How pop culture influences advertising creative for good (or bad!)

Lubos Makara,Senior Motion Graphic Designer

 

As advertisers, we are always looking for new ways to distinguish ourselves from competitors and stand out from the crowd. To be different, on-trend, but still staying true to your brand can be a challenging task. Over the past few decades, mass media such as TV, magazines, movies, and more recently, YouTube or social media have changed the way we advertise. Popular culture was a significant participant in this shift. 

Since the late ’50s, popular culture and the advertising industry went hand in hand for brands that rely on fame. Artists like Andy Warhol created outstanding adverts by using the current art movement called Pop art. Pop art was a novelty, trendy and different. The style appeals to the masses, so it made sense to create adverts that reflect it. Big brands like Chanel, Campbell soup, Macintosh or Paramount all used popular culture’s trends and profited from this.

Why is it important to consider popular culture in your advertising? 

No matter how we view the audiences we target, those audiences are not just numbers but also people with emotions, senses and intellect. People respond well to relatability, trustworthiness and humour. Staying relevant means following the culture. But, of course, there are exceptions. It all comes down to what product you sell and the size of your brand.

The biggest names in the industry like Apple, Google, fashion or magazine brands such as Burberry, Vogue, Louis Vuitton heavily follow pop culture to stay relevant as they depend on popular demand. 

A few relevant examples of brands using pop culture to their advantage.


A great example of an effort to stay relevant by chef editor of Vogue magazine Anna Wintour. The sales of Vogue were in decline, and the magazine needed to appeal to wider and younger demographics. So a social media mogul Kim Kardashian was controversially featured in the April issue. It caused a huge stir, and people were once again talking about Vogue. 

 

 

   

Apple re-used a famous Beatles’ photo at a zebra crossing, one of their most successful silhouette music campaigns.

 

  

Louis Vuitton carefully selects the most iconic figures from our era to reflect their value and importance.

Social media channels are now a huge vehicle for popular culture. And when brands get it wrong, it enables an almost immediate backlash or response from the general public. For example, if a celebrity brand ambassador is going through a scandal they are usually dropped within hours. A good example of brand responsiveness to a current event is when Kate Moss caused a scandal involving cocaine. Chanel immediately dropped her as the face of Coco Mademoiselle perfume. Burberry and H&M followed to save their image. 

Inclusivity is a large focus for popular culture, and brands are eager to be showing their support for the issue. But entering this sensitive conversation incorrectly can often go wrong – causing a damaging backlash for the brand. For example, recently Louis Vuitton launched a new campaign to celebrate diversity by creating a Jamaican flag inspired jumper. Unfortunately for LV they used incorrect colours and an already sensitive issue around diversity in fashion was multiplied by this mistake.

 

Another massive fiasco came from Pepsi. The campaign included famous supermodel Kendal Jenner who came from a history of being a reality star with a huge social media following. Kendall handed a Pepsi to a riot officer. This was seen as extremely inappropriate and insensitive as it was in the time of high police brutality in the U.S. The image from the ad was often compared to the real-life image of a black woman being arrested over a peaceful protest on social media. Pepsi issued an apology and took the ad down.

                                                                    

Why pop culture works in advertising

Brands can reap the benefits of popular culture by appealing to the masses. But why is this? It is simply relatability. We see our heroes in films, we love art and talking about daily stuff we see on social media. Facebook, Instagram or TikTok became massive parts of our daily life. Trends we see on our daily feed make us more connected to the world. We can be compassionate to someone on the other side of the world and find ways to help. If big brands use elements of what is viral, popular, or trending and respond to it, the brand is perceived as part of the community. Social media has become a vehicle for our popular culture, it gave voice to people who previously did not have a voice. 

When it comes to advertising, brands are considering many factors. Most importantly, they want to stay true to who they are and reflect on it by using elements of popular culture. A good example is perfume brands. 

These companies usually choose actors or singers and borrow their fame to sell their product. They want to imply that if you wear their perfume, you will embody the famous entity. However, you might ask how a famous rich actor is relatable to an ordinary person. People tend to idealize famous people, create nice memories while watching their movies or listen to popular tracks. When a marketer uses these celebrities in their advertising, our brains create an immediate connection between the person’s value and their brand. This process creates an instant tool for the advertisers. 

Popular culture is an amazing tool for brands that want to go big and sell. Be relatable, trendy and use it to your advantage without losing your brand identity.

Checklist for making the most of popular culture in your advertising

  • Know brand values and identify where those same values are found in popular culture.
  • Know all the details and hire people who understand popular culture to avoid mistakes. (Louis Vuitton)
  • Be responsive to world affairs and issues. Listen to the masses.
  • Be part of the community, help to elevate and change it. 
 
 

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