Consumers have a complicated relationship with advertising campaigns. On one hand, the popularity of ad-blocking software bears witness to the growing ambivalence that online readers have for AdWords, commercials, and promotional offers. This has become an issue both for websites that depend on ad revenue, and for companies that depend on ads to bring in clients and traffic. On the other hand, research shows that consumers don’t hate advertising per se — they just want it to be better. Furthermore, successful advertisements not only win new customers to a brand, but sometimes go viral in completely unironic ways.
Not every company has the money to launch a multi-million dollar commercial. But by looking at prominent examples of advertising campaigns that failed and backfired spectacularly, it’s possible to isolate trends that marketers should avoid at all costs.
The Kendall Jenner Pepsi Commercial
In the history of bad advertising, Pepsi may have won a world record with its magnificently bad decision in early 2017 to launch a commercial that mysteriously tied its product to political activism.
The self-styled “short film” follows celebrity Kendall Jenner through the streets of a generic American city in the midst of a nondescript rally attended by hordes of armored police. Although the situation seems tense, Jenner wins one of the officers over by offering him a can of (apparently magical) Pepsi soda.
Pepsi clearly believed they had something good going on with this commercial. After all, it cost them millions of dollars to produce. But on the day of its release, the Internet’s reaction was so universally negative that the company was forced to pull the ad before 24 hours had even elapsed, and publicly apologized; echoing public sentiment, Time Magazine called the stunt “an inauthentic cash-in on many people’s unhappiness”.
McDonald’s “Dead Dad” Commercial
To promote its “Fillet-o-Fish” sandwich in the U.K, fast good giant McDonald’s launched a bizarrely contemplative commercial about a boy who approaches his mother to ask about his deceased father. Naturally, the two go to a local McDonald’s for solace, where the boy orders a Fillet-o-Fish with tartar sauce. His mother longingly remarks, “That was your dad’s favorite too.”
The advertisement was panned, prompting Twitter outrage, and an article on the BBC’s website. Eventually McDonald’s formally apologized for something that many considered “distasteful”, and U.K regulator Advertising Standards Authority decided to reevaluate its run after receiving traumatized reports from across the country.
Burger King “O.K. Google” Commercial
Not to be outdone by their competitor, Burger King quickly took on the challenge of irritating the TV and YouTube watching public with a commercial that attempted to hijack users’ Google Home devices with the wake-word “Okay Google,” followed by the question, “What is a whopper burger?”
In theory, a Google Home device would have answered with a description lifted from Wikipedia:
The Whopper is a hamburger, consisting of a flame grilled beef patty, sesame seed bun, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup, and sliced onion.
Users found the tactic exploitative and annoying; Google responded by deliberately breaking the gimmick. But before this official response, Internet trolls worked hard to manipulate the Wikipedia article so that victims would be told the Whopper was made of “100% medium-sized child,” “cyanide,” and similar libels.
Reactions to the commercial were so negative that — excluding news commentary like the one posted here — all versions of the ad were removed from YouTube.
An advertising campaign doesn’t have to become famous to be successful — but now that we’ve talked about infamously bad adverts, it’s time to talk about famously good ones.
The Man Your Man Could Smell Like
In 2010, a simple thirty second ad began a long series of commercials featuring former NFL receiver Isaiah Mustafa. In a bathroom, Mustafa pities his audience for lacking him as a significant other, but assures them that Old Spice deodorant can help to take away the sting. By the end of his surreal and rambling monologue, he is sitting on a horse at a beach.
The commercial received universally wide acclaim, and is up to 53 million views on YouTube. This number is particularly important, because it shows that people watched this ad — and still watch it — on purpose for fun, not because they’re forced to.
Old Spice saw a 107% increase in body wash sales after the commercial launched, and the company did not stop there: 186 more videos were produced immediately afterwards as part of a “Response Campaign” just to field messages from fans of the ad. This campaign raked in 5.9 million views on its first day — more than Barrack Obama’s victory speech had received on its first day. Truly this is a level of consumer interaction most brands can only dream about.
Purple Mattress Commercials
Purple Mattress exploded onto the scene in 2016, to the tune of $76 million in revenue. Much of this success can probably be attributed to the integrated creatives who simultaneously manage its social media presence and advertisements. At 81 million views, the first Purple Mattress commercial featuring an “egg test” to demonstrate the unique structure of the product is already more popular than the Old Spice commercial on YouTube.
Other commercials by the company feature a mother Sasquatch explaining the benefits of a Purple Mattress in the wilderness. The creativity and humor in these ads is widely commented on, but another conspicuous attribute is the company’s dedicated social media presence, as evinced by Twitter interactions with ecommerce editor Samantha Gordon:
The holy grail of online advertising is to become a meme — not merely to go viral, but to actually become a meme featured in organic image macros across the web. In 2011, this happened to unsuspecting California taxidermist Chuck Testa after uploading a seemingly low-budget commercial to the Internet.
The ad represents an elusive balance of “so bad it’s good,” with moments hilariously awkward enough to be endearing, and the weird but eminently meme-worthy slogan “Nope! Chuck Testa”.
