What one person may find cute, another may consider a completely repulsive pile of overly rich cheese. You can’t please everyone — this is indisputable.
But is there an objective line between cute and cutesy, between sentimental and cheesy? Is there a universal formula that can appeal to the largest potential audience and make even the most cold-hearted go “aww?”
What’s the secret? What makes a commercial sentimental enough to warm the coldest hearts without driving them away? Is it cute kids? Puppies? While both are great, we think it’s more simple than that.
Really, it’s all about sincerity.
A truly sincere ad can engage the audience in the lives of characters who are only around for a minute or less. We’ve already mentioned our favourite Christmas commercials, those of UK retailer John Lewis. In 2013, John Lewis’s annual Christmas commercial managed to captivate its audience with characters who are not only animated, but they’re not even human.
But what about ads that just seem disingenuous? This Toyota commercial clearly went for cute and, quite frankly, failed.
The dialogue between the parents and the receptionist is completely unnatural (why would the customer be saying to the employee, “Toyotas are safe and reliable!” and not the other way around?) and the kid takes wide-eyed eagerness to a whole new level. The extra-sweet vanilla ice cream on top of the cheesy apple pie is the receptionist’s last line — “Well, I didn’t win!” and her carefree guffaw. “Hah hah! I can’t spell!”
Writing “cute” can be a daunting task, but it all boils down to one thing: you have to believe it yourself. If you can’t even bring a smile to your own face, what makes you think it will have that effect on others?
Here’s a commercial we think walks along that line — the second in Cheerios’s “Gracie” series depicting a modern family with an adorable biracial daughter, Gracie.
In this, Gracie’s father explains that Gracie is soon to become a big sister. The dialogue is heartwarming, but not to an unrealistic degree (it helps that it’s well-acted). The music might help to lay the sweetness on a little thick, but overall, you have a cute little family scene that leaves you smiling. What do you think of “Gracie?” Too much sugar, or just right?
It may seem like a silly thing to ponder over, but sweetness is an art. Much like a baker attempting to achieve the perfect balance of tastes in a dish, it’s a meticulous process that is too important to be overlooked. The end result is clear: when you’re too cute, you become transparent, reminding your audience that they’re watching a work of fiction.
When you get it just right, you pull an audience in and make them feel like they’re a part of the experience on-screen. Make no mistake, no matter how short the video is, paying attention to this sort of thing is important. So if it doesn’t touch your own heart, why bother?