March 31, 2007
The Stress Monster and Executing Creative Meaning Management in Advertising

Convergence Culture Consortium Affiliated Faculty Dr. Grant McCracken, over on his blog This Blog Sits at the, wrote a great examination of the recent Gatorade Propel 30-second spot.

For those who have not seen the ad, myself included, the commercial begins with a giant monster running through San Francisco's streets. However, the monster is a composite of a variety of objects from everyday life, including a loud television set, a screaming baby, jackhammers, taxi cabs, and a variety of other aspects of city life. The amalgamated beast eventually begins to fall apart, with various objects falling away, until it is revealed to just be a man exercising, who stops and takes a drink of his Propel water.

As Grant points out in his post, the ad draws on the idea that exercise helps one release from the stresses of everyday life, and then links Gatorade's Propel water with that stress.

Grant writes, "Meaning management sometimes goes like this. The idea is not to find a new meaning for the brand. The idea is to go after an existing meaning with new vigor and skill. In the language of marketing, the idea is to 'own' an idea that is already out there."

Grant's piece, and the Propel commercial (by the agency Elementy 79 Partners), raise two issues about the current status of the 30-second spot and about playing with existing meanings.

First, creativity still works.

The 30-second spot is not dead, even as people DVR right through so many ads and as the long-existing ad-ignoring behaviors of consumers becomes harder to ignore. However, people still watch commercials that catch their eye,and that just means that advertising firms and brand managers can't get a free pass.

Look back at my post in December 2005 about the Tyson commercial which uses a character on the set of soap opera As the World Turns in a humorous ad directed particularly at ATWT viewers.

Or look at the popularity of the Geico Caveman campaign and how those ads have spawned a life of their own, such as the Caveman's Crib Web site.

As I wrote back in December, people might not hate all advertising...just bad advertising.

Second, executing a good idea well never gets old. My colleagues and I were recently having a conversation about television shows, or any fictional plot, and how working within a particular genre requires either being completely new and innovative or getting to the core of what works so well that you exemplify what works about that genre. That's what the appeal of this commercial is. The "stress monster" doesn't break any new ground (well, the streets of San Francisco may disagree, pardon the pun...Grant started the bad word plays).

I've made the same argument about a professional wrestling match. Sure, sometimes the excitement comes in the unexpected ending, the upset victory, etc. On the other hand, the best stories in wrestling history, and I say this on WWE Wrestlemania 23 weekend, is when viewers can see what is coming, when it has been properly foreshadowed and built up every step of the way, and then the big performance gives that payoff in exactly the way the audience expected. That moment of fulfilling expectations, of being predictable yet pulling it off so well, is what this commercial does.

The "Stress Monster" may not have created a new meaning, but it can indeed stand as a symbol of how to use existing meanings well, tell a narrative viewers are already familiar with, and marry it flawlessly with a brand in a way that does not insult anyone's intelligence or feel manipulative.