two ways to look at a social life.”

A print ad in the campaign carried this headline: “My mom hasn’t accepted my friend request yet. What could she possibly be doing?” The answer: driving in her Venza to meet friends — the nonvirtual kind — for a day riding bicycles.

“Like most things we do in our business, it started from a strategic place,” said John Carney, executive vice president and managing director for account operations at the Buntin Group in Nashville. Buntin ran a campaign last year centered on social media for the Chinet line of paper plates sold by Huhtamaki North America.

“We were studying a lot of secondary research and looking at our own lives,” Mr. Carney said, and decided that “the widespread adoption of technology and social media” could be grist for the ads, which called Chinet “the official plate of logging on to something truly social.”

The campaign resonated well enough, said Paul Huckins, vice president for the retail division at Huhtamaki North America in De Soto, Kan., that it is being expanded to embrace all Chinet products with ads, scheduled to begin in May, carrying the theme “You’re invited.”

Other examples of the trend include these:

Ads for Snickers Peanut Butter Squared candy, sold by Mars, that depict the word “like” and a thumbs-up symbol evocative of Facebook above a competitor’s product; the word “love” and a heart hover above the Snickers candy. “If you like peanut butter and chocolate,” the ads assert, “you’ll love peanut butter and Snickers.”

Ads for the cosmetics retailer Sephora, addressed to “a busy networker,” that promote BB (beauty balm) creams as “your new must-have status update: They prime, hydrate, treat, protect and perfect.”

Ads for Chock full o’Nuts coffee, sold by Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA, that carry the words “social network” above a black-and-white photograph of a kaffeeklatsch during the “Mad Men” era.

Ads for Martha White baking mixes, sold by J.M. Smucker, carrying headlines that include “Finally, something worthy of a status update” and “Double your ‘friend’ list in just 15 minutes.”

In many instances, ads that take social media tacks try to make statements about socializing online versus socializing in real life. For instance, a print ad for the Silverado half-ton pickup sold by the Chevrolet division of General Motors shows a man seated in the truck bed with his dog. “Not every friend is on Facebook,” the headline declares.

An ad for Bud Light Platinum, from the Anheuser-Busch division of Anheuser-Busch InBev, proclaims that it is the beer for “your real life social network.”

And, in a television version of the Toyota Venza print ad, a young woman bemoans how, although she was “really aggressive with my parents about joining Facebook,” they have only 19 friends to her 687. The commercial contrasts her sitting indoors, looking at puppy pictures on her laptop, with her parents’ meeting their nonvirtual friends to spend a day outdoors.

“I don’t think we were mocking social media,” said Ms. Judd of Saatchi & Saatchi. “We were saying the Venza takes you places and brings you closer to other people, kind of the way social media do.”

Likewise, Mr. Huckins at Huhtamaki said he did not want to “take a shot at social media” in the Chinet ads, which carry headlines like “Here’s another way of instant messaging friends — invite them over.”

Rather, he said, the intent was to “re-emphasize that real human connections are made one-on-one, face to face,” at gatherings in the real world that may include Chinet products.

It is important, said Patrick Short, a partner and creative director at the Charlotte, N.C., office of Eric Mower & Associates, that consumers do not perceive ads about social media as “railing on digital.”

That is why, he said, he is careful to “strike a balance” when producing a campaign for the Domtar Corporation, carrying the theme “Paper because,” which includes an ad with the headline “Paper because all this social media might be making us less social.”

“If I attacked digital, social, I’d be a hypocrite,” Mr. Short said. “It’s a balance between pixels and paper. Hanging a kid’s drawing on a refrigerator may be better than trying to pin the iPad to the fridge.”

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. March 24, 2013

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.