There Ain’t No Cure For The Summertime Blues

I’m a gonna raise a fuss, I’m a gonna raise a holler.
About working all summer just to try to earn a dollar…

Well I called my congressman and he said, quote:
“I’d like to help you son but you’re too young to vote”
Sometimes I wonder what I’m a gonna do
But there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues

Nasty politics, mass murder, global warming, drought, Europe on the financial brink, unrest in the Middle East, a U.S. economy going nowhere fast, the Mets losing their first 11 of 12 since the All-Star break – we’ve had better summers than this. Could the conditions for selling sell beer, fast food, soft drinks, snacks, cars, sneakers, washing machines or anything else be any worse?

Wait – the Olympic Games to the rescue! The Queen is the latest Bond girl and we don’t have a care in the world. NBC’s coverage will regale us with uplifting stories of personal sacrifice and patriotism. Nothing but good vibes for the next three weeks as we project ourselves into the track shoes and Speedos of our countrymen, adorned with gold medals, standing triumphant on the podium. Our eyes fill with tears and our hearts swell with personal pride as the Star Spangled Banner is played. We are overwhelmed with thoughts of liberty and our unique American ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Now, cut to commercial! NBC Universal reports that there will be over 1 billion dollars’ worth of advertising. We’ll see ubiquitous brands such as McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Visa putting forth the case that fat, sugar and debt are American virtues. McDonald’s, the “official restaurant” of the Games, issued a statement to express its “commitment to the importance of balanced eating and fun play.” Who knew? I always thought it was the fries.

It’s anyone’s guess whether or not this billion-dollar investment will yield positive returns for these brands. On a gut level, it would seem that riding the coattails of such a major, impossible to escape from event, still perceived to be the essence of pure, virtuous aspiration (despite the obvious commercialism), has got to be a good thing.

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are great brands because they represent something far more important than functional benefits. Associations with timeless Olympic values and the superb, dedicated athletes who give their all for the glory of their country transcend mere hunger satisfaction or refreshment.

But are these the right messages at the right time in the right context? Maybe not.

First, there’s the issue of product compatibility. McDonald’s as the “official restaurant of the Olympics?” Really? To their credit, McDonald’s has done a great job putting healthy alternatives on the menu. But who in their right mind would associate a Quarter Pounder with fries and a shake when thinking of world-class athletes training for the most important competition in their lifetimes?

The creative content of Olympic spots is generally very clever and produced with no expense being spared. Just last night I saw a very catchy ad for a watch company to the tune of the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up.” I wish I could remember the watch company.

I am not alone here. An Ad Age headline tells us that “Consumers Don’t Really Know Who Sponsors the Olympics.” They report that in an online survey of 1,034 consumers, respondents “incorrectly cite Nike, Pepsi and even Google as Brands behind the Games.”

There could just be a point where all those feel good spots all start looking the same.

More important is a broader notion of context. Times being what they are, it seems that the self-important tone of so many Olympic spots might be more than a bit off-pitch. Clearly, we are not expected to believe, literally, that Coca-Cola, powered by the music Mark Ronson and Katy B, will unite the world. Nor do we expect that the gravitas of Morgan Freeman’s resonant voice, urging on all of humanity with the cri de couer of “Go World,” will lead to world peace.

Again, Coke and Visa are where they are today, at least from a marketing perspective, by creating extraordinarily aspirational brands through advertising.

However, pure escapism is one thing. It’s easy to understand why people flocked to the movies during the Great Depression to watch screwball comedies and elaborate musicals. “Go World,” from those wonderful folks who brought you the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, that’s something else.

Finally, we have to consider the residual effect of Olympic advertising. The afterglow of Olympic associations may endure in good times, but now? The contrast to the 1984 Los Angeles Games (“I Love LA!”) couldn’t be more striking. It’s not Morning in America, we don’t have a president loved by all, and it’s not the end of the cold war or the beginning of the tech boom.

It’s likely that public mood will lighten for the few weeks we’re in the Olympic bubble, but we’ll come crashing back down to the bitter realities of our time when the flame is extinguished on August 12. The negativity of the presidential campaign and the dark cloud of financial angst will immediately overwhelm the ideals and aspirations of the games. Uplifting, visionary messages will give way to finger pointing and the search for someone to blame, highlighting our seemingly irreconcilable differences rather than our commonality.

It is entirely possible that tugging at heartstrings with these inspirational messages is exactly the cure for the summertime blues. But I tend to believe that times like these call for humility. If your brand isn’t truly changing the world for the better, these self-important visions of grandeur overpromising seems to make little sense.

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