Don't underestimate the Roseanne effect

This week's hit revival of the 80s and 90s family sitcom opens a lens on Middle America often ignored by the coastal elites and provides an insight into what drives millions of ordinary U.S. consumers.

Roseanne returned this week after 21 years and attracted 18.2 million viewers to its opener.
Roseanne returned this week after 21 years and attracted 18.2 million viewers to its opener.

Roseanne returned to our TV screens this week after a 21-year hiatus and produced stunning ratings that delighted broadcaster ABC and boosted President Trump on the latest leg of his ongoing electioneering around the country.

The show debuted Tuesday with 18.2 million viewers, 10% higher than the audience who watched the final show of its 9-year run back in 1997. Axios reports that a deal for a season two renewal is already imminent.

In the reboot debut episode, the working-class Midwestern comedy again centers on actors Roseanne Barr and John Goodman playing the family matriarch and patriarch in a world where Donald Trump is president, rather than George H. W. Bush or Bill Clinton as was the case during the majority of the original series.

The show taps into a zeitgeist many feel is underrepresented in mainstream media and culture, and is part of a strategy by broadcaster ABC to attempt to return to the American heartland following Trump’s election victory in 2016.

A survey by research firm Morning Consult showed 73% of adults believe TV shows should have more working-class characters; 59% of Republicans said they’re more likely to watch the show knowing Roseanne is a Trump supporter; and less than a third of white people say they feel represented in pop culture.

The show is, of course, also extremely well-written, funny, and reintroduces us to much-loved characters who were part of many people’s growing-up process. As CNN’s Brian Stelter noted this morning in his daily Reliable Sources briefing, it also benefitted from a massive ABC promotional push. Despite all that, the ratings were undoubtedly stunning.

The reason these phenomena are super-relevant to communicators and marketers is because these vast numbers of people watching Roseanne are consumers. They buy cars. Consume food. Purchase insurance. Go to the movies. Take holidays. They love fashion. And technology. And they all own at least one cellphone.

Every brand in these categories – and many more – needs to have this audience top of mind when they go to market and tell their stories.

Two other surveys resonated with me in this respect, one about Pepsi’s much-pilloried Kendall Jenner ad from last year, the other concerning Dodge’s use of a 1968 sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. in its 2018 Super Bowl Ram truck ad.

To be honest I disliked both activations, from the puerile image of Jenner handing over a can of the soft drink to a frontline riot cop in a simulated protest situation to the slightly tacky equating of Ram’s ‘Built to Serve’ tagline with the 1960s civil rights movement.

However: Do I consume carbonated soft drinks? Not much. And am I in the market to buy a truck any time soon? Definitely not. So who cares what I think about those ads.

And the Morning Consult surveys suggested the initial opprobrium for the Pepsi and Ram spots wasn’t necessarily shared by the target audience for the brands producing those activations.

One poll showed the Pepsi ad was viewed favorably by half of young Americans, and many respondents had a more positive view of the company after seeing the Jenner video, compared to a quarter who said it made them feel less favorable to the brand.

Almost one in three Americans said the ad made them more likely to buy Pepsi products, compared to one in five who were less likely to do so. The ad was clearly polarizing, but it certainly wasn’t received as negatively as it was among the urban metropolitan elites and mainstream media – including PRWeek I must add.

In the case of the Ram ad, 46% of all poll respondents looking to buy a truck in the next 12 months said the ad would make them more likely to buy a Ram, and 40% of people in the market to buy a vehicle of any type said they were more likely to buy a Ram truck – while 40% said the ad made no difference.

Walk around the New York International Auto Show today and next week and you will see an incredibly diverse range of people fawning over the shiny vehicles on display, with Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American consumers in the preponderance.

So it is significant that 48% of African-Americans polled viewed the MLK Ram ad favorably, compared to 36% of whites, 45% of Hispanics, and 38% of people overall.

Like the Pepsi film, it too was polarizing, with 41% saying the use of King’s voice was appropriate versus 43% who said it wasn’t – but the former number rose to 52% in the case of African-Americans and Hispanics, compared to 40% among whites.

Again, the universal reaction is very different to the snarkiness that greeted the ad on Twitter on the night of the Super Bowl and in the numerous review articles that followed.

So be careful of placing too much credence on the over-indexed views of the organic, yoga-practicing, kale-eating coastal elites when you’re putting together a communications strategy – and remember that conspicuous consumption is now just as much the purview of the Roseanne Connors and auto show visitors of this world.

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