Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
My director of photography and a production assistant were holding them off with sticks, the art director had been reduced to a puddle of tears, and an intern was on the phone literally pleading with animal control officers to come save us. We were under siege. They had ringed the entire set and were closing in – quick for their size, as big as cats and aggressive. We were surrounded by… insane, chocolate-loving squirrels.
The park staff had warned us about the thousands of wild rabbits infesting Woodland Park in north Seattle, but they’d failed to mention the unbelievable number of giant squirrels that obviously ran the park. We had built mounds of crumbled, oversized chocolate slabs on a picnic table for a candy bar product shot. The background looked convincingly like the deep woods. But no one told the squirrels that it was our chocolate.
Their tactics were simple. A handful of the pests would charge us, while from another direction a brazen squirrel would make a suicidal run for the chocolate on the picnic table. Most of their attempts were futile because the chocolate chunks were too big for them to carry away. But now they had the taste in their mouths – the taste of delicious milk chocolate. The key grip shouted, “We’re gonna have to kill one to show ’em we mean business.”
Our producer shrieked, “No!” I feared she was soft and would never make it out of this alive.
The key grip argued: “Just one of the mean ones.”
Then from every direction they all started slowly marching in unison toward the picnic table. We knew there was gonna be trouble.
Sometimes advertising can get pretty odd; sometimes odd is funny, and other times it’s just plain odd. It’s referred to as “Oddvertising,” and it’s a concept that has been around for a while now.
Just before the original dot-com bubble burst all over the economy, some marketers started pushing the boundaries of advertising. Most were startups and brands trying to grab attention with unconventional work like firing gerbils into the company logo, or sock puppets. What emerged was something even more unusual in tone, later dubbed Oddvertising. Eager to reach younger audiences with discretionary income, the ads became more risky and offbeat. Marketers grew fascinated with exploring how weird they could get before crossing a line. And more than a decade later, we’re still defining that line.
However, when it’s just odd for odd’s sake, that doesn’t always translate into good attention. For example, the Crispin Porter + Bogusky version of Burger King’s The King was retired in 2011 because of soft sales. The King garnered headlines for being strange, but was often described by the media and on the web as creepy – not very flattering for a company mascot.
This type of advertising is a little tricky to explain. Some of it’s funny. Some of it’s just strange. But you know it when you see it. And when it’s off the mark, it looks pretty bad. Here are a handful of winners from the past.
Emerald Nuts, “Robert Goulet”
Some of the hallmarks of Oddvertising can be seen in the following commercials.
There are a couple other important points to consider. The subject of the commercial must be relevant to the brand and be appropriate for the target demographic. No Baby Boomer has ever jumped off the couch and yelled, “Grab my car keys! I need a bag of Skittles!” after seeing the commercial “Sheep Boy.” However, Boomers are not the target audience here.
Other broad generalities can be made about Oddvertising. Let’s break down a classic commercial from Old Spice, “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like,” featuring Isaiah Mustafa.
The structure isn’t the classic set-up and then a punch line, but it has structure nonetheless. The commercial introduces a bizarre world where Mustafa can seamlessly wander from one fantasy to another in one unbroken shot. We try to work out what will happen next, but unsurprisingly we aren’t even close. It’s visually amusing all the way up to the point when we get the product benefit line, “…anything is possible when your man smells like Old Spice and not a lady.” We think that’s the end and we let down our guard. Then Mustafa throws us a non sequitur, “I’m on a horse,” the funniest line in the commercial. Why? It’s a topper. And we never saw it coming. Weird? Yes. Funny? Very.
Many Oddvertising commercials borrow a similar structure, with mixed results. They unfold something like this: There’s an amusing situation that’s visually interesting; a new, bizarre variation is added; and finally, an even more bizarre variation is added. Adding these layers of oddity makes the situation more and more absurd, and the commercial more appealing. However, what many marketers forget to do is add a topper at the end – or their topper isn’t really a topper. It comes in just under the quality of the previous gags, like the unsatisfying ending of this spot from Realtor.com, “Dream Bathroom.”
The more outlandish and absurd the ideas become, the better and more satisfying the commercials are to the audience. In the latest campaign for KFC, a different person is cast as the Colonel every time their agency creates a new ad. It’s a strange choice, but it keeps the audience wondering who’s playing the Colonel next. KFC ratchets up the absurdity in this commercial, “Fun in the Sun,” as more and more arms appear in each subsequent shot.
Marketers have been exploring the idea of odd for a very long time, and it’s becoming more and more of a challenge to find imaginative scenarios – so, unfortunately, many have dipped into vulgar or uninspired situations, like in this example from Loctite, “Positive Feelings.” And not to pile on, but the topper is weak.
However, if you do it well, like in this Mountain Dew commercial, “Freak Chain,” and write an excellent topper, you get a strong sequel to their Super Bowl commercial, “PuppyMonkeyBaby.”
Today, as marketers strive for more traffic and buzz on the internet, contemporary Oddvertising has become so strange that if you’re not dabbling with some form of weirdness in your advertising – or, heaven forbid, get caught “selling” in a commercial – your efforts are going to be little more than white noise. If no one is talking about your Oddvertising, you’re clearly not pushing far enough.
We were shooting a product display in the middle of Woodland Park surrounded by an army of well-coordinated squirrels when our craft service truck arrived. Our quick-thinking producer sacrificed our lunch to the squirrels, which ended the siege. We got the shot, and we can honestly say that no squirrels (or crew) were harmed in the making of that commercial. Though I’m not sure the art director will ever be the same again.
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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
Wanna know more about the history of comedy in advertising? Read, "How Comedy in Advertising has Changed over Time."