One of the key reasons we love superheroes, according to clinical psychologist Robin Rosenburg1, is that they enable us to find meaning in loss and trauma, but equally allow us to see someone with superhuman strengths struggle with their own personal problems, which can make us feel better about our own struggles. Why not then, would seeing a superhero wrestle with their domestic responsibilities not appeal? I mean, those Batman capes are not going to wash themselves, are they? And so, we find ourselves in a world where King Valkyrie is hawking home insurance for Direct Line.
The art of superhero selling
The conditions that make superheroes effective in advertising
If you think this is a new phenomenon, perhaps because as an industry we’ve just run out of ideas, think again. There’s a rich history of superhero salespersons - if you don’t believe me then google ‘Dirty Crooks Batman Lava soap’ so you can watch Adam West quietly reconsider his contract whilst he stands idly by as Batman, with Police Commissioner Gordon recommending the original ‘grime fighter’ (who doesn’t love a pun) ‘Lava Soap’ as the best solution to remove pesky finger-printing ink; quite. Whilst I don’t have many ‘dabs’ to deal with at my house, I do have pesky Sharpie stains thanks to a four-and-a-half-year-old with artistic tendencies, so I’m willing to give that Lava soap a whirl. My point is that you can throw the old ‘borrowed interest’ stick at the use of superheroes, but it can be a really engaging way of making an otherwise humdrum category interesting, and the product can still be the star.
The superhero sell doesn’t always have to involve eye-watering licensing costs, brands can create their own heroes. Consider, for example, the Duracell bunny, the Milky Bar Kid, or The Green Cross Code Man (I’m showing my age here), with the latter used to teach us all how to cross the road safely. In the end, The Green Cross Code Man (aka David Prowse) went on to play Darth Vader. I, for one, am convinced that the Death Star is in serious need of Vanish Soap give the above average incidence of blood spatter, or perhaps orthopaedic insoles with the Storm Troopers spending so much time on their feet, so the advertising opportunities seem endless.
In many cases, superheroes are at their crime fighting (or should I say grime fighting) peak when united against a common enemy: stains, grease, alien slime and the like, things in life that frustrate us, or may make us vulnerable. Direct Line’s use of King Valkyrie is a good example, enabling us to feel the collective triumph of good over daily ‘evils’. However, there are also some watch outs for brands. We wouldn’t, for example, want to see Superman walking us through the benefits of a funeral plan; immortality to one side, this type of ad requires a more sober, empathetic tone of voice. Equally, whilst nylon presents the ideal breeding ground for candida, I’m not ready to see She Ra lecture me on the convenience of a one-day thrush treatment.
The fact of the matter is that most superheroes live in a fantasy world. Their use in ads, although crossing into the ‘real world’ somewhat, still places them in a hyperbolic technicolour version. While we’re happy seeing Batman wrestle with light domestic chores, I dare say we’re not ready for our heroes to confront the painful reality of our mortal existence. For that we need to see our fellow humans. Perhaps when it comes to making advertising that deals with the darker aspects of everyday life, it’s our Creative department who are the real heroes.