Tag Archives: advertisements

What Were They Thinking?: Selling Rocket Mortgage in a Post-2008 Economy

“Push button. Get Mortgage.” That’s the tagline of Quicken Loans’ new product, Rocket Mortgage. The company introduced Rocket Mortgage to the massive television audience watching Super Bowl 50 in a one-minute commercial. The ad describes a simple push button app that allows people to get mortgages on their phones, which would lead to a “tidal wave of ownership [that] floods the country with new homeowners who now must own other things.”

After it aired, there was an eruption of criticism for the piece, titled “What We Were Thinking.” Here is a sampling of the next day’s headlines: Rocket Mortgage Super Bowl Ad Criticized for Encouraging Another Housing Crisis, Is that Quicken Loans Super Bowl Ad an Omen of Another Housing Crash?, Quicken’s Rocket Mortgage Super Bowl Ad Sparks Backlash, and Everything That’s Wrong With the Super Bowl’s Worst Ad. Tweeters, bloggers, journalists, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau noted the parallels of the promise of quick mortgages to the flurry of irresponsible mortgage-selling activity that caused the 2008 housing and financial crisis. Meanwhile, Quicken defended its product as one that ensures “full transparency.”


Quicken Loans Twitter

The advertisement for Rocket Mortgage is visually compelling and calls upon tried and true cultural tropes. Why then, was it not persuasive? Let’s take a closer look:

“What We Were Thinking” has a strong, consistent cadence throughout. The guitar in the background music is a driving beat. Even when other sounds are laid on top, the underlying sound remains the same – and it’s one that creates a feeling of both urgency and forward motion.

The ad’s narrator does the same thing with her words. She strings together a chain of questions, each beginning with the word “and.” Each question appears to follow from the previous, and together they build a progress narrative:

And if it could be that easy, wouldn’t more people buy homes? And wouldn’t those buyers need to fill their homes with lamps and blenders and sectional couches with hand-lathed wooden legs? And wouldn’t that mean all sorts of wooden leg making opportunities for wooden leg makers? And wouldn’t those new leg makers own phones from which they could quickly and easily secure mortgages of their own, further stoking demand for necessary household goods as our tidal wave of ownership floods the country with new homeowners who now must own other things. And isn’t that the power of America itself?

It’s possible for someone to argue with the premises of any of these questions or with the conclusions they imply, but the narrator does not pause between them to allow this. Instead, her cadence paired with the linked questions fosters a sense of inevitability.

It could seem strange to end this series with “And isn’t that the power of America itself?,” but the progress narrative is so key to the American mythos, and so reliant on notions of inevitability, that it makes sense here. In response to criticism of the ad, Quicken’s chief marketing officer said, “I think that everyone is realizing it’s time for the housing industry to advance.” Quicken Loans is not just selling houses, it’s selling a very particular understanding of progress, one rooted in consumption, accumulation, ownership. Indeed, the American Dream, our leading progress narrative in the U.S., is often defined first in terms of ownership, via “a house with a white picket fence.”

All of this is accompanied by a sense of “no big deal.” The ad’s narrator begins with, “Here’s what we were thinking,” and ends with, “anyway, that’s what we were thinking.” It feels nonchalant, makes it sound like the narrative is just common sense. The mundanity of the activities depicted in the commercial contribute to this feeling: people at a movie, people doing their jobs, people at an exercise class, a woman carrying her baby in the kitchen. These are everyday activities for everyday folks. They are common. In the Quicken ad, progress is common sense. Ownership is common sense.

Given these well worn tropes, one would expect the viewing public to be on board with Rocket Mortgages. But here’s the thing: the message doesn’t match the audience’s experience.

Early in the commercial, as the app promises to “turn an intimidating process into an easy one,” a magician appears on the screen with fireworks and a woman sawed in half. This visual misstep serves as a reminder that what appears to be easy, what is advertised as common sense, is often an illusion. There is not a single scene in which people look at each other during the ad, apart from the one containing the magician, who looks directly at the viewer. It is as though he is trying to hypnotize the audience into buying what Quicken is selling.


In all of the other scenes, people only look at their phones. The household goods that mark progress throughout the piece spin around in the air, but people do not interact with them. This tells us a lot about how Quicken sees its audience – as consumers, but not as community.

The trouble for Quicken is that most of the Super Bowl viewers watched their communities crumble over the course of the 2008 housing crisis, and beyond. They watched as banks were bailed out while their friends, family members, or even themselves, were left jobless, houseless. History is wont to repeat itself, but the backlash to “What We Were Thinking” shows us our collective memories last at least eight years. It may also suggest that “the people” and the banking industry may have now very different ideas about what it means to progress.

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“Flipping the Script” on Panhandling

This summer, Vitamin Water and CollegeHumor released the above video, “Subway Bragger,” as a part of the water brand’s new #makeboringbrilliant advertising campaign. The idea, of course, is that water on its own is boring, but Vitamin Water has made it “brilliant” through the addition of tasty flavors and vitamin supplements. “Subway Bragger” is part of a series of online videos in which panhandling joins waiting rooms, airplane delays, a natural history museum tour, and more, as the “boring” to which Vitamin Water adds flair.

Online response to this panhandling “prank” on a Philadelphia subway train has been mostly positive. GOOD magazine and Philly.com call the video “hilarious,” Policy Mic touts it as an “awesome performance,” and inspirational website Upworthy says that while being “pretty hilarious,” the video “teaches a little lesson on not being so quick to judge people.” The Huffington Post featured the clip in its comedy section, and explained that the people on this train were “delighted” when this panhandler “flipped the script.” Interestingly, the only negative responses I have found to the piece have come from the advertising community. AdWeek’s David Kiefaber wrote, “maybe a sugar-water brand’s energy would be better spent actually helping the homeless [rather] than making fun of them,” and the AdRANTS blog questions the marketing value of a video that “makes light” of homelessness.

To call panhandling — and by implication, poverty — “boring” isn’t just to minimize the struggle of millions of people who experience homelessness in the United States each year. It also speaks to the ease with which so many Americans allow visible poverty to become an (effectively) invisible part of the urban background, as natural as the honking of horns, the smell of the subway station, or the changing of traffic lights. To pass someone in need has become mundane, and that is what allows Vitamin Water to place it in the same campaign as the boring waiting room ad.

What I find even more interesting than the campaign slogan is the response to the video. The scenario is “hilarious” because the black man speaking on the subway train isn’t poor. If this is a “flipped script,” the poverty of a black man is normal, but his ability to speak eloquently and succeed economically is unusual. And, in the words of Vitamin Water, it’s not just funny, it’s “brilliant.”

I would argue, however, that the script hasn’t actually been flipped. Instead, I think the presumed panhandler simply moves from one stereotype of black masculinity to another. Rather than serving as the poor black man, as the audience anticipates, he serves as the black comedian. A number of scholars (including for example, Patricia Hill Collins and Donald Bogle) have explained that black men who wish to avoid being freighted with images of poverty and criminality in the media have few options, but an ability to entertain is one of them. Humorous black characters like those played by Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, or Bill Cosby are “acceptable” black men who appear “safe” (i.e., not criminal, not poor) so long as they don’t challenge existing race norms. As the man in this video moves from presumed panhandler to subway car entertainer, he does not escape the social categories that guide the ways that Americans (white Americans, in particular) interpret black male identities. The script isn’t flipped; it just shifts.

Vitamin Water is not just selling water with the “Subway Bragger.” It is also marketing narratives of race and class. Rather than challenging viewers’ perceptions, the video’s humor reinforces their beliefs about both poverty and black men in America.

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