Tide laundry detergent has dominated the time-honored American tradition of Super Bowl ads this year with a tour-de-force of comedy writing and brand-bending parody. Presented by David Harbour (Hopper on Stranger Things and the titular role in Hellboy), the series of spots were made to look like other familiar brands, with one catch: The ads were not about the brand they suggested, but were really about how clean Tide made everyone’s clothes.
Some of the depictions of the non-Tide products come very close to looking like the real thing, as in the case of Tide’s spoof of Mr. Clean floor cleaner. So how could Tide get away with it? The internet seized on the fact that Mr. Clean and Tide are both owned by Procter & Gamble. This is also true of Old Spice, whose commercials were likewise parodied by Tide. That explanation is a little facile.
Procter & Gamble does not make beer, or Clydesdale horses. Those things are associated with Budweiser, which was another apparent target for Tide. There was a clear reference to Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa. Towards the end of the night, a Tide spot ran that seemed to poke fun at the pharmaceutical industry.
I will be interested to see if there is any backlash. I’m sure that Procter & Gamble’s position is that the commercials are parody. They are appropriating the other brands, but also saying, “We’re not infringing on your trademark because we’re not competing with it.”
I may be putting words in Tide’s mouth, but at least I agree with them. The commercials demonstrate a transformative use; you think you’re getting something predictable, but you’re not. The commercials literally transform. Not to mention, all of the parodied brands are cultural icons.
It’s an interesting issue. Clearly Tide vetted it seriously, considering that a 30-second Super Bowl commercial costs $5 million. I’m betting that the parodied brands are happy with their cameos.
This article was inspired by observations of the astute Zev Kaufman, a senior at Brandeis University, who’s future employment in advertising or marketing would obviate his moving back into the author’s house next year.
Mark S. Kaufman
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