M.AD 101: Pop Culture
Engineering

Learn to lead the cultural conversation in 4 classes.

This course is an opportunity to sample the M.AD experience. See how M.AD students develop their skills with hands-on projects and personal feedback from industry professionals. Students graduate with a portfolio of real world projects and ideas that will get them hired.

An Introduction to Pop-Culture Engineering

The Brief, and Understanding Burger King

How 4 Brands Made Cultural Impact

What We Can Learn From the Best of Cannes

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Class 1:
An Introduction to Pop-Culture Engineering

Fernando Machado and Anselmo Ramos show how brand's benefit when they mold and lead pop culture.

How do brands lead the cultural conversation?

It’s easy to tell you what advertising was: print ads and tv spots mostly, a little radio….maybe some outdoor billboards along the interstate and a mailbox filled with brochures.

Today, though, advertising exists in a more complex landscape. Those traditional mediums struggle to compete for attention in a world deluged with media and information.

Pop Culture Engineering is, in a single sentence, how great brands stand out from the pack. Moreover, it’s the art of leading the conversation. Crafting campaigns, events, and stories that capture attention. 

Naturally, attention is a valuable commodity in the age of the iPhone. A Pop Culture Engineer understands that, and knows that the easiest way to the heart of their audience is by tapping into the zeitgeist. Better: becoming the zeitgeist.

When Wendy’s works with Rick and Morty (with, being the operative word), it’s alchemy. It works because Wendy’s has cultivated, in the Twitter world at least, a reputation for hard-hitting snark and a willingness to toe the line of respectability. In many ways, Wendy’s pioneered the now-popular method of corporate communication on social media⁠—the brand with spunk. 

And in pairing with a raunchy, divisive, and popular show like Ricky and Morty, the world takes notice. The mainstream media covers the easy story, writing not just about the event itself, but the reaction to the event. Both Wendy’s and the show get coverage across the spectrum—from Buzzfeed to Twitter to the New York Times. Their paid advertising becomes an organic story. Talk about a win.

That’s just one example of successful Pop Culture Engineering at work. In recent years, success stories have become all the more common. At the 2022 Super Bowl, for example, the most prominent ads worked hard to extend themselves as campaigns beyond the game. Coinbase’s now-infamous floating QR code, for one, flummoxed many who actually watched the game. But it lived a second, much more fulfilling life online, where the social conversation discussed the method behind the madness, turning the format of the ad itself into its own story. The result was reach beyond what any single event could dliver.

Contemporary ad campaigns compete aggressively for attention in both physical space and the cultural discourse.
When Wendy's and Ricky and Morty teamed up for a cross-over, the internet took notice.
Coinbase confused many in the audience with it's bare-bones Super Bowl ad...but the spot's simplicity and audacity captured attention online.
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Class 2:
The Brief, and Understanding Burger King

Anselmo and Fernando dive deep into Burger King, and how the brand implements a company-wide strategy of pop culture engineering.

What makes Burger King, Burger King?

Although today Fernando Machado serves as the Chief Marketing Officer for Activision-Blizzard, at the time of filming for this course he performed the same role for Burger King. 

As a consequence, the language and attitudes of Burger King come naturally to him. If his job was anything, it was to master the public voice of the company⁠—and to ensure that voice was confident, strong, and recognizable across the world.

As Fernando Machado puts it, the core of the Burger King brand is authenticity. Authenticity as it relates to food, and as it relates to people.

In their messaging, Burger King focuses on a core message of individuality and uniqueness. Although some might question how “authentic” fast food can really be, Burger King has realized a place in the market that differentiates them from the competition. Where McDonald’s might emphasize the homogenous experience across all their restaurants, all over the world, Burger King instead chooses to focus on the message that each burger (and, implicitly, each customer) is different. 

For those of us who simply eat at Burger King (or admire them from afar), that underlying message may not be immediately obvious. But it is the underpinning of all that Burger King chooses to communicate. Famous campaigns like “Have it your way” or “the Proud Whopper” focus on the individuality and freedom of their customers, as does their messaging around competitors like McDonald’s, who they frame as a more homogenous, monolithic, and boring alternative. 

The result is a lively brand, and one that captures an outsize share of the public conscience. When they refreshed their brand, for example, in 2021, the changes themselves were fairly slight⁠. On the surface, it was simply an update to older design motifs from the 1960s. The reception, though, became a conversation of its own, covered in mainstream media outlets and social media.

How Burger King Engineers Pop Culture

As it relates to Pop Culture Engineering, the most important thing a prospective creative can do is deeply understand their client.

In the time we live in, the expectations for brand communication are high. When the cultural conversation shifts, we anticipate a reaction from the world’ s best known brands. Depending on the subject, a brand’s silence can be deadly. 

At the same time, the strongest brands make a point of leading conversations, wherever possible. Burger King, for example, is able to do so because it’s brand is clear and simple. It’s also consistent. Campaigns like McMansions or the Moldy Whopper might court controversy…but they aren’t controversial simply to cause a stir. Most importantly, they have a message that relates positively to a core piece of the Burger King story. McMansions reminds us that even McDonald’s executives flame-grill at home⁠—reinforcing one of Burger King’s most essential differentiating appeals. Modly Whopper, meanwhile, makes the conversation about honesty and truth, both in advertising and in food. 

