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Sara Lee’s spicy, unofficial SNL cameo is exactly what most brands want

“Becoming a part of culture” has become a marketing strategy, but the best examples are still unplanned and uncontrollable.

Sara Lee’s spicy, unofficial SNL cameo is exactly what most brands want
(Left to right) Cecily Strong, Bowen Yang, and host Harry Styles on Saturday Night Live. [Photo: Will Heath/NBC]

Sara Lee had a choice. The brand could somehow try to harness the power of “WRECK ME DADDY,” or it could realize that any attempt to capitalize on a hilariously raunchy SNL sketch would merely confirm that sketch’s point of mocking the social thirstiness of most brands.

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The sketch, starring Harry Styles, along with SNL cast members Cecily Strong and Bowen Yang, is a look inside what might happen if a social media manager started accidentally posting personal comments with the company account.

Where on earth could they have got that idea? Could’ve been the McDonald’s (now deleted, natch) tweet about President Trump that read, “@realDonaldTrump You are actually a disgusting excuse of a President and we would love to have @BarackObama back, also you have tiny hands.” Or maybe this infamous 2011 Chrysler tweet: “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive.”

Either way, there’s something about the ubiquitous branded efforts to integrate their commercial interests into every nook of social media space that makes it ripe for satire. Part of what makes this sketch so funny is the Grand Canyon-esque gap between the Sara Lee brand image and the comments Styles’ character posts. Of course, even that’s worked in real life, like when Steak-Umm decided to get real about life problems far beyond the traditional remit of a frozen steak sandwich.

“Becoming a part of culture” has become the go-to strategy for too many brands looking for a way to get your attention beyond inspiring more eye-rolls and ad-blocking tech. John Elder, CEO of Deloitte Digital’s creative shop Heat, told Marketing Dive during the annual Advertising Week conference back in October that marketers should focus on what’s called share of culture. “The best creative shows your target audience that you speak their language and that your intention is to contribute to the culture rather than use it to sell a product or a service,” said Elder.

But of course the entire intention is to use it to sell a product or service. That’s the whole point. And that’s exactly what SNL is laughing at, whether through the constant din of Brand Twitter or the worst versions of brand purpose. “Hard cut: Cheetos,” anyone?

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Thankfully, Sara Lee resisted the temptation to try to turn Saturday’s unplanned comedic turn into an official marketing opportunity, despite Bowen Yang’s disappointment. Parent company Bimbo Bakeries USA told The New York Post, “We didn’t participate in creating the skit and its content doesn’t align with Sara Lee Bread’s brand. But we all know SNL pushes the envelope for laughs and we are taking it in stride.”

Not every brand would have that kind of restraint, but ultimately this will probably work out to a win for Sara Lee, even if its photos of brioche bread and artisanal rolls now have comments like “wreck me king” and “rail me to death” underneath them.

Why?

Because it’s hilarious. And because the brand has backed off completely, it allows actual IRL people to have fun with the joke, which will most certainly involve buying Sara Lee products to do just that at home.

When it comes to culture, the brands that do it right know when to speak up and, more importantly, when to STFU and let that culture take the wheel. Of course, SNL is also a purveyor of its own branded opportunities, shelling out sponcon for the likes of Burger King and others. Perhaps the pitch is, pay us for a mild sketch or face the possibility of bearing the brunt of our unsponsored commercial satire. The latter of course is cheaper—it just includes more eggplant emoji.

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So how are we supposed to know what’s marketing and what’s just entertainment? We’re not. That’s exactly what brands are going for.

Must get rid of toxic in community.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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