The market for the World Cup is very crowded indeed. The quickest way to make an impact is to hire the people that the public are most interested in – the footballing heroes. For the 2014 event, Nike has done this in spades, with a TV ad (unofficially for the World Cup, of course – Adidas is the official sponsor) featuring no less than 14 major stars including Rooney, Ronaldo and Neymar Jr.
If you can’t get contemporary stars, older heroes can work just as well – perhaps one of the best World Cup-themed ads of all time was Carlsberg’s Old Lions ad for the 2006 event, which saw legends such as Jack Charlton, Peter Shilton and Peter Beardsley performing as the ‘Best Pub Team in the World’. Deliberately lo-fi, the ad stood out in a sea of slick spots, and the players look like they are having a great time. Plus, judging by this ad, it would appear that footballers’ acting skills get better with age.
If you can’t get the stars, remember the fans
Fans are key to the World Cup, and if you can’t fill your ads with big names, they make a great second option. For Adidas’s 2006 campaign, Jose+ 10, we had a bit of both. The spot opened with two kids playing a game of football. They each picked their imaginary teams and then the football stars – current and historical – were shown miraculously joining the game. It was a campaign that ticked all the boxes – it had big stars but also spoke directly to the heart of the game through the young fans.
Fans also make good vehicles for selling products more peripheral to the game. Currys & PC World, for example, has recently released a witty set of spots that feature middle-aged men clumsily trying to persuade their partners to buy a new TV in time for the summer. The gender roles here are old-fashioned but the idea of the football obsessive doing anything to get his fix is an enduring one.
World Cup ads have become a little overblown of late, though humour has always been a key theme in attracting an audience’s attention. While many of Nike’s spots over the years have seen footballers attempting to deliver the odd painful quip (see 2014’s effort), some ads have gone for out-and-out funny. Adidas’s Footballitis ad for the 2002 South Korea/Japan event featured a number of top players who were labouring under the belief that they were always playing the game, whatever they were doing. As the spot is tongue-in-cheek, it’s also very funny.
It’s important, however, not to tip from being funny into being offensive. For its 2002 spot, Umbro showed a young man kicking a small dog into a bus stop as an illustration of how preoccupied by the game he was. The spot ended with the tag ‘Be Football’ and was, somewhat inevitably, banned from TV.
Let the players do what they do best
Something to be wary of in making a great World Cup ad is asking too much of the players. As has been demonstrated too many times, encouraging stars to speak in ads, let alone be funny, can backfire painfully. Instead, it’s safer to let them do what they do best, which is, of course, play football. Perhaps the greatest example of this can be seen in Nike’s 1998 ad, which finds the Brazilian team, led by the original Ronaldo, stuck in an airport when their flight is delayed. Bored, they show off their considerable skills. In doing so, they break every security law imaginable (note that this spot was made pre-9/11), but it’s a glorious watch.
For a more recent example, see the Castrol Footkhana spot which stars Neymar Jr playing against rally driver Ken Block in a footballing battle of man versus car, which amply demonstrates Neymar Jr’s skills.
The World Cup is about global unity….
With countries from all over the world represented at the event, the World Cup can be a good opportunity for a brand to show off its international standing. Coke, for example, likes to present itself as the world’s drink, and its World Cup ads have tended to emphasise the global nature of the event, rather than its competitiveness. For 2014, the drinks brand has released a documentary-style film, which features real teams from the Amazon, Eastern Europe, Palestine, and Japan, and demonstrates how the beautiful game can promote social unity and hope.
In 2010, for the South African contest, Coke chose a more light-hearted tactic, with a film that charted the history of goal celebrations. The style was different but the message was ultimately the same: football makes people happy, and so, supposedly, does Coke.
….but patriotism has its place too
The World Cup is of course mostly about competition, and whatever Coke might be doing, many brands see the event as a chance for some flag-waving patriotism. Carlsberg, so subtle in its Old Lions ad, went for out-and-out national pride in its 2010 spot, Team Talk, which featured a speech that proved rousing to some and nauseating to others. Other classics of the patriotic genre include the startling St Wayne poster for Nike from 2006, and what can only be described as a rather dodgy ad for Dodge in the US which presented a USA vs England match in the 2010 World Cup as a replay of the Revolutionary War.
Sometimes weird can be good
The World Cup, like all massive events, often seems to encourage bland ads. Something about the size of it, and the need to appeal to a wide demographic, encourages brands to play it safe. This leads to some unfortunate stereotypes: women, it seems, have no real part to play aside from as ‘wags’, and all manner of cultural clichés are revisited. Another adage that has become so common as to be almost irrelevant is the idea of football as inspirational: when every second brand tries to suggest this, it quickly feels anything but.
So when a brand goes a bit leftfield, it really has an opportunity to stand out: for its 2006 World Cup, Pepsi went German bonkers and created an ad that saw footballers including David Beckham and Frank Lampard playing a team of Lederhosen-clad Bavarians. It’s all a little bit surreal, but at least it’s not ordinary.
Accept that your ad might be out of date by the time the event starts
Nike is the brand most famed for this problem, with talk of a ‘Nike curse’ of underachievement on those who appear in its ads going back decades. With campaigns for the World Cup planned months, if not years, in advance though, this is an inevitable problem and one that is best taken on the chin. After all, your ad being labelled a curse only leads to yet more column inches being devoted to it.
This year’s event is being touted as the world’s first social media World Cup and as such, fans are going to be expecting some surprises from brands as the event rolls out. In anticipation of this, Adidas has shot some 100 pieces of work – these will be used as and when certain anticipated scenarios take place during the competition, with many inevitably ending up on the cutting room floor.
Such a commitment to being responsive shows the importance now for brands to have an ongoing presence during an event as massive as the World Cup – it will be fascinating to see what ultimately cuts through.
If in doubt, go epic
The epic approach seems to be the strategy du jour for the World Cup, and if views are anything to go by, it’s a hit technique with the public. Nike has gone big in its football ads for years now, and famously beat Adidas in the 2010 battle of the sports brands with its dynamic Write The Future spot. This time, it’s gone even grander, with a four-minute long film featuring stars a-plenty and even a cameo by The Incredible Hulk. Where it all end, nobody knows, but for now at least, going big equals success.