What Trump, the Super Bowl and a potato tell us about the future of marketing

Cards Against Humanity’s ‘Potato’ stunt is one of several examples of how brands are looking to protest against Trump in their own way. Is this the moment that marketing becomes something else, asks John V Willshire, founder of strategic design unit Smithery.

Cards Against Humanity

Just after 3pm on 16 March 1972, the first building of the Pruitt–Igoe urban housing project in St Louis was demolished by explosives. Completed in 1955, the project had become infamous as the prime example of the failings of modernist architecture; the idea that the design of buildings alone could write a grand narrative for their inhabitants literally came crashing to the ground.

Moments like these are important. Events that resonate around the world and across the decades, changing the dynamic of how we all live, work, come together, drift apart. Of late, it feels like we’re on the cusp of another of these moments; something that’s not the whole story but becomes a point for future generations to focus on.

You might look at the election of the first brand as President of the USA. Sure, the previous guy had a brand but there was a politician underneath there somewhere.

Never before has 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue been wholly infested by a living marketing entity, primarily concerned with enrichment via consumers over the needs of citizens.

Perhaps this is the belated, logical conclusion of the 20th century model. Construct a thin veneer of values, words and images, plaster it over anything you make an indecent profit on, then buy as much influence as possible.

That model is creaking at the seams; it turns out there are only so many acquisitions and mergers to make before you run out of supine victims. It seems not everyone wants to be taken over by a company who might say “well, of course we’d never actually make it from chocolate sawdust, but shouldn’t we run the numbers just to see…?”.

The definitive moment in a changing landscape

But if asked to pick a definitive moment for a changing landscape, I’d go for the evening of Sunday, 5 February 2017, when Cards Against Humanity ran its disastrous Super Bowl ad. We know what went wrong with the advert thanks to the autopsy of it the team posted on Medium the following day.

It had spent six months working with an agency before ‘firing’ them. Thanks to misguided research, the ad they filmed was 30 seconds of a potato with ‘advertisement’ written on it. They’d spent all their money buying the slot, with no money for the soundtrack they’d planned. No wonder they could point to a slew of tweets from people baffled by ‘that potato ad’.

Of course, whilst the ad ran regionally rather than nationally, it traveled far further through culture than mere media spend would have once allowed. It worked, and continues to work, because of two things.

Firstly, it would have been impossible to pull this off without the internet. What makes it work is a series of small, combinatory objects floating through a raft of different platforms. The 30-second potato ad is on YouTube – now with more than half a million views. You have a supporting Medium post, Twitter mentions and Facebook updates. There are mentions from commentators, essayists, bloggers and more, including this piece you’re reading now. There are many small fragments of media shrapnel telling you that the event ‘happened’, so you have to pay extra close attention to working out whether it did or not.

Secondly, it lays bare truths about our culture. It is an exaggerated story of marketing, but it’s one that people outside the industry recognise. The audience aren’t just peeking behind the curtain anymore, they’re jumping on the machinery and pressing all the buttons; they know how marketing works. Which is why Cards Against Humanity can take a highly postmodernist approach and be self-referential and use cynicism and irony to sell their ‘party game for horrible people’.

Yet postmodernism is hardly a new thing; adverts that know they’re adverts, winking at you as if we’re ‘all in on the joke’, characters in TV and film breaking the fourth wall, and so on. This prevalence however is an issue foreseen by author David Foster Wallace 20 years’ ago: “The problem is, I think, postmodernism has, to a large extent, run its course… a lot of the shticks of postmodernism are now part of whatever it is that’s entered into the culture itself.”

Postmodernism was used to blow apart the grand narratives of the modernist era, working as thoroughly as the TNT did on the Pruitt–Igoe estate. But when postmodernism is baked in to the culture itself, how can it deconstruct itself? The world just becomes continually pulled apart, brick by brick, unable to hold a meaningful form.

Here’s where our story turns, though. If the Cards Against Humanity potato ad had just remained a simple gambit to garner attention and sell some games, it would be funny but unremarkable. They perfectly understand the tools of the age, the media to knit it together and the messages to lace throughout. But then things get more interesting.

If you start looking at the Super Bowl ads that actually played out that night, you start to sense that there are brands trying to protest in their own way.

Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson was one of many senators who decided not to hold the traditional ‘town hall’ meeting in the congressional recess in February this year. Indeed, he sent one Vietnam veteran constituent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to stop him from asking the senator to do so. Republican members of the upper chamber appear less than keen to meet their constituents nowadays.

What Cards Against Humanity did in response is to set up a site for people to pay $5 for a potato to be sent to Senator Johnson. Potatoes not unlike the one in the ‘Super Bowl’ ad. And on that potato is written one simple message: ‘Hold a town hall’.

All of a sudden, the fog of postmodern cynicism begins to fall away, revealing a meaningful act. It’s not just about breaking down the world into separate pieces anymore, it’s about using the pieces to build something new. A constructive force, not a deconstructive one. Trying to achieve something real. Was it pre-planned?

Brands start playing the political game

Maybe, maybe not, but I don’t think it matters either way. What it does show quite clearly is the character of the company behind the act, premeditated or otherwise. And if you start looking at the other, bigger Super Bowl ads that played out that night, you start to sense that there are brands trying to protest in their own way. They’re not as openly confrontational and they largely fail to move beyond a naive 20th century ‘wholesome’ inclusivity. But it’s a learning process, and there’s certainly something stirring that makes you think this goes beyond the standard opportunistic operating patterns.

READ MORE: How the Trump era is shaping this year’s Super Bowl ads

Perhaps the moment that the world’s worst self-tanning commercial walked over the threshold of the White House meant that, instantly, every company was politicised in a way they just hadn’t realised yet.

Businesses which had assiduously, steadfastly stayed away from any overt political connections found themselves playing that game. If not yet activists, a lot of companies have suddenly realised that they must be more active in this world. If this is the moment that marketing could become something else, it’s because the culture has changed. That thin veneer of values, words and images won’t cut it anymore.

It’s time to ask yourself this; what else can we use these tools to build? What do we contribute to society to make sure we have a future that everyone can thrive in? What can we make that’s sincere, genuine, something really worth getting up for in the morning?

It’s also time to properly understand how we help put things back together again. If you want engaged advocates, highly-engaged employees, committed shareholders and evangelical customers, then you must build (or rebuild) a company worth believing in, working for, investing in or buying from. This might just be your moment to start that.