Levi Strauss’s Train vs Nike’s Horse-on-Course: What Message Does a Horse Deliver in a Television Commercial?

Isn’t it time for a new season of Mad Men? I think I need the crew from Cooper Sterling Draper Pryce to explain some horse commercials to me.

Where’s Don Draper when we need him© I need his help to decipher the message in Nike’s horse commercial: Is it trying to tell us something about golf balls…or ourselves©© (Closing frame of Nike 20XI commercial, April 2011)

Don Draper would have plenty to say about how and why you use a horse in a commercial. He’d set copywriter Peggy Olsen on the case of telling the client exactly why the agency was using a horse in a shoot. What horses say to a woman. Or a man. Where this ad is going. Why and how it ties to the product. Something he instinctively knows, but he needs Peggy to articulate for him.

During the meeting there would come a moment when he’d just look the client in the eye. He’d stare him or her down and declare, “You’ve got to trust me on this one. Your ad needs a horse.”

Joan would shuffle some papers to signify the meeting was over. Ice cubes clink against glass. Cigarettes are lit.

The client pushes back his chair and beams, “A horse it is. My daughter loves horses.”

Don stares down at his gold cigarette lighter for a second. The home audience is cued to remember that his real-identity father was killed when he was kicked in the head by a horse.

When advertising agencies add a horse to the storyboard of a commercial, do they run the risk that the horse will steal the scene, upstage the “sell”, and leave the consumer with the desire to buy a horse or book a riding lesson or go to the racetrack rather than buy the product?

I guess the message sometimes is that there is no message, just the emotional moment of the experience of viewing the ad. The horse is there to evoke that emotional response. He’s a trigger to a prescribed reaction. Or, he’s there to make the ad stand out among other ads. People will stop clicking through channels to watch a horse fly through the air.

But what emotions are these latest horse-centric ads supposed to evoke? Do you think they evoke different reactions in viewers of different ages or genders?

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I’m at a loss for the train ad; I think it is a fantasy designed to elicit sheer adrenalin and it was probably everyone’s favorite over at EventingNation. Apparently the ad ran into some perception problems with railroad safety interests in the United States, and its airing on television was postponed back when it was originally produced as the Levis Super Bowl ad about ten years ago. AdWeek covered the controversy. Levi Strauss must have spent–and lost–a fortune on this giant leap.

Apparently, there was some fear that people would try to imitate the commercial. People, yes, but horses, no. A horse galloping on a railroad bed would be a tough assignment; the animal would likely trip over the railroad ties and my guess is that he’d have a hard time at any gait.

If the train seems vaguely familiar, it was created by Alien‘s H. R. Giger, a Swiss surrealist creative force who has influenced so much public and entertainment art–and you probably don’t even know his name. If anyone’s intrigued with the tech side, there’s a great explanation of the train creation / animation from Giger’s web site and how the horse’s legs were created in a separate animation program.

According to Giger’s web site, the commercial aired on MTV, and Giger also designed the special saddle for the carabiner (rock climbing) type clips.

A revisionist version from the equestrian point of view might have the rider unclipping the safety gear, if it’s supposed to be a fantasy. Hooks on your jeans and no helmet on your head is an interesting contrast! Wouldn’t you love to know who the stunt rider was?

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I covered the launch of the Nike golf commercial extensively over on my Hoof Blog; the idea of hooves meeting the tenderly manicured greens of a golf course evoked some important memories for me and I found some historical precedents, too.

According to 602 Communications’ analysis of Nike’s branding strategy, the horse’s boundless energy, spirit and (apparently) even his destructive hooves counter the lazy, lax side we all have; Nike products will banish our lazy bad habits and inspire our heroic selves.

What would Don Draper do?

I like the Storyful interpretation: this is post-Tiger Nike establishing themselves as a different animal. In a headline I wish I had written, they ask, “Is Nike Putting the Art Before the Horse?”

Adweek didn’t seem to think the ad said anything at all. They thought it was more about horses than golf.

And while we’re at it, how about…

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and who could forget the very dark humor of Verizon’s ad for a cellphone that’s so much better to receive on Christmas morning than an unwanted pony:

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Maybe it’s a good thing that Madison Avenue is thinking beyond the Budweiser Clydesdales. I just wish I knew, sometimes, what they were thinking. Mad Men, real and imagined, work in interesting ways.

What’s your favorite horse commercial? Leave a link in the comments section, if it’s on You Tube, or tell us about it if it’s not.




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