During the NFL games on Fox this weekend, we got a major shot of nostalgic advertising, courtesy of Advance Auto Parts and its DieHard car batteries. Ahead of the broadcast, Rumer Willis posted a clip of her dad on Instagram whistling Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, a nod to his legendary action flick character John McClane, with the hashtag #DIEHARDISBACK.
Turns out, it was a tease to the forthcoming two-minute ad starring Willis as McClane, sly knowing smirk still intact, as well as a couple of other original characters like Argyle the limo driver (De’voreaux White) and bad guy Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.), in an explosively illogical set-piece that somehow involves McClane needing a car battery.
For many, this will be a harmless romp down memory lane via a $2 million car parts ad. In a statement, Willis said, “I’ve never done any sort of commercial with the John McClane character, but Advance Auto Parts brought an idea to integrate DieHard the battery into the Die Hard story through a short film that’s authentic to McClane and both brands. Advance approached this like a motion picture–the script is clever, the production intense and the spot is entertaining. This is what Die Hard fans expect. I think they will dig the DieHard–Die Hard mashup.”
There are not enough puke emojis in the world to properly respond to that statement.
If 1980s pop culture is this for sale, let’s dive in head first. Is Sean Astin available to pitch a new candy bar favorite to Sloth? Maybe we can roll a 60-year-old Sean Penn out of a hot-boxed van to pitch us on a pair of Skechers? Wouldn’t Ferris Bueller make a great life insurance pitchman?
There are some characters that advertisers should treat like a third rail of pop culture. BEWARE! ACHTUNG! To say never may be excessive, but brands need to tread extremely lightly. New Yorker writer Amy Merrick said years ago that the 1980s were ripe for commercial strip mining. In that piece, University of Surrey psychologist Erica Hepper said that as people enter their fifties and begin to take stock of their lives, they become more susceptible to nostalgia. Hmm, now I wonder who’s most likely to be targeted by a car battery ad . . . . I don’t want to make any gross generalizations, but I’m guessing it’s not 18- to 25 year-olds.
Late last year, for its Xfinity ad for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Comcast made a five-minute epic harkening back to 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, to reunite our favorite alien with a glowing finger with his friend Elliott (Henry Thomas), now married with kids of his own. Agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners knew the exact buttons to push, from the screaming scene a la Drew Barrymore to flying bikes to the original soundtrack. The only thing missing for it to hit full commercial capacity was shoehorning in a Reese’s Pieces collaboration. Let’s hear it for restraint.
Over the past decade, some of the most popular ads that dip back into the TV and movie treasure trove of the 1980s did so as much by quantity as they did quality. To hype its new grocery pick-up service, Walmart rented just about every iconic movie car ever made for its 2019 awards season ad. With its fleet containing such multitudes as Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine, Knight Rider’s KITT, the Batmobile, and ECTO-1, the retailer was able to delight audiences by the sheer scale of the gag.
Back in 2014, both Delta Airlines and RadioShack piled a crowd of fan favorites into a new ad and flight safety video, respectively, giving audiences flashbacks thanks to putting such characters as Hulk Hogan, Chucky, ALF, Teen Wolf, and more in a thoroughly unexpected situation.
As these latest examples can attest, this kind of commercial nostalgia is perhaps best served in small and surprising doses.
Long, drawn out attempts at crafting a complementary story while selling a product, crammed into a few minutes of ad time are at best a blatant sales pitch that warms our nostalgic hearts for a moment before coming off as an overly long SNL sketch. At worst, they’re dousing the very notion of fandom in gasoline and tossing on a lit match of pop-culture blasphemy.
Which brings us back to Advance Auto Parts.
As the meta-sponsored, most recent season of Stranger Things reminded us, the 1980s really birthed the modern balance between commercials and culture. ET and Reese’s pieces, Back to the Future and Pepsi. Brands had become a part of culture. While that relationship became so blatantly obvious that Wayne’s World was spoofing it by 1992, seeing movie characters use real products has been tolerable because on some level we’re buying into the idea that these characters live in our own commercial reality. It’s not inconceivable, or at least not insulting, to think Tony Stark might hit up Burger King after three months held in a desert bunker.
But something happens when that dynamic is flipped and it’s the movie and TV characters appearing in the ads. It feels . . . dirtier. Instead of elevating the advertising, it cheapens the characters. Now, if a brand is investing in a movie with product placement, it’s perfectly understandable that it’ll want to boast about that involvement in every conceivable way for maximum return on investment, whether that’s meal combos, special-edition products, or, of course, advertising. However, brands have to temper our tolerance of this relationship, to find the line that separates logical business interests and gross sell out.
To tease a fanbase with cryptic hashtags like #DieHardIsBack, and even enlisting Willis’ daughter into the game, is not only misleading but downright mean.
To be clear, Die Hard isn’t back. It should’ve been #DieHardIsAConvenientSalesTool. Imagine you had actually got your hopes up here.That a new sequel to a beloved action franchise is just what you needed to distract yourself from the flaming dumpster fire tossed off the top of Nakatomi Plaza that is the year 2020. Only to be met with this? The battery ad equivalent of slipping off that watch, and your pop culture soul is Hans Gruber.
Yippee-ki-yay, corporate advertising demographic!