The line between “Wow, you sure nailed how I feel” and “OMG SHUT UP!”

When these new Panera ads premiered last month, a co-worker of mine emailed this to a few of us: “I wish I could put my finger on why it annoys me, but it does.”

I don’t know if we ever managed to put his finger on exactly what it was about them. Various people he copied on the email had various theories. Who knows.

But last night my family and I were watching something on-demand, and you know how apparently not that many different advertisers purchase time during on-demand viewing or something, and certain ads run again, and again, and again. It happened with the thirty second version of this Panera ad. I was done seeing it by the second time. By the third time, I was yelling at the TV. “Shut up shut up shut up!” I was yelling.

Sitting there with my family, I believe I was pretty close to a civilian at that moment, not a marketeer.

If this were not fake, it would be a miracle of commercial footage photography for the Boy who has met this Girl to be holding Panera product so perfectly right there by her chest. A miracle.
If this were not fake, it would be a miracle of commercial footage photography for the Boy who has met this Girl to be holding Panera product so perfectly right there by her chest. A miracle.

Why is it so grating? I can withstand multiple viewings of commercials I don’t particularly love, or even ones I dislike, without interrupting family viewing by yelling at the TV. That’s actually not my style.

I think it’s three things.

1. What was meant to “connect” as a series of ultimate truths comes off as preachy.

2. The acting is in the uncanny valley between clearly staged and convincingly real.

3. Okay, that’s it. Just two things.

As far as Thing One, well, y’know, clients love to hear their corporate vision fed back to them. This ad caused diehard Panera employees to tear up, and say, “Damn, you captured it—you captured why I love working for this company.” But as a disinterested viewer who’s been on vacation, away from marketing mumbo jumbo and brand blah-blah-blah for a couple of weeks, I can tell you: nobody talks like that, and everybody recognizes it as marketing bullshit. To my ear, those Ultimate Truths the ad agency wrote—which undoubtedly got the client all fired up—sound like a sub-par Mad Men presentation a drunken Don scribbled hastily in an attempt to recapture the emotion of that iconic carousel scene.

A huge problem in Panera’s script is the word “should.” That word causes more misery the world over—more pain in the heart, as Draper’s old boss Teddy might say—than almost any other everyday concept. “Should” is about restraint, and resisting temptation. “Should” is an upbraid, and a correction. “Should” is a scolding word. “Should” accompanies unasked-for advice. In this case, it’s boastful, too: clearly, the company believes it’s on the virtuous side of those shoulds. Whoever composed this manifesto would defend it, I’m sure, as Panera drawing a line in the sand, declaring its allegiance to what is or isn’t okay with them. And they do have very high standards, consistently occupying the high road when it comes to health and wholesomeness. But in execution this list comes off as scolding.

Haughty.

It isn’t merely the script. There’s sanctimony in that voiceover. There’s judgement. Hectoring. What was surely meant as an inspiring “anthem” turns into a holier-than-thou lecture (especially with repeat viewings).

One particular phrase in that lecture leads to Thing Two: “Sweet should never be fake.” These are not hidden camera moments. We all know what that looks like. And we know what real people’s houses look like because we’ve all watched a fair amount of America’s Funniest Home Videos. These are actors, clearly. So they’re fake.

But they appear to want us to believe they’re 100% genuine, an analogy to the food itself. And the more you watch, the more cloying it becomes. Oy! These people are so insincerely sincere, and it’s so grating.

I believe in Panera’s mission, and I have wished for years that they land on a worthy expression of who they really are. This persona seems too marketing-y to really last, to really make a connection with its customers. It doesn’t seem like a company showing how they really are; it feels like a company communicating how they wish to be perceived.

Of course, I’ve been wrong before. I’m just trying to put my finger on why these ads rub some of us the wrong way. In the end, well, I don’t really know their advertising “shoulds.”