Mean Ads That Work

Creatives discuss how to be provocative and effective

It's OK to be antagonistic in your ad. Just make sure it's sympathetic, too.

That idea—that attack messaging works when it also resonates with viewers—was among those kicked around at Adweek's "Shock and Awesome: How to Do Provocative Advertising Without Turning People Off" panel during Creative Week on Tuesday. 

"You see 10,000 ads a day as a consumer. You look up at them sometimes and say, 'That's kind of dumb,' " said Kevin Brady, the Droga5 group creative director on Newcastle Brown Ale's recent "No Bollocks" campaign, which included an out-of-home ad last month mocking an adjacent Stella Artois billboard's use of the word chalice. If a brand can align itself with "something someone's already thinking, it's a little simpatico," Brady explained.

The discussion, moderated by AdFreak editor and Adweek news editor Tim Nudd, also featured 72andsunny creative director Matt Murphy, and David Griner, director of digital content at Luckie & Co and an AdFreak blogger.

Griner noted 72andsunny's Samsung commercials jabbing at Apple as another example of aggressive work that showed strategic insight. "Apple is a perfect brand that has such a level of ego," he said. "[Samsung] can hit the rest of market that doesn't want to be a part of that … people who feel like if they're represented by another brand, they have a champion in the marketplace." