This blog was originally posted on February 19th, 2015.
My candidate for the hands-down “what were they thinking?” award for Super Bowl XLIX is GoDaddy’s now-notorious “Puppy” ad, which was pulled from the broadcast schedule days before the game.
The ad, of course, was a parody of last year’s Budweiser puppy ad, highlighting something (oddly enough) that I pointed out in my Blog analysis of that ad—namely, that for all the heart warm, the Budweiser puppy was, in effect, a commodity for sale. GoDaddy’s version made this its punch line, with the adorable Golden Retriever pup returning home only to be shipped out again by his breeder, who smugly observes that the sale was made possible by her GoDaddy sponsored web page.
Indeed, I’m really beginning to wonder whether the GoDaddy ad team read my analysis of last year’s Budweiser puppy ad, because I also discussed there how Budweiser’s puppy narrative fit into a system that includes the movie Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, and, sure enough, the GoDaddy ad is packed with Hachi-like music and imagery.
But that’s not the point of this blog. I’m much more interested in noting how the GoDaddy debacle illustrates a fundamental principle of conducting semiotic analyses of advertising.
That principle is that advertisements characteristically try to associate some unrelated emotion with a product in order to move consumers towards purchasing it. The 2014 Budweiser puppy ad does this by appealing to its intended audience’s affection for cute animals (horses as well as dogs) to sell beer. The emotions stimulated in the GoDaddy ad are a great deal more complex, however. Audience affection for puppies isanticipated, but it is undercut by the pratfall-like reversal at the end of the ad, which turns upon a doubly humorous revelation: first, that the ad is a parody of the famous Budweiser ad; and second, that it is a satire of the sort of person who breeds dogs for profit.
Now, as an ad that plays upon viewer awareness of the prior ads that are being parodied, the GoDaddy ad joins the tradition of such campaigns as the Energizer Bunny series. Ads of this kind play upon their intended audiences’ disgust with advertising itself, and thus make viewers feel good about the product because the ad that is pitching it is also ridiculing advertising. Given the track record of such advertisements, the GoDaddy ad should have been a success.
But the strikingly unsympathetic character of the dog breeder in the GoDaddy ad is much more ambiguous. We are clearly not supposed to like her (an emotion that can be anticipated in an audience full of dog lovers). But, strangely enough, the dog breeder is also the one who is identified with GoDaddy, when she happily exclaims that it was her GoDaddy-hosted web site that enabled her to sell the puppy in the first place as she packs it off again into exile.
Um, what were they thinking? No wonder they pulled the ad—but the damage had already been done.
Moral of story: if you are going to advertise a product on the basis of unrelated emotions rather than on the objective facts of the product itself, you’d better get your emotions straight. Satirical humor can be a very effective way of moving the goods, but there are some things you mess with at your peril—puppies come to mind.