Ad Report Card

Hot Buns!

The vaguely lewd new Holiday Inn Express ads.

The Spot:Four businessmen eat breakfast at their hotel buffet. After spotting a woman standing by herself across the room, they decide that sending a food item with their compliments might win her favor. This spurs an argument over which food will convey the right message. Cheese omelet? English muffin? Cinnamon roll? They end up sending her a plate of bacon—only to learn that what she really wanted was yogurt. “Check out the new hot bar in town,” the announcer says. “The Holiday Inn hot breakfast bar.”

Some friends and I actually pulled this classic move a couple of times during our freshman year of college. Upon seeing a woman we knew across the dining hall, we’d send over an envoy bearing a glass of apple juice or skim milk. “Compliments of the gentlemen,” he’d say, gesturing toward our table. She’d look up to see us all winking and doing the thumb-index-finger-point thing. (Though it got a decent reception, I am not proud of this behavior. Much better were the nights we bogarted the dining hall’s many Reddi-wip canisters and did brain-bludgeoning rounds of whippits. I’m convinced the resultant IQ loss is why I now write about advertising instead of, like, international finance.)

This Holiday Inn Express ad is part of a campaign announcing that new hot foods are available at the hotel chain’s breakfast bars. According to director of brand marketing Steve Ekdahl, the “consumer insight” at play here was the company’s realization that “people want hot food options at breakfast.” Because research further revealed that sometimes people are in a hurry to get to morning meetings, the hotel is also launching an amenity it terms the “to-go bag.” Travelers can stuff these full of muffins—or even greasy fistfuls of bacon—before sprinting out to their cars to eat while driving.

I’m always in favor of funny ads (I admit I chuckle at the “Cinnamon roll? That’s something you send your sister!” line), as long as the joke’s interlaced with the marketing message. Here, the slogan “the new hot bar in town” serves to highlight the warmed foods on offer while providing a stage for some riffs on lame night-life behavior. In deciphering the pun, you’re forced to think about the product. Through that cognitive two-step, the sales pitch cements itself in your memory.

This ad was directed by Hank Perlman, who also co-created the long-running ESPN “This Is SportsCenter” campaign. Like these Holiday Inn Express ads, the SportsCenter spots mostly feature clean-cut guys wearing ties in their mundane natural habitats (office cubicles, the public spaces of hotels), mashed up with some mildly absurd situations. The other clear influence at work here is the recent campaign from sister brand Holiday Inn (the “green sign” brand, as it’s known within the company). Both hotel campaigns come from the ad agency Fallon Worldwide, and both find humor in the pathetic off-hours high jinks of buttoned-down business types.

“The bull’s-eye is the male business traveler,” says Ekdahl, describing his brand’s target demographic. In particular, he hopes to reach the sort of active, younger businessman who travels for work on a near-constant basis. (“Road warriors” or “everyday heroes,” in the industry parlance—though I find those terms a touch dramatic. We’re talking about dudes giving PowerPoint presentations.) Studies show that these travelers tend to book their upcoming week’s accommodations on Sunday or Monday, so Holiday Inn Express buys lots of airtime on weekend sports broadcasts and Monday-morning news shows.

I asked some Slate women what they thought of the ad, given the gender dynamic at work in it, and it was agreed that there’s a certain yuck factor if we imagine this happening in the real world. “There’s a fun business trip,” Slatester Dana Stevens scoffed: “Fending off a bunch of leering middle managers before sitting down alone to a cup of cold yogurt!” (Before you start, it’s totally different from my college prank. Friends in the dining hall does not equal strangers at a roadside hotel. I think.) Of course, the ad isn’t meant to be taken too seriously. And it’s worth noting that in another spot from the campaign, titled “Ladies Night,” the roles are reversed—with a quartet of businesswomen doing the leering.

The main effect these ads had on my correspondents, though, was to remind them how distinctly un-fun hotel breakfast bars really are. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick imagined the brief to the ad agency going something like, “Tell viewers these are not lonely, isolating places where men stare hollow-eyed at CNN.” Meanwhile, Emily Yoffe praised— somewhat backhandedly—the ad’s set design: “It accurately gives the feel of their breakfast bar: a windowless box with fiberboard furniture and Styrofoam dishware (and food). It’s sexytime!”

Valid critiques, all. Sadly, the people these ads are aimed at have no choice but to frequent such venues. They’ll likely be pleased about the hot food, at least. And I find the ad’s central conceit—that you might enjoy yourself eating breakfast at a Holiday Inn Express—a harmless fib.

Grade: B+. My biggest concern about the ad is that viewers might forget which hotel chain it’s for. Ekdahl says he worried about this, too, and as a result he was actually tweaking the ads the day I called him. “About 15 minutes before I got on the phone with you, we were making some last minute readjustments to increase the brand linkage. We’re doing CGI to make sure the logo is more clearly visible in the background.” The ads will be returned to the airwaves with the “Express” logo that appears on the sign behind the actors now printed in blue, instead of in white. Watch for it! No doubt the impact will be startling.