Misdirection as a narrative device in advertising

Two new ad campaigns use a classic advertising misdirection to force a particular imagery first, only to change it entirely to make a contextual point.

Take a look at the series from Petco, the pet food company, made by the agency Droga5.

Now, take a look at the new ad film by StopVEO, a French non-profit that works to educate people about the use of violence on children.

In both campaigns, the narrative technique is the same – start telling a story using a set of characters and narrators and then pull the rug beneath our feet to imply that we were not watching who we thought we are seeing, but someone else, in context to the product being sold or story being told.

But both Petco and StopVEO are laggards in using this narrative technique given how popular it became after another brand used it so relentlessly that it became that brand’s signature – Snickers!

Snickers has been using this narrative device for its advertising since 2010 and the idea still seems to have strong legs to run on given how wonderfully it has been localized for so many countries!

Interestingly, the idea first came about after Snickers had a terrible run in the late 2000s – it was losing market share to rivals!

In 2009, the brand also had a misfire in the form of this ad:

Whatever humor the brand was trying to mine fell flat, and worse, the whole ad has nothing whatsoever about Snickers, merely using the product as a prop!

This, and the market share conundrum forced the brand to take a serious relook at their communication. That’s when Mars, Snickers’ parent company, worked with the agency BBDO to arrive at a big idea – you are not yourself when you are hungry! Snickers, filled with nuts, can fill the hunger and let you be yourself and join your group.

What better way to bring ‘you are not yourself when you are hungry’ than using the classic misdirection? Interestingly, if you observe the Snickers series of ads using this insight and narrative device, the people around the protagonist continue to see him/her as they are – only us, the TV/online audiences see him/her in a different avatar. This is the essence of misdirection – it’s a gimmick that literally brings ‘you are not yourself’ alive.

Snicker’s first ad using the big idea was in 2010, starring Betty White.

Since then, the idea has really been wonderfully elastic for the brand including using it within TV shows like the sitcom The Brady Bunch!

The idea has gone all around the world!

Australia

Singapore

Russia

France (English version)

In India, the idea has seen a few versions, featuring some stars!

Rekha

Sonam Kapoor

MS Dhoni

The latest iteration, featuring Vinay Pathak, offers a different spin, however – there is no misdirection, but there is a literal bad decision taken when Vinay is hungry. I really don’t think this is a natural extension of the idea, but I presume the brand is trying something different perhaps considering the idea is more than a decade old now.


My favorite iteration of the ad, though is from Snickers UK (2014). You know who it stars the moment it begins and it’s utterly hilarious how the brand sticks to its core narrative so well!

If you go by this ad, I really don’t think the Indian brand managers need to tamper with the original narrative. I’m fairly sure their iterations are limited by the kind of stars they can sign up and the kinds of situations they can place such stars in!

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