 

In 2021, when Burger King underwent their first major rebrand in nearly 20 years, the changes were covered in major media outlets AND on TikTok.
The updated Burger King brand is careful to emphasize authenticity at every possible touch point.
In 2020, Burger King's "Moldy Whopper" campaign leveraged shock and digust to create a conversation around preservatives in fast food—and by extension, Burger King's claim not to use any.
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Class 3:
Case Studies in Pop-Culture Engineering

Anselmo and Fernando (along with special guest speakers) review 4 projects that offer concrete lessons in how to lead the cultural conversation.

To become the best, it pays to study the best.

It’s not rare, as a young creative, to focus on making a unique mark on the world. And as a talented person full of good ideas, it’s easy to convince oneself that the work you’re doing is different than anything that’s come before.

But as Picasso (and many others) once said, “good artists copy, and great artists steal”.

New ideas are amalgamations of the old. And all artists stand on the shoulders of the ones who came before. 

That being said, the point is not to venerate the past greats to a point of worship. The goal in analyzing old work is, if anything, to humanize the creatives behind your favorite campaigns—to understand their thought process, and adopt the best bits for yourself.

“McMansions” Burger King

McMansions captured public imagination by playing to our love for gossip. Like the buzz from Will Smith’s Oscar outburst, it’s a campaign that allows us to enjoy the vicarious experience of public drama.

It’s also the perfect bait for news coverage. Edgy, spicy, and just the littlest bit controversial (*gasp* “have brands gotten too personal!?”) the articles almost write themselves.

“The Proud Whopper” Burger King

In contrast to a campaign like McMansions, The Proud Whopper isn’t all about the controversy. Naturally, there will be those whose archaic views are triggered by the subject matter…but for Burger King, as Fernando mentioned in class, the focus is on aligning the brand with, as he put it, “the right side of history”. 

“Real Beauty” Dove

Like The Proud Whopper, Dove’s Real Beauty campaign aligns the brand’s voice with a positive message. Here, though, the subject is a commentary on the state of their own industry. After all, the cosmetics business has spent decades profiting from insecurity. 

So, talk about leading the conversation. With one campaign, Dove positions itself as the beauty company that accepts you as you are. In the decade since, dozens of brands (both old and new) have attempted to follow suit. 

“Man Boobs” MACMA

To avoid social media censorship of showing women’s breast and nipples in demonstrating how to examine for breast cancer MACMA created a video using Henry and his “manboobs”.

David Buenos Aires has created a video for Argentina’s Movimiento Ayuda Cáncer de Mama (MACMA) , which translates to the Breast Cancer Help Movement. The short film “challenges breast censorship when it comes to showing women’s breasts to talk about breast cancer prevention” in a funny way by showing man boobs instead to show women how to check for signs of breast cancer.

Within the first week the video had 48M views, 193 media impressions, 700k+ shares and $17M of earned media and created a worldwide debate on social media censorship policies.

“Manboobs” is the most successful breast self-examination video ever.

As artist Sephko (https://www.sephko.com/) points out, the anxiety of attempting to match your heroes is a universal creative experience.
McMansions, Burger King
The Proud Whopper, Burger King
Real Beauty Sketches, Dove
Man Boobs, MACMA
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Class 4:
What We Can Learn From the Best of Cannes

Join Anselmo and Fernando (as well as special guest lecturers) as they examine the best of the best from past years at Cannes—the most prestigious advertising awards festival in the world.

Great creatives pluck ideas from wherever they can.

Following on from the previous class, in Class 4 we continue to mine the past for new ideas we can implement today.

The difference here is subtle, but important: rather than analyzing famous campaigns from world-renowned brands, you are instead casting your eye to valuable but under-appreciated source of ideas—the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Every year, the festival brings the creative communications industry together to learn, network and celebrate. They also, crucially, award the greatest campaigns from the previous year, celebrating their originality and creativity, if not necessarily their popularity.

 By carefully examing the  official website for work that’s been featured at Cannes, you can find wonderful fuel for your creative fire. It’s a constantly replenishing well. 

That's all! Here's how to take the next step at M.AD:

Starting your career?

In two years (including up to a whole year of real-world internships) you’ll get practical experience working on real client projects and develop an extensive network of industry contacts. 

The goal of it all is to create a jaw-dropping portfolio that will secure you the freedom to choose any job under the sun.

Programs offered:
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  • Copywriting
  • Design
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    We partnered with select universities to give you the best of both worlds—a creative portfolio and master’s degree (granted by the university). 

    You’ll take courses and work on live client projects at M.AD. Meanwhile other courses at our partner university will provide you with an advanced understanding of communication theory.

    Programs offered:
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  • Social Media
  • Strategic Planning
  • Already in the industry?

    You could study a language for years in textbooks…but you’ll learn more in just a week speaking to real people. A three-month M.AD boot camp follows the same logic: it’s all about full immersion. 

    In just 12 weeks, you’ll develop the skills, experience, and network you need. You’ll also graduate with a M.AD certificate to help you on the next step of your journey.

    Programs offered:
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