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Kapow! Superheroes forever?

Superheroes can give brands superpowers that others can only look at in awe

By Jeremy Lee

While superheroes may seem to us like a phenomenon whose ascendancy can be traced to the rise of pop culture of the 1960s, their history extends far further back and into the mists of ancient history and mythology.

Attributing imaginary or embellishing existing powers to make individuals appear "super" was something that was happening way before Marvel Comics popularised the technique. Indeed, you could argue that many belief systems that we use today are built upon their veneration.

Little wonder, then, that advertising too has a rich history of adopting superhuman characters, or creating them itself, to give brands some superpowers of their own.

And unlike the Marvel Comics, they weren't just targeted at children - products as prosaic as Ajax cleaner joined Wall's ice cream and public service announcements in using superheroes to peddle their wares.

Probably the most famous UK advertising superhero is the Green Cross Code Man, played by Dave Prowse who then went onto play the Star Wars anti-hero Darth Vader. He turned the act of crossing the road safely for children into an act of superheroism.

Why we love (and need) superheroes

Superheroes have never really gone away since their ascendancy in the UK coincided with the development of commercial television (in the US, they go back further).

Rachel Pashley, planning partner at Wunderman Thompson UK, says: "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 reconsidering 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."

According to AMV BBDO's senior strategist Mike Alhadeff, their enduring popularity - both within and without advertising - is that they tap into our childhood. "From our earliest childhood memories, we learn that everything will be alright if a superhero appears on the scene. But there is also a more visceral association with superheroes – the idea that they suspend belief, break the rules, and perhaps most importantly, provide a sense of escapism which has been more needed as we emerge from pandemic fatigue. And again, these are all things a brand may seek to tap into when they employ a superhero, to lift them from the pack and to show there is no such thing as ordinary."

Whilst not adopting superheroes themselves to show remarkable prowess and skill, 4Creative revolutionised coverage of the Paralympic Games with its 'Meet the Superhumans' spot for London 2012. It showed that the participants were far from ordinary and was followed by by 'We're the Superhumans' for Rio 2016 and 'Super.Human' for Tokyo 2020.

In more recent years, their popularity has appeared to be growing further still: this might, in part, be due to the popularity of superhero film franchises at the cinema but also due to a need within us to find hope to get us through difficult times, as Mike Alhadeff points out.

This was particularly pronounced during the desperate days of the Covid pandemic when NHS staff were granted the epithet "superhero" and Banksy created and auctioned off a "superhuman nurse" to raise funds for NHS charities.

Mike Alhadeff agrees that the current prevailing national mood makes now the ideal time to claim superpowers. "Who needs a superhero? It feels like the world needs one right now", he says. "As we emerge battered and bruised from the pandemic and head straight into economic meltdown, it feels like only a superhero can saves us from the mess we find ourselves in."

In recent months we've seen Moneysupermarket through New Commercial Arts unveil a cast of superhumans that can help save us bills. In that regard, it was following a strategy that had already been used by Moneysupermarket's previous agency Mother that pitted He-Man against Skeletor.

While Saatchi & Saatchi has recently traded in Direct Line's longstanding Winston Wolf brand character for a range of licensed superhero figures that have been dispatched to help save the day:

Drawing power from new dimensions

Rachel Pashley believes the fact that so many superheroes derive their superpowers from personal trauma provides them with something that we can empathise with.

She says: "One of the key reasons we love superheroes 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 struggle 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."

Dan Hulse, chief strategy officer at St Luke's, agrees with this assessment. "Advertising uses superheroes a lot, but I think our industry misses the point. Fans talk about the Golden Age of comics, from the introduction of Superman in 1938 to the late 1950s. These heroes were paragons, mighty and flawless. At a time of global conflict, they’re what the Western world wanted. But things got really interesting in the 1960s, the Silver Age. That’s when Stan Lee and others introduced a raft of new, flawed heroes. People like Spiderman, a kid struggling to pay rent in Queens. The Hulk, with his constant battle with rage. And later, the X-men, a metaphor for racial discrimination. If you watch a superhero show on Amazon or Disney+ today you’ll see a much richer set of themes being explored than you might expect. Ms Marvel looks at how the authorities respond with fear to a Muslim girl with powers. The Umbrella Academy’s central character came out as a trans man. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier asks what it means for a black man to be Captain America."

But he thinks that the advertising industry is missing this crucial point - and that represents an opportunity that could be tapped. "Equality, representation and social division are themes that our industry care deeply about. Yet when ads use superheroes, we’re stuck in the Golden Age, using them as one-dimensional symbols. The real strength of these characters isn’t their super, it is their ability to resonate with the issues of today. Superheroes are flawed, relatable, and struggling with heightened versions of the same problems we all are. Netflix, Disney and Amazon get it. I’d like to see what happens when brands start to get it too," he says.

Superheroes are also crucial participants in the never ending battle between good and evil - and what brand would not want to be on the side of good? Droga5 London used the actor Nick Frost as an imaginary superhero who was gifted 'good' superpowers to battle against evil in this tongue-in-cheek spot for Barclaycard:

Subversion of the superhero

Michael Lee, the chief strategy officer at VCCP, says that he can see why agencies and brands are tempted to swoop on a superhero as a representation of a brand. "Superheroes can definitely add some hyperbolic excitement to a product demo in a low-engagement category," he says. This might explain why home insurance and price comparison sites find them particularly compelling.

However he has a warning, particularly given how prevalent they currently seem to be. "Much like any advertising trope, when they're seemingly in every other ad campaign, they can become vanilla and easily misattributed not just to the wrong brand but also the wrong sector," he says.

Michael Lee concludes that, and in the spirit of advertising creating culture rather than 'borrowing' from it, agencies are best off creating their own superheroes. "Those that tend to last the distance are the ones which have a bit more distance from the Marvel/DC universe world of superheroes such as Winston Wolf for Direct Line. So if you really feel your brand needs a hyperbolic boost, build your own superhero, don't borrow one: it's the difference between owned vs borrowed equity."

And as a creative challenge that's a far more interesting proposition than just picking one off the shelf. AMV's Mike Alhadeff has an alternative suggestion: "But is there a twist in the tale? As Hollywood has recently shown, there has been a growing thirst for the dark superhero, or even anti-hero, perhaps chiming with prevailing mood. So, the question is, will a brand be brave enough and lean into the growing sense of subversion?"

Dave Prowse, who went from teaching kiddies to cross the road safely to the 'dark father' of their nightmares, would certainly approve.

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