9 Powerful Archetypes in Super Bowl Ads (and One That Should Inspire Caution)

As some of you who have heard me speak or write on the topic, as a visual storyteller I have always been interested in archetypes –  universally transcendent types of people Carl Jung believes are found in our collective unconscious. They’re types of people we know without ever having met. Archetypes are shaped by our history, culture and personal context as they speak to us on an almost instinctual level. It’s always worth considering the relevancy of archetypes when poised for any type of mass communication, either in an editorial or commercial context.

Super Bowl commercials, massive opportunities for storytelling around a digital campfire, can be superb examples of how creative minds can tap archetypes to gather a community around a story. They also help to answer the riddle of our times: “How do you keep the human attention span when it’s shorter than that of a goldfish?”

Four years later, I am still inspired by a great example of an archetype at Super Bowl time – the “God Made a Farmer” ad for Ram Trucks, in style and approach similar to the prequel to the more controversial “Built to Serve”.  A transcendent voice in Paul Harvey intones our deeper selves to pause to grasp elemental truths about the Farmer archetype, a crucial figure of our food chain and the backbone of economies the world over. It helped the ad was based on the medium of documentary photography, a conduit for authentic truth and spellbinding attention.

Likewise, the “Built to Serve” by Ram Trucks had an equally outstanding message, built around the principle of serving others. It had the blessing of the Martin Luther King, Jr. estate. It had cinematic video of a high caliber. The ad was in part based on the Prophet archetype. What became painfully obvious, however, is that no estate owns holy archetypes – so such an archetype needs to be treated with caution. People the world over depend on the guidance of prophets for hope beyond our material world and things money can’t buy. Given the divided soul of a nation where many are crying out for peace and justice, having a prophetic figure guide us back to materialism in the form of a heavy-duty truck was too much for some.

When you look at serving others, as exemplified by the Caregiver archetype, no figure can perhaps lay greater claim to being the unselfish protector and compassionate giver than a first responder, which is probably why the Verizon ad was one of the few where I instantly started to tear up (nice going all). First responders are both Caregivers and Heroes wrapped in one. They also tap into the powerful Reciprocity Principle. Seeing news photos lifted up in context was also very inspiring to reinforce the “real people” reality of these stories.

The Hero Archetype? Most clearly seen through the triumph of 8X Paralympic Gold Medalist Lauren Woolstencroft, who proves the power of the human will against the odds. We see the courage, strength and discipline to fight our own heroic battles as we are left in awe.  Heroes are the role models that transcend circumstance.

 

The Innovator was represented by Keanu in his ad for Squarespace. As a Creator, he has what could be seen as a burning-bush-in-the-desert experience in the fuller version of the ad online (Neo is the chosen one, after all). What does riding on the back of a motorcycle until launching into the sky have to do with building a website? Is walking on wheels like walking on water? Who knows? He’s too busy fulfilling the archetype of a creator in his vision to create lasting value. Critics will easily get lost in this desert but the message has already been sent, and more importantly, felt.

The Regular Guy’s struggle for respect was exquisitely and comically played by Chris Pratt as he seeks the elusive fame of being featured prominently in a beer commercial, only to find that he finds fame as elusive as the rest of us. How many everyman’s dreams end in a bar with friends?  If you know his backstory before stardom, he was homeless and working at a restaurant until he was offered an acting opportunity, giving special resonance to this archetype for those in the know.

If you represent an airline looking to boost travel, why not tap into the Explorer archetypethrough Dr. Oz’s enthralled recounting of all we are capable of seeing, hearing, feeling and experiencing through the human senses? You could live out another Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell.

I’m sure David Harbour has played stranger things than the Jester, as he romped through all the well-worn commercials to rip up storyboards everywhere he saw them. His running joke irreverence helped us see the commercial landscape through a newer and cleaner perspective, leaving us amused and grateful.

 

I will never forget making a portrait of natural talent Keegan-Michael Key on a train in Chicago as a comedian with the Second City troupe before he achieved greater fame.  I was delighted to see him assume the role of the Sage, a wise and truth-seeking figure, as he set people straight until finally showing them how to navigate the mortgage process for Quicken Loans.

To conclude, there are plenty more archetypes to consider, from Vikings to Knights, and other figures who have come to represent various versions of the Conquering Hero (this is the Super Bowl after all). What I found most interesting and amusing was how the Bud Light ad almost “flipped the script”, where the shining-hero-on-a-horse that expect to act in one way, acts in the opposite.

Good thing our knight had second thoughts. Perhaps we will see more examples of upside-down archetypes next year as we see new twists on the old.

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