Weird Ads Work

Try keeping the subtitles off for an even wilder ride.

At my job, we’re asked every week to give a response to a question in 140 characters or less as an ongoing blog entry for our website. A few weeks ago, the question was, “what was the last memorable ad you saw, and why was it effective?” My response surprised me in a few ways - the first way being that I had an answer spring to the front of my mind almost immediately. I thought maybe I’d have to spend a minute or two flipping through all the ads I’d seen and decide on the one I thought was the most memorable, but instead I had a clear winner from the start. The second surprise was the ad itself - an ad for light bulbs. From Japan. Where a father goes into the woods to live among fireflies in order to become one himself. And then returns home and keeps his family happy with his illuminating bottom. Yeah...I know.

If I had to pick one word to describe this ad, it’d be bizarre. Part of me wishes so badly that I spoke Japanese and could have listened in on the brainstorming and planning of this ad. It feels like it would have been one of those joke ideas that everyone laughs at, but then someone draws some faux-mockups for. Then they start jokingly storyboarding the commercial and everyone laughs some more. Then they start casting the actors and creating the costumes, and the costume is hilarious so the joke keeps going. In the back of their minds, everyone is waiting for the joke to be over...but then they found themselves with a finished ad about a man who’s turned into a firefly monstrosity.

But it worked. I mean, I remembered the ad, I remembered the brand name, and I remembered the product. Isn’t that the goal, if not to just increase sales of the brand’s products? While I don’t know if sales actually were impacted by the ad, I do know that the other parts were successful. I kept asking myself, why this ad? Why is this joke-gone-too-far burned into my mind with such powerful recall? Part of it, I think, is just because I found myself showing it to other people. I had to remember the name of the brand and the ad just so that I could search it on YouTube and pull it up on my phone, or to know what to tell my friends so they could search for themselves. Ultimately, this ad had a quality that many in the advertising world covet more and more as we become more connected - shareability.

You've already seen them, but does that really matter?

The bizarreness of this ad made me want to show other people. It made me want to tell my friends so that I can ask them, “are you seeing this too? Can you believe they made this?” In a world of viral videos where only the truly unique, overly-cute, or genuinely interesting can bubble to the top, there is magic to be found in what’s weird. It’s a trait that I’ve noticed many advertisers are taking - when it’s appropriate for the product. Not every brand can pull off the weird-factor, and that’s alright. If every ad was weird, then it defeats the purpose. Weird becomes the norm, the novelty wears off, and it’s dead. But for other brands, like Old Spice, their weird ads have become digital hits. The ones that come to mind are those with Terry Crews (directed by Tim & Eric of [adult_swim]). They’re so wonderfully weird, full of twists and turns, messing with your expectations along the way. Not only does this make them shareable, but it also keeps their audience interested enough to wonder what they’re going to do next.

Of course, there’s a fine line to be walked here. Brands can’t expect to just do weird shit on camera and have it connect. At the very least, there has to be some message or connection that’s made with the product, though I can see that tether becoming thinner as brands continue this trend in the wake of its apparent success. I would not be surprised to see some agencies blindly assuming that weird works without putting the necessary thought into why it works. I can envision CDs talking to their team about an ad they’re creating for ice cream where an Amish man is throwing jellyfish at a glass window, asking “this is great, but could they also be on fire and screaming, too? Maybe add some melting spiders. It’s gotta be weird.”

I mean, clearly, weird ads work - it’s just a matter of getting them to work right. Old Spice picked up fantastic talent in Tim & Eric of [adult_swim] fame because being weird is what got them famous, but not every brand can get so lucky. Undoubtedly soon we’ll get hit with the latest in weird ad magic that will fill our feeds and become a sharing sensation. The question is, will it be tied closely to the brand, with a satisfyingly clever strategy that makes you smile? Or will it be weird for the sake of weirdness, and leave you scratching your head and asking, “what?” I hope brands can continue to capture the magic, but things like this can become stale and unoriginal pretty quickly. Keep it fresh, 2017, I’ll be watching.


Keep it weird,

- Jake