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Insights in health & wellness branding
30 March

Transgender Cheetos: A cautionary tale about “social-good” advertising

The Oscars are officially over, and therefore we’ve seen part two of the best in modern broadcast advertising. (Or, as I’ve heard industry people refer to it, the Super Bowl for women. Part one, for men, was obviously the actual Super Bowl.) In the three-month barrage of hype, blogs, essays, observations, viewpoints, reviews, panels, tweets, posts, editorials, etc., I was surprised to find one of the most important statements about advertising today in the form of an SNL sketch the weekend after the Super Bowl.

It was a skit tucked in the late-night back half of the program hosted by Alec Baldwin. The sketch featured two competing fictitious ad agencies who were pitching next year’s Super Bowl commercial ideas to fictitious brand directors of Cheetos. (See it at http://bit.ly/2mCUaWl.)

Alec Baldwin and Aidy Bryant, working for the make-believe Murphy & Kennedy agency, trade ideas back and forth with SNL performers Kyle Mooney and Melissa Villasenor representing the equally fake AK Foster.

Murphy & Kennedy (I picture them with a trendy ampersand in their name) pitches socially relevant ideas of immigrants facing “the wall,” and another idea of morphing multinational citizens (Mexican man to Muslim woman to Jewish man). All presented with an emotional Spanish-style guitar track behind them. All ending with a “Hard or harder cut” to Cheetos.

AK Foster presents an idea, accompanied with a bad early 90s hip-hop backbeat, of kids in the backseat of a soccer-mom van, having fun while eating Cheetos. When they see the confused, underwhelming response to their first idea, the AK Foster team resorts to the brand icon Chester the Cheetah, skateboarding with kids who are just hanging out, again having fun and eating Cheetos.

Back to Murphy & Kennedy, who apologizes that they, too, have a Chester idea. When encouraged to present their idea, Murphy & Kennedy present a post-surgery Chester the Cheetah with new breast implants who now identifies as Danielle, who is worried how she’ll be judged by her Cheetah friends. Still with the “hard cut” to Cheetos.

Of course, the Cheetos executives love and are moved by all the social-good ideas from Murphy & Kennedy and are puzzled and contemptuous of the ideas from AK Foster.

Like all great skits on SNL, the humor works on many levels. It’s an indictment of corporate executives willing to “drink the Kool-Aid” of their junk food brand’s social importance in the world. And it’s an indictment of ad agencies that are willing to sell companies (and themselves) to any cause to win the account, and make what they do more, well, important in the world.

But what struck me was, why would SNL air such a narrow “agency insider” skit, even when it’s somewhat buried in the back half of their show?  The fact that SNL has always done a great job at tapping the cultural top-of-mind made me think that perhaps the general public is catching on, or has caught on, to what I would, for lack of a better term, call bad or veneer social-good advertising. That Millennials, who crave brands that have positive social impact (much like I crave to go just one week, one week, without a Trump tweet) can now tell the difference between shallow social initiatives designed to sell, and those that are deeper and truer to a brand. That perhaps lumber companies shouldn’t use the issue of “immigration” to sell their lumber say versus a truer idea about an equally moving story of how their materials are being used to build homes for low-income families (if this is indeed true).

My hope as an Executive Creative Director that only focuses on health and wellness brands (brands that are designed to help people) is that this SNL skit is the beginning of a new movement for our industry and consumers at large. That brands (along with their directors) can recognize their true place or context in the world. That good advertisers and agencies have a social responsibility to stop using superficial social-good ideas to sell less-than-good brands.

Maybe this is the beginning of consumers starting to tell the difference between real social-good advertising and fake social-good advertising, along with trying to distinguish between “real news” and “fake news” and between facts and “alternative facts.”

At least, that’s the real hopeful alternative message I take away from this fake Cheetos advertising pitch meeting.

Stephen Neale About the Author

After 25 years and more than 75 creative awards in healthcare advertising, including 4 Rx Club Golds and 3 Med Ad News Ads of the Year, Stephen is highly respected throughout the health and wellness advertising community. As strategist and leader, he’s even more respected throughout the agency. The snack room in the AbelsonTaylor cafeteria is shaped like a big red balloon. That’s because Stephen Neale, and his red balloon concept, helped shape the agency.