Commentary

Dobrow's Take On This Year's Crop Of Branded Halloween Videos

Halloween, what happened to you, man? You used to be all about the mystery and menace. In recent years, though, you stopped scaring and started caring. You’ve gone soft, not unlike a fun-size Milky Way left in one’s pocket during an Acela jaunt down the coast. It’s like you’re not even trying to be spooktacular anymore.

This is a shame. If there’s one day on the calendar that brands should circle and annotate with “let freak flag fly,” it’s Halloween. Brands, and everything/everyone else whose whereabouts aren’t regularly monitored by the government, can pretty much do anything they want on/around Halloween without consequence. Halloween is about weirdness and encroaching dread, or at least it was when I was a kid. You know what else was better when I was a kid? Board games! And the music on the radio wasn’t all dis-this and rap-that! A cup of Starbucks only cost $3.65! There was only one NCIS! (falls asleep)

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Where was I? Oh. In between rigging a ghoul-n-tombstone lawn display that will inadvertently inflict severe psychic distress on my three-year-old, I watched as many Halloween-specific brand videos as I could find. I wasn’t impressed. My conclusions are summarized below in convenient list form.

1. Enough with the pranks. The great majority of Halloween-themed clips center around a prank of some kind. In “Chester Cheetah’s Halloween Prank #2: The Ghostery Cart,” a head bursts out from beneath a pile of Cheetos freebies. In Ford’s super-imaginatively named “Spooky Halloween Car Wash Prank,” dudes in cheap masks bang on the windows of unsuspecting car wash patrons. In Swedish amusement park Gröna Lund’s “The Haunted Poster,” a faceless ghoul springs forth from an ad. In “Trulia’s Haunted Open House,” prospective buyers are tormented by falling books and self-lighting candles.

If you derive pleasure from watching people yell and recoil in fear, these clips are for you. If not, they serve no purpose beyond satisfying a “well, we gotta do SOMETHING around Halloween” mandate.

The yell/recoil reactions are cookie-cutter. The behind-the-prank footage reveals only that creating a gimmicked bed or doll is a giant pain in the ass. Most importantly, the ubiquity of these stunts renders them utterly impactless for the brand perpetrating them. I don’t have the slightest hint of an idea what Ford is attempting to say about itself with the car wash video. Maybe that foreign automakers don’t have a monopoly on celebrating Halloween? Take THAT, Ikarbus! This genre must die.

[unrelated to anything, are there studies that purport to measure the likability and/or effectiveness of brand mascots? I’m genuinely curious to learn why Chester Cheetah continues to exist. Let’s not confuse having a brand personality with having an unlikable brand personality.]

2. Don’t overplay the cuteness card. Crest’s “The Effects of Halloween Candy” goes the faux-sociological-study route, placing a gaggle of costumed children in front of a mountain of unbranded sugarstuffs. What happens when they partake freely of the bounty before them? They scream, run around with abandon and pelt the milquetoast “researcher” with gumballs.

This just in: Kids on a sugar high can be a handful and kids in costumes - well, one’s own kids in costumes, anyway - are cute. Got anything beyond that, Crest? Next time around, hire a science-type person to explain the effect of sugar on children’s teeth, ideally in a clever way. Use sock puppets if you have to. Everybody likes sock puppets. They aren’t at all creepy.

3. Go for it, dude. Booking.com is onto something with its ferociously cleverly named “Scariest Haunted Hotel Commercial,” in that it plays on existing horror tropes (hotel guest watches herself come under siege on TV as it happens, etc.) to effect a genuine sense of dread. This scenario isn’t played for giggles; the clip is designed to frighten.

So why not take it to another level, whether via an intensified psychological component or as much gore as the brand is willing to abide? Obviously Booking.com doesn’t want to self-identify as the Tobe Hooper of online reservations, but there’s opportunity this time of year for any brand bold and self-assured enough to seize it.

4. Warm, knowing parody is the most sincere form of inspiration, or something. 728,374,347,222,176279999764 viewers have checked out IKEA Singapore’s latest mini-masterpiece, and I have to think it’s because they can tell the difference between lazy and smart parody. There have been any number of Shining knockoffs over the years, but few have paid tribute to the horror classic (“horror” is reductive, I know) in such an adoring, attentive manner.

The flickering lamps, the echoey background noise, the clever plays on two of the film’s most menacing bits (“All Work and No Sleep Makes Life Dull” displayed over a bedroom set, “REDRUG” scrawled above a… red rug). There’s not much to say beyond the obvious: that the IKEA brand folks are operating on a far higher level than anyone else right now.

5. Subvert thyself. Or at least thy brand image. With all due respect to IKEA, Oreo is the winner of brand-video Halloween on the strength of its odd, endearing Oreo Laboratorium content. In the three short animated clips, Oreos are given the full Tim Burton treatment (old, fun Tim Burton, not increasingly joyless modern-day Tim Burton). In one, an Oreo is cross-bred with gummy worms; in another, a jelly bean is planted in crushed outer-Oreo entrails, with an appropriately mini-macabre result.

Until I viewed the trio of Oreo Laboratorium clips, the most subversive thing about Oreos was… beats me. The shade of blue on its packaging? In the wake of the Laboratorium clips, however, Oreo now has a brand personality on par with its time-tested tastiness. Similarly vanilla (literally and metaphorically) brands, take note.

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