On first glance, the whole thing looks like a happy accident — a low quality, local commercial that became ironically famous. In reality, the camp aesthetic was completely intentional, and engineered by Commercial Kings, brainchild of self-made Internet celebrities Rhett & Link with the intention of going viral. It worked.
What makes a commercial “good”, and what makes it “bad”? On a superficial level of analysis, the famous and infamous advertisements listed above share apparent similarities. But on further inspection, it becomes clear that bad commercials often try for a quality that the good ones have, and fall short of the mark, or else lack it completely. For that reason, let’s look at good commercials first.
All of the examples listed above were self-aware advertisements; that is to say, the commercials do not hide the fact that they are commercials and they take advantage of this awareness by either poking fun at themselves, or being honest in ways that a commercial-pretending-not-to-be-a-commercial just can’t be.
For Old Spice, it’s an excuse to be hilariously surreal and nonsensical — they know it doesn’t have to make a lot of sense. The company sells nice smelling deodorant, and any cool imagery with an attractive actor is good enough to convey that.
For Purple, self-awareness is a way to talk honestly and directly about the features and benefits of their product.
For Chuck Testa, self-awareness plays a more complex role. It does not manifest on the surface, but exploits media psychology in drawing attention to itself: instead of trying to be elaborate or expensive, it fully embraces and exploits the limitations of a low budget.
Humor is a quality so strange and elusive that those who can make a career out of it become rich and famous. But for thinkers like Freud and Jean Paul Sartre, it has a very simple essence that can be summed up in a phrase:
A rupture of expectations*
Most people do not expect commercials to be completely nonsensical, like Old Spice. Most people do not expect a commercial to be cheap and low-quality as Chuck Testa. By setting up expectations in the viewer or listener and then doing something completely unexpected, a commercial can make them laugh, and keep them coming back for more.
Creativity, like humor, can be a difficult quality to convey. But it’s not hard to tell a “creative” commercial apart from an uncreative one, simply because creative commercials try out new ideas and have genuine artistic merit.
Obviously some of this boils down to inspiration — good, original ideas are elusive. They take time and imagination to develop. An “egg test” is probably not the best way to determine the structural integrity of a mattress, but it is memorable. An actor that goes from standing in a bathroom to sitting on a horse at a beach is not an idea that a computer could come up with, but it was — at least in one instance — demonstrably effective.
To make a creative advertisement requires a willingness to step away from quants, templates, and well-trod ground to find something truly unique.
On the other hand, creativity is also plain hard work — one is instantly reminded of Thomas Edison’s quip that “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” Any commercial with artistic merit takes time to conceive, effort to create, and attention to detail.
On the flip side, what do bad commercials share in common?
Fish sandwiches may change lives. But they’ve probably never changed yours, and you have no reason to expect them to. When a burger joint like McDonalds decides that it’s product is important enough to make a brooding commercial that could be the trailer for a Lifetime movie, it has overreached in a way that annoys viewers and demeans its image.
Overly serious commercials are the counter-thesis to self-aware ones. Self-aware commercials aren’t trying to be something that they’re not — they’re not trying to make sugar water into a political statement and take credit for movements they have nothing to do with.
“Exploitation” is a word that often comes up to describe bad commercials. It encompasses a lot of qualities — there’s emotional exploitation, political exploitation, and just plain old exploitation.
Burger King’s ad is plain old exploitation. The goal of the ad is to use a consumer’s product (in this case, Google Home) in a way they did not intend, without their consent in order to sell something. Emotional exploitation is using serious life events or circumstances in a disingenuous way, and political exploitation is tapping into recent events — especially controversial ones — to ride the wave of sentiment.
Exploitation only works when people don’t know they’re being exploited to begin with. It’s unethical either way, but today the average consumer is smart enough to know if they’re being taken for a ride. And that brings us to…
One of the biggest issues with bad advertisements is treating consumers like they’re idiots. This means talking down to them and trivializing their values, beliefs, or experiences.
Pretending that a serious political conflict can be solved with a can of Pepsi trivializes the experience of any prospect who has ever been part of a serious political movement, and may insult the values that drove them to get involved in the first place. Acting like an average American customer needs to hear the definition of a “Whopper” burger insults their intelligence, and acting like a sandwich can fix the trauma of a death belittles the experience of grief and heartache.
The Golden Mean
Hopefully thinking about successful advertisements and unsuccessful ones can shed light on mistakes to avoid and methods that tend to work. But it’s important to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to advertising. Anyone who looks at a list of ingredients for an effective commercial is going about it the wrong way.
Aristotle defined virtue as “the mean between two extremes”; and this implies it is always possible to go too far in one direction. Take self-awareness for instance: it is definitely possible for an advertisement to be overly self aware, as demonstrated by Mountain Dew’s monstrous Puppymonkeybaby. As for creativity, Bill Gates failed attempt to make a viral video of him wearing hundreds of funny hats was too over the top for anyone to care about.
At the end of the day, consumers are human, and ads need a human touch to be interesting or appealing. The worst examples on this list are also the most calculated, tone-deaf, and lazy ones. A little bit of effort to create something that’s not only promotional and informative but genuinely fun to watch and re-watch can pay dividends years down the road.
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Brandon Shutt, Editor at OMI