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That GIF You Just Shared Might Actually Be an Ad

millie-brown-GIF-PAGE-2018Imagine an ad playing on an endless loop—a short narrative crafted to seamlessly, infinitely repeat. Taken at face value, that’s the stuff of nightmares. But you’ve likely already seen dozens of ads made to do just that for brands like Amazon, Bubly, Converse and Gatorade—and you may have already unknowingly shared them. That’s the magic of GIFs. At least, that’s what some of the marketers who see the use of GIFs as ads as a growing creative trend believe.

“Clever marketers are creating GIFs to help consumers express themselves through these humorous, snackable videos which make them a shareable utility versus an ad,” explained Quynh Mai, founder of digital shop Moving Image and Content. “GIFs are an economical way for consumers to express their moods, and smart brands are creating GIFs as a utility for that purpose, making these shareable personal expressions and not just a six-second video.”

That difference between the six-second ad—which has also become a favorite for marketers in recent years—and GIFs is important to understanding the burgeoning trend of GIFs as ads. While brands are certainly creating more short-form ads to fit into YouTube’s bumper format or various apps that are seeking shorter and shorter spots, making GIFs requires a different kind of creative approach.

Just look at PepsiCo’s recent campaign to tout its new sparkling water brand, Bubly. In late February, the company began rolling out thousands of GIFs (actor Neil Patrick Harris stars in hundreds of them) that it created with animated GIF platform Giphy so that consumers looking to express that they’re “annoyed” or “over it” or maybe they feel like “dancing” would stumble upon the GIF ads for Bubly.

The point of differentiation is not only that the company created the GIFs specifically to be GIFs but that, in creating GIFs, it’s more about expressing a mood that’s easily relatable and shareable than producing a full narrative in six seconds.

“GIFs are changing the way we communicate—they make us laugh, they make us smile, and they make us want to connect and share more with each other,” said Todd Kaplan, vp of PepsiCo North America Beverages’ water portfolio, who added that the company wants to “create 1,000 new ways to get people to crack a smile and engage with our brand on an everyday basis.”

Earlier this month at South by Southwest, Giphy CEO Alex Chung referenced the Bubly campaign as one example of what he believes will be the “future of advertising.”

“That’s the big question. Can you turn advertising into content? That’s exactly what we’ve done,” said Chung. “You’ve probably sent some form of advertising via GIFs.”

Chung added that brands can create and distribute their message in an authentic way using GIFs. Often, the process is so seamless and the content is so good that the audience doesn’t really know that it’s looking at an ad.

However, Giphy isn’t immune to the brand safety issues that have plagued YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Snapchat and Instagram recently pulled the Giphy extension from their platforms after a racist GIF sticker made it through the company’s content moderation system due to a “bug.” Giphy released a statement apologizing for the racist GIF sticker, explaining that it had “fixed the bug” and “re-moderated all of the GIF stickers in our library.” Snapchat and Instagram have yet to re-enable the Giphy extension.

Despite Giphy’s recent problem, some marketers remain bullish on the looping videos. Juliette Leavey, associate director of digital strategy at Deutsch, said her agency is exploring creating GIFs for clients like Busch and DraftKings, instead of just repurposing content because in addition to consumers preferring GIFs, “[they] are more cost-effective to produce than full videos. They tap into bite-size social content preferences. But the main reason to invest in them is their shareability.”

Converse was certainly looking for shareability last summer when it created a back-to-school campaign with Big Spaceship. Deemed “Back to School Feels,” the campaign used 32 reaction GIFs featuring Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown. In a bit of meta commentary, when asked why Converse wanted to use GIFs, a rep for the brand responded, “Because they are …” and then added a GIF to her email that played in an endless loop finishing her sentence with “fun, fun, fun.”

This story first appeared in the March 26, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine.
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