We’ve all wondered what goes into making the most effective advertising campaigns. What are those magical ingredients marketing teams look for when crafting that perfect slogan?
Everyone can name memorable phrases from popular campaigns, from classics like Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” and Verizon’s “Can You Hear Me Now?” to modern favorites like Skittles' “Taste The Rainbow” and Mountain Dew’s unforgettable “Puppy Monkey Baby.” That last campaign offered a truly odd concept that made for an immediate viral sensation.
The truth is, there have been plenty of ad campaigns even weirder than “Puppy Monkey Baby.” For major brands, name recognition is key, and oftentimes, the most outlandish, random, and (occasionally) disturbing campaigns prove the most memorable.
Sometimes this pays off big time, leading to blockbuster sales while earning pop culture immortality in the process. Other times, it’s a disaster, where a lack of common sense (and good taste) leads to public outrage.
So, how do bizarre ad campaigns succeed? And why do they fail? Is there a magic formula for pushing the envelope? On the flip side, how do ill-conceived, offensive campaigns get greenlit in the first place?
Let’s look at some of the most bizarre ad campaigns. Which worked, and which crashed and burned?
Little Baby’s Ice Cream “Love Lickers”
Ice cream is a wholesome treat that the whole family can enjoy, but any children (or adult for that matter) who saw this Philadelphia ice cream chain’s “This is a Special Time” and “Love Lickers” 2012 TV spots can understandably find it a little less than wholesome.
Both spots feature an androgynous figure covered in ice cream, with bulging, wild eyes. In the “This is a Special Time” spot, we hear an eerie voiceover discussing the quality of the person’s skin, which we are to assume is aided by the fact that the character is eating ice cream off the top of his own head.
If that wasn’t weird enough, the “Love Lickers” spot is equally disquieting, showing an infinite loop of the same figure holding an ice cream cone that contains a smaller version of the same figure while the narrator utters phrases like “We love to lick, we lick to love. We are love lickers.”
So why would any ice cream chain think such disturbing content would help bring in new customers?
According to Aaron Kitchin, branded content manager for film and commercial production company Legacy Pictures, that type of content has reach.
"I think there is power in the bizarre," says Kitchin. "It's that thing that makes you want to show your friends the spot if only to comment on how strange it is. ...In that case, someone is still exposed to the brand."
And that’s exactly what happened: Websites like Business Insider commented on the weird campaign, and the ads received millions of hits on YouTube.
Doug Garth Williams, the director of both ads, even admitted he was aiming for “creepy” with his concept in an interview with Little Black Book: “It's pretty twisted, but they are actually lobotomizing themselves as the ad proceeds. As they eat, their original sense of self decreases and the compulsive drive to consume their own delicious ice cream body grows.”
Amazingly, the company offered Williams complete creative control, which he believed was because “the brand itself is all about playing with the expectations of ice cream. ...That's why they felt good about approving such a twisted video.”
Ah, the Spongmonkeys. Perhaps you remember these memorable mascots from the early 2000s? Their appearance (and offkey singing) made them impossible to forget.
But one has to wonder why the Quiznos marketing team thought that animated creatures resembling demented rodents would whet people’s appetites?
It all started when The Martin Agency, an advertising firm, pitched the idea to Quiznos in 2004 and got $25 million to make the ads.
The agency hired animator Joel Veitch after seeing links featuring the Spongmonkeys on British television. Once the ads hit the airwaves, viewers became enthralled by the misshapen furry characters who sang lines like, “We love the subs! 'Cuz they are good to us.”
Quiznos representative Stacie Lange said in a 2004 interview with AdWeek that they were pleased with the response to the bizarre ads: “Quiznos has always pushed the envelope. That's who we are and how we've been with our advertising."
How could something as weird as the Spongmonkeys infect the mainstream? Kitchin states that, “Virality, in many ways, is elusive. I think where some of these spots can fail is if they come off as ‘trying to be viral.’ Consumers are smart and can sense a lack of authenticity. I think if a spot is aiming to be bizarre, it needs to come from a place of joy and humor—love even—rather than a desperate ploy for virality.”
Reebok’s “Cheat On Your Girlfriend” Campaign
When a poster bearing the Reebok logo and the slogan “Cheat on your girlfriend, not on your workout” hit the internet, a website aimed at confronting infidelity went after the shoe company with a vengeance.
"CheaterVille will not stand by and let you keep this ad running without a fight," founder James McGibney wrote. "We will start informing our millions of followers to boycott Reebok until the ad is removed and a public apology is given."
