Super Bowl XLVII, in February 2013, had a moment unlike any other Super Bowl in history. In the third quarter, the power at New Orleans’ Superdome went out, plunging the stadium into thirty-four minutes of darkness. Elsewhere, an intrepid social media manager for Oreo cookies sprang into action. A photo of an Oreo against a dark background and the copy “Power out? No problem. You can still dunk in the dark” was tweeted out minutes later. The tweet amassed over 14,000 retweets and 6,000 likes; on Facebook the same image garnered over 19,000 likes and 6,500 shares. The agency behind the creative, 360i, won a CLIO and a Cannes Lion for the social media post and reported that it “resulted in 525 million earned media impressions for the brand – nearly 5X the number of people who tuned into the Super Bowl itself.”
Oreo’s quick-draw response to an event that millions of people were watching unfold in real time is an example of “newsjacking,” the practice of leveraging a newsworthy event into branding or marketing communications. Newsjacking, also called real-time marketing, has been disparaged for being a “dumbing down” of brand marketing and criticized for being uninteresting to everyone other than bored, self-aggrandizing marketers. Years later (2013 was such a simple time, wasn’t it?), real-time marketing is everywhere.
Let’s take a look at some memorable events from the past three years and see how brands have incorporated them into their advertising.
Black Lives Matter
By 2017, Black Lives Matter was far from its roots as a fledgling movement. The summer of 2016 brought news of police violence and the corresponding protests that surged through more than eighty cities in the US. By the time the activism spread to the NBA and the NFL, and Colin Kapernick took a knee, virtually everyone in the country had heard Black of Lives Matter. In April 2017, Pepsi tapped into the familiar images of protests and police with a much-maligned ad featuring Kendall Jenner meandering through a crowd of protesters to offer a soft drink to a police officer. “This ad’s fast-and-loose approach to protest imagery… [turning] real moments of high tension into an opportunity to celebrate commerce and fame—sounds a discordant note,” remarked Time. Pepsi yanked the ad after only a few days and issued an apology.
Brett Kavanaugh and #MeToo
Brands who make bold newsjacking choices always risk controversy, but sometimes controversy can pay off. In September 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court and accused of sexual assault. This touched a nerve that had been inflamed in 2016 with Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood tape” and in 2017 when allegations against Harvey Weinstein came into the public view. The ongoing conversation about #MeToo led to examinations of how the culture of toxic masculinity contributed to the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
In January 2019, Gillette changed the company’s familiar slogan, “The Best a Man Can Get,” into a question – “Is this the best a man can get?” They released a video that took a stance against the toxic masculinity that can lead to bullying and physical violence, answering their question with “We believe in the best in men.” Explorer data indicates that Procter & Gamble approached this more like a viral video than a commercial: they spent a mere $19,700 across all devices and formats and pulled in only 1M impressions with this creative, but the PR it generated went far beyond these numbers. Audiences were deeply divided over the ad, with some crying that Gillette was “anti-men” and calling for a boycott of their razors while others found it to be an uplifting message that moved them to tears. Either way, “the fact that [the ‘We Believe’ creative] exists at all is an undeniable sign of progress,” noted an article in Wired.
Brexit was another opportunity for brands to make daring real-time marketing decisions, and even large corporations responded to this major political shift through advertising. In January 2019, as the British Parliament voted on whether or not to withdraw from the EU, HSBC launched a polemical campaign called “We Are Not an Island.” Ranging from billboard ads to social media to video, it drew intense criticism but also resulted in the bank’s trades increasing by 30%. HSBC UK denied taking a political stance and insisted their messaging was instead intended to be “culturally relevant. To talk about being open and connected and do it in a way that has a strong point of view around something that matters to Britain."
A few months later, another major player in the financial industry, Barclays Bank, referenced Brexit in a less incendiary way. A May 2019 Facebook ad unobtrusively asked “Wondering which areas are emerging as buy-to-let hotspots this year, or what Brexit might mean for house prices? Discover the latest insights from top industry experts.” The creative ran for only twenty days and generated only 707,000 impressions, but it was a clear signal that real-time marketing had become widespread enough for advertisers to overtly embrace current events as a method of connecting with consumers.
The 2020 coronavirus pandemic is proving to generate one of the biggest advertiser responses in history, potentially indicating a lasting shift in how advertisers will be expected to respond to current events. At the beginning of the year, only the industries immediately and directly affected – such as airlines, cruise companies, and Clorox – incorporated pandemic-specific messaging into their campaigns.
As the duration of the pandemic has increased, more and more brands across the globe have been responding with real-time marketing techniques. Keyword trends for the US, UK, Canada, and Germany show spikes in late March and early April for “pandemic,” “quarantine,” and “virus” across all ad formats. #StayHome campaigns started popping up as early as April 1 in the US, with advertisers as diverse as Tylenol, JP Morgan Chase, and YouTube leveraging this hashtag in Facebook ads.
For Tylenol, paying homage to healthcare workers was a natural fit, while Chase offered increased reward points when credit card users utilized food delivery services. YouTube Music At Home, a natural fit for the Stay At Home initiative, promoted their One World: Together At Home online concert to raise funds for frontline healthcare workers.
In Canada, Ford invested in Facebook ads to introduce six months of payment relief, explaining “Adversity is better when we face it together.” A creative from Unilever on how to properly wash one’s hands generated 7.7M impressions in the mere two weeks it ran. Yum Brands promoted contactless delivery from KFC and Pizza Hut (“contactless delivery” being one of those phrases that no one had ever heard of just six months ago).
Since March 15, creatives using the #StayHome hashtag generated over 1.3 Billion impressions from nearly 450 advertisers across the US, Canada, UK, and Germany, an unprecedented display of brands in nearly every industry adopting the same messaging. Newsjacking has become more than a brand taking advantage of a situation to make itself look clever or relevant. It’s now a crucial way for brands to remain connected with their customers and trusted as having their customers’ best interests in mind.
With over a decade of experience across digital marketing, content, creative, and PR, Sarah is a creative and dynamic thinker who loves to delight clients with unique and relatable content. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Sociology.