Why that Windex ad (and others like it, oh and art) work


You know that Windex ad from back in August that people kinda lost their shit about? This one. It really tugs at the ol' heartstrings; you watch a father-daughter relationship bud, blossom, and bloom throughout their lives together, gesturing to what inevitably comes after the bloom for the dad (hint: he's mortal). Product placement of Windex is fairly tangential to the story; the logo and campaign tag line pop up at the end, and the product is surely used to clean the streak-free glass and windows by which the viewer gazes upon our story's characters. It's really great production, and could be enough to get dudes longingly thinking about their could-be or have-been daughters when they see their smudgy windows. 

So let's look under the hood. Windex isn't particularly revolutionary here; it's utilizing a tried and true method of emotional manipulation that we've seen time and time again. What makes this type of ad work so well, and what does it take to make a good one?

The answer, I think, is roughly a two-parter. The easy answer is that "it's relatable." Alright, relatable to whom? "Everyone." Why? And that's where people get stuck. "...because. The tonality. The truth. It's emotional." They're not wrong, but those aren't answers that contribute to, or derive from, an analytical point of view. And that's important, because systematically figuring out their machinations makes this type of highly effective campaign more replicable (meaning that you do really good work more often).

So here are the two reasons (the first is the underlying structuring principle, the second reason relates more specifically to the audience, and to the success of this type of ad for this type of CPG brand) why these ads affect people the way that they do, as run through my approach to planning:


Reason 1:

There's a particular framework to all of this kind of emotionally touching advertising, whether their creators know it or not. Here's the idea without wasting your time, which we can unpack a bit: develop ad campaigns that relate to what your audience aspires to one day be, so that you and your products can evoke a sense of that desired "to-be" state. You can show them what it's like, and be in on their desires. Their desired state of "to-being," if you will. This relates directly to what I've been calling an 'emotions- and needs-based' approach to creative strategy (peep my worksheet if you wanna write a brief using this framework). If you can understand where people came from - culturally, socially, economically - and where they are now, you can understand what they want next (in the near future, or as an ultimate goal), and how they hope to feel. Then, in your advertising, you can position your brand and product as a visceral representation of what they want to feel.

Let's take a peek at this Kona spot. It's good vibes encapsulated and personified, with the Kona 'Bruddahs' speaking directly to the audience's day in, day out 9-to-5 existence. These spots intend to make their audience yearn for their vacation or retirement; they elicit a sense of reprieve on the horizon from your current existence, whenever your next vacation or retirement might actually be. We know that workers are taking fewer vacation days and that employee stress has spiked, so it checks that cultural trends box. Originally, these TV and video spots ran in a handful of west coast cities, for whom Hawaii is a relatable, realistic vacation destination. You may have even gone yourself, or desire it as an escape that's just slightly out of your grasp - no time, too many responsibilities - which makes a little bit of Hawaiian relaxation in a bottle sound pretty nice, right? If you're selling me a Hawaiian beer, I'd package it in a message that evokes a vacation in a bottle, too.

So Reason #1 is about the framing principle to this type of ideation: make ads that relate to what your audience aspires to reach, so that you and your products can evoke a sense of that desired "to-be" state.  It can be a near-term state of being, or a long-term end goal. Show them that story, and let them experience it. Imprint your brand on that feeling in their minds.


Reason 2:

The second reason comes down to your desired audience, which I hinted at above. You have to know your specific audience and what they want. Time for some social science talk for a second: we're all conditioned to want something(s) in life: social expectations, what's good and bad, the different paths and decisions that we unconsciously know to be viable or not. If you can understand your audience's deeper desires (and how they want to feel when they fulfill those wants & needs), you can offer a bridge between the felt gap between the now and the desired state. It's about knowing your audience, and adapting your messaging to the shared desires that your brand can touch on.

Let's look again at the Windex spot. It's aimed at a very large, broad audience. To resonate with a bunch of people, it had to connect with a very widely shared sense of meaning. Something hegemonic, and universally recognized and legitimate. Without doing so, it would either fall flat (by failing to resonate with anyone) or be too niche (resonating as true with only a select swathe of the audience). In the case of the Windex ad, the spot plays into a classic: the archetypal 'family man' in the U.S. - which boys and men generally recognize as a very admirable aspiration, and to which girls and women of domestic labor and Windex usage & purchase age are taught to seek in a partner and life - who lives a long, fulfilling, and healthy enough life that they get to feel the same growth and completion in their lives as what's depicted in the ad. 

The idea here is that this set of men is conditioned to seek to care for their daughter, and to see her grow to the point of choosing another straight masculine suitor equal(ish) to you, signaling that you've raised a woman who desires, and can recognize, a Good Man. Because you're a Good Man. It's about the full cycle of the daughter-father relationship. That's a life well-lived. Cue waterworks.

Sounds kinda creepy when it's laid out so dispassionately, but whatever. Windex is over here taking a cattle prod to the emotional experience of this idealistic end state to great effect. Do I think that the team that made this ad thought as plainly about it as I've laid out here? Maybe, but probably not. Although that's where the opportunity lies to make these ad campaigns deliberately and repeatedly. 

So that's it. Figure out what your audience's desired end state is, and then tell a story that gets them there on the journey, that makes them feel how they want to feel in that state of being. "To-being," as I like to call it. I argue that this is actually easiest to do 1. for the biggest audiences, and 2. by people who are of the niche audience to which they're speaking. It can be done more through lived experience interpreted as "gut instinct." And if you're of the fairly small social strata to which you're speaking, you already "know" how they feel and can understand their trajectory into that state of "to-being." Gut, again, as a matter of life experience. But gut only goes as far as your experiences line up with your audience.

Get good creative talent triggering these emotions from those cross-cutting cultural threads, and you get work like this Windex ad. You also get great entertainment, and even art.  The best of these ads are legitimately art: like the best cinema, music, literature, whatever, they stir up an emotional sense of what it is to be, and what's to come for their audiences.

Do you need this kind of (arguably overly) systematic analysis to make great creative? No. But I think you need some frame or lens by which to approach creating it for different types of audiences effectively, or for taking deliberate, repeated efforts to resonate with a mainstream audience repeatedly. You can work your magic as a creative and hit a few home runs based on gut. But most pros will likely have to try to reach multiple audiences, some of whom will be out of their comfort zone or experience. Something like this framework is useful, then, to increase the odds of hitting home runs, and decrease the odds of striking out entirely. Using a systematic approach helps you make more Windex ads, and make fewer (hopefully zero) Kendall Jenner Pepsi ads.

Swing away.

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