Business information written specifically for newspaper advertising departments

The Bandwagon

How to use pop culture references effectively
From using a color palette to a clever play on words, your expertise on the topic will help your clients steer clear of using pop culture references in damaging way.

You will find references to pop culture phenomenon everywhere, perhaps even places it doesn’t belong. People often shrug off the misuse of pop culture references; they understand the hype and go about their days. Other times, however, a misused reference can be a major faux pas, thus damaging a brand’s image. Knowing this, how do you negotiate the increasingly saturated and ever-changing pop culture market to give branding advice to your clients? The easiest answer is to know your reference. However, with the amount of pop culture influenced stimuli, that task could be difficult to accomplish.

If you have the time to familiarize yourself with major pop culture references of the day, use your knowledge of these iconic subjects to help inform the advertising of your clients’ product or service. From using a color palette to a clever play on words, your expertise on the topic will help your clients steer clear of using pop culture references in damaging way.

There are a couple rules to live by for this: the first being, don’t use any reference against the intent of the reference itself. If a book or movie has a clearly stated or implied objective or message, be careful not to override the spirit of the reference with your own ideas for branding. Those who know the reference intimately will be immediately put off. Not only that, but your clients may get the reputation of having bad or kitschy advertising. One thing is for sure, if your clients do decide to reference pop culture in their branding, help them to make sure it is subtle and clever.

Many mainstream brands jump on the pop culture bandwagon, if not all of them. McDonalds, for one, takes advantage of major movies by putting its characters on all of their products, and even by filling Happy Meals with themed toys. Since this marketing strategy is clearly not directed at adults, McDonalds has an advantage; their marketing doesn’t have to be clever or subtle, it just has to depict the characters the children love or admire, and parent’s feet will cross the McDonalds threshold.

Fortunately for McDonalds, referential intent is irrelevant, allowing them to slap any flavor-of-the-week character on their soda cups, because people will buy their product anyway. Other companies are not so lucky. Recently, the China Glaze nail polish brand developed a collection of shades called “Colors of the Capitol,” inspired by the 2012 blockbuster hit movie The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games is the story of a 16-year-old girl in the unfortunate circumstance of living in an authoritarian nation, called Panem. In the Panem, the Capitol “reaps” children from 12 different districts and sends them to fight to the death for the repentance of a rebellion that ended 75 years prior, and for the entertainment of the citizens of the capitol the districts serve. When the main character’s younger sister is picked to go, she volunteers, certain that she is going to be killed.

Since this story clearly defines an evil, the Capitol, all subsequent references by unrelated companies should celebrate the clearly delineated good, or the protagonist. Although, the collection certainly helped get some fans in the spirit of the movies, and aided them in making costumes for opening night, others were disappointed that these products celebrated the Capitol, not the protagonist.   

Why is this a negative thing? For starters, it shows that the brand leeching off the hype is either unaware of the major concepts of the reference, or that they simply don’t care. As for any major motion picture with a huge fan following, an understanding of the plot and characters will make for better, more effective and more nuanced branding possibilities.

Other ways to approach linking pop culture phenomena to positive branding strategies are to take phrases from the reference that are iconic, but don’t necessarily depend on the reference too much. For example, when Toy Story was in theatres, many businesses used Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase “To infinity, and beyond!” to indicate that their product or service was superior. Or, to use The Hunger Games for a second time, Direct Mail recently sent out a newsletter with the subject, “Direct Mail puts the odds in your favor.” This subject riffs off of one of the most iconic lines from The Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever your favor!” The use of an iconic phrase to promote a brand is both clever and nuanced as it can be used with or without the current pop culture reference.

In essence, it is important to use pop culture references wisely and only if they actually apply to your client’s brand. Misuse of these references could cause their brands more harm than good, because customers will perceive them to be shamelessly taking advantage of cultural hype, without understanding it. Consumers aren’t dumb, and while you might think that they will buy into anything, they tend to treasure their pop culture icons, and will not appreciate a business that jumps on the bandwagon. That said, if used subtly, pop culture references can skyrocket sales with clever phrases and nuanced references.