What can we learn about consuming pop culture from the TED ‘Ads Worth Spreading’ list?

TED just released “Ads Worth Spreading” (here’s the full list) as part of a big week for ’em (the 30th Anniversary of TED is right now in Vancouver). There are no trophies for winning, and ultimately you need to fall within these categories: storytelling, social good, cultural compass, creative wonder, or learning. But the idea of “brand bravery” is what’s really important:

“We realized that brand bravery, which was originally a category, needs to be embodied by all of the winning ads,” says Carnegie. “We kept hearing powerful stories from creatives and marketers on how they helped push their ideas through big organizations. A successful campaign needs both sides to champion and stand up for an idea; our recognition of brand bravery is a celebration of those who succeed through that process.”

That’s a very legitimate concept, because getting an idea through a web of hierarchy is just about one of the most complex things you can do in a big company (and most of these winners come from big companies, or at least places with some structure to them). So, what can we learn? And would it have any resonance to the idea of how the media game is changing more broadly?

1. Family matters to people. This Proctor & Gamble ad — “Thank You Mom / Pick Them Back Up” — was a big winner.

This speaks to one of the base concepts of society: simple motherhood and love. When a person reaches a medal stand, it’s often because of the sacrifices of their mother/both parents. I do believe that sometimes the “I don’t know how she does it!” narrative can get a bit old (especially when SJP appears in a movie of that title), but I do completely and unequivocally believe that even an average mother is 170x more valuable to society than a stellar CEO.

This homeward bound ad from Google Earth, about a 26-year journey to find your family, was also a winner:

Again, the idea of understanding who you are and where you come from. In a simple concept, the value of family.

2. Humor still works. This Adobe ad basically takes a concept no one really understands — big data and marketing/sales analytics — and turns it into a humorous, well-told spot.

This is less about humor and more about sheer entertainment, but the Virgin Safety Dance would be in the same general category. It’s serious ear worm.

3. Storytelling is still the crux of everything. Simple and beautiful from Guinness:

It sounds melodramatic, but the choices we make do reveal the true nature of our character. It’s a simple message and told in 1 minute or so. Then there’s this, about female interaction with beauty — a long-evolving story told in a simple way with a cool song underneath.

When did you stop thinking you’re beautiful? 

If you go through all the ads on the link at the top, you’ll find that it rolls up pretty nicely with some of the bigger discussions recently on “why we share what we share.” Essentially, shareable content needs to trigger some emotion — primarily that’s happiness, which makes sense contextually if you think of the amount of Facebook “likes” on an engagement post, for example — but it can also be anger or confusion or something similar. But people are busy, so the connection needs to be done simply and effectively, with a good underlying story, and the simple story needs to provoke an emotion. That leads to sharing and broader reach, and is all tied back to a company being able to move forward their idea. This is a much different idea than the world of direct mail and big TV ad buys, per se; the game has changed. So be swift, be family-focused, be fun, be simple, tell a great story, and don’t run from humor. That’s how you reach the masses in the modern world (or so it seems).

Ted Bauer