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Social media, 1993 style

Wheat Thins has been running a social media and TV campaign called Crunch Is Calling. These ads are cute and the campaign has good buzz among social media bloggers. But the concept is more stale than most people realize.

To see what I mean, take a look at one of the first spots from the campaign, which began airing last year. A customer tweets about being out of Wheat Thins—and a street team shows up with a ginormous pallet of Wheat Thins as a gift.

This made me miss the Snapple Lady. Remember her? She was the narrator of a series of spots in the mid-1990s in which she answered fan mail from Snapple fans, who were then ambushed and made stars of their own commercials. Same script, but replace Wheat Thins with Snapple and Twitter with snail mail. Here’s a Snapple spot created by Kirshenbaum & Baun in 1993:

Both the Snapple and Wheat Thins campaigns evolved in a similar direction. Here’s the latest Wheat Thins ad in which a Twitter user says that Wheat Thins commercials look “uber fake”:

Snapple did this too:

So at best, the Wheat Thins campaign is a up-to-date retread of an idea that’s been around a while: the ambush testimonial. Surprise your fans and make them the spokespeople. Instant authenticity.

Some social media bloggers can’t seem to see beyond the fact that Twitter got mentioned by name in a commercial. Justin Birch of Falcoln Innovation Group crows, “Great job, Wheat Thins, on using social media to not only interact with your customers but to develop the creative behind an entire campaign.” On the Speak Media Blog, Jennifer A. Jones calls these spots “brilliant” and says, “That, ladies and gents, is how you truly integrate channels.” And on Social Buzzers, Fisher Laishram writes, “Bringing the brand closer to the people and showing them they care goes a long way in creating their brand equity.”

I could quote 10 more blogs that say the same thing about this campaign, but I’m unconvinced this represents a new level of integration or communication with the customer. If you subtract the TV component, you would be left with nothing but a Twitter feed that reinforces people’s positive opinions about Wheat Thins (a food which is, admittedly, delicious and crunchy). There’s not much social here.

What’s more, Wheat Thins is exploiting Twitter to lend hipness to a (forgive the pun) square product. Nothing really wrong with that. But social media has the potential for so much more, with customers shaping brand direction and maintaining a constant dialogue about product improvements. Here the conversation is superficial. Customer: “I like Wheat Thins.” Brand: “Great! Here’s a shitload of Wheat Thins!”

A big brand like Wheat Thins simply isn’t equipped to evolve (say, introduce new products) based on tweets. Twitter is still too new. Its reach is unknown; its metrics are terrible; the space is overrun with fake experts. Getting actionable feedback from customers still requires heavy, expensive, un-fun market research.

Is anybody seeing this for what it is? I enjoyed the perspective Steffan Postaer, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Euro RSCG Chicago, who wrote it up on Gods of Advertising:

“From an execution standpoint, the commercials are variations on one of advertising’s oldest formulas, the man-on-the-street. Heck, Candid Camera did stuff like this in the fifties. But seen through the prism of social media, the old saw has new teeth, making the campaign fun and timely. The work also supports my view that modern ‘social’ advertising is quite a bit more old-fashioned and promotional than the So-Me gurus like to think.”

Postaer is being generous. Can a Wheat Thins campaign be “timely” and “old-fashioned” at the same time? Or is it just an old commercial and with the word “Twitter” in it? Either way, be sure to enjoy the comment on Postaer’s post from Vinny Warren, the creative director from The Escape Pod, who works on the campaign:

“you nailed the essence of the idea. consumers write the copy and we just ask them if they did indeed write the copy. and they are surprised and agree that yes, they did indeed write the copy. anything to get out of actual writing.”

Cute. And to be sure, the ads are well executed. I just don’t think the Wheat Thins brand has earned the social media halo people are giving it.

P.S. – I realize this post eliminates the chance that a giant pallet of Wheat Thins will arrive at my door, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

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Who’s responsible for this ad? The Escape Pod, Chicago, with managing director Norm Bilow and creative director Vinny Warren.

Who signed off on it? Jim Low, Director of Marketing for Wheat Thins at Kraft.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Advertising, Social Media