Outrage spread like wildfire, and Reebok pulled the ad, which as it turned out, wasn’t even part of a global marketing campaign. In fact, it only appeared at one German gym.
Nonetheless, the damage was done, and Reebok spokesperson Dan Sarro apologized profusely, saying, “I can assure you that Reebok does not condone this message or cheating in any way. We apologize for the offensive nature of these materials, and are disappointed that they appeared at all.”
If anything, this fallout frome one print ad at a single gym shows how much the internet has reshaped advertising. Advertising campaigns are no longer truly region-specific.
“If a message is received negatively, it's going to have a slightly negative impact on the brand overall—and that's not good, even if you leave people laughing in the short run,” says marketing and social media strategist Anthony Juliano.
Sprint’s “Ghetto” Ad
This ill-fated TV spot showed Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure asking “real questions” to customers for “honest answers.”
The panel, made up of Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T subscribers, included a young white woman who said when she thought of T-Mobile, “The first word that came to my head was ghetto. That sounds, like, terrible, but, oh my God, I don’t know.”
If that sounds insensitive, it gets worse. The woman (and those around her) laughed, and she continued: “I just felt like there’s always, like, three carriers. There’s AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon, and people who have T-Mobile are just like…why do you have T-Mobile?”
Claure tweeted a link to the ad on Twitter on April 12, 2016, with the caption “Honest answers from real people on my #ListeningTour across the country. Sometimes the truth hurts ...”
It did not go over well.
In a piece for The Verge, Jacob Kastrenakes took particular umbrage: “The ad is essentially just a group of white people laughing at the idea that T-Mobile can be associated with minorities and lower-income customers,” adding, “To put it simply, the spot is pretty racist, and it's bewildering to think that Sprint approved and published this.”
The Twitter outrage was, unsurprisingly, fierce, with many Sprint customers saying they would jump ship. Claure initially dug in his heels, but an hour after his first tweet, he caved and apologized, and the ad was shelved.
T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who has had several Twitter feuds with Claure over the years (which must feel awkward now, given both companies are attempting a merger), waded into the conversation, but after seeing the pummeling Claure was receiving, merely Tweeted “I don't think I need to respond...“
So the obvious question: How did this ever get approved? With these situations, Juliano notes, “It's hard to say whether the agency or the client is to blame. I've been in situations where agencies have recommended bad ideas, and I've seen clients push for ideas that are even worse. Typically, one of the parties has the good sense to prevent them from moving forward, but sometimes groupthink overrides the voices of dissent.”
IKEA’s Pregnancy Test
IKEA is certainly raising eyebrows thanks to this recent Swedish magazine ad offering a discount on a crib. The catch? The only way to qualify is if you’re pregnant. And to prove that, you have to urinate on the ad.
Yes, it’s true. IKEA created the world’s first pregnancy test coupon. If the woman “applying” for the coupon is pregnant, her urine is able to dissolve the ink, revealing the discounted price.
Reactions so far have been mixed, with some praising the ingenuity, while others think it’s in poor taste...or at least unsanitary.
Feuza Reiz, director of social marketing and branding communications for Next Level SEM, was puzzled: “Like, who approved that? You add urine to the magazine for a pregnancy test to get a coupon? A wet coupon. And how did the magazine allow for urine to be on it?”
But her marketing experience gives Ikea credit where it’s due: “On the other hand, look at all the coverage they are getting, so it did go viral. Maybe that was the intention after all?”
Juliano says the power of shock value can never be underestimated: “As difficult as it is to get attention in today's environment, there's a belief that any response is a good response. Of course, that advice is as old as Oscar Wilde saying, ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’”
Going viral goes both ways.
If that Wilde quote is the key to advertising, then IKEA certainly rules the roost, given its long track record for bizarre yet memorable ad campaigns, including products named after common Google searches or their immersive ASMR campaign that still causes puzzled reactions.
“IKEA has the budget to research, test, and execute on ideas in a capacity that many other companies lack, and when they decide to step outside the box, they commit themselves completely,” says Zack West, director of digital marketing for Novomotus .
“Their repeated successes also suggest to me that IKEA has the talent to find that ‘extra something’ in the context of quality and appeal.”
As long as provocative advertisers continue to immerse themselves in the public conversation, their campaigns will continue to succeed, benefitting companies as monolithic as IKEA or as small as Little Baby’s Ice Cream.
On the other hand, as long as advertising companies employ imperfect human beings, then ill-thought out advertisements like Sprint's "#ListeningTour" will still get approved.
In other words, we’ll continue to see internet outrage and delight regarding ad campaigns for the foreseeable future. One thing’s for sure—we won’t be able to avert our eyes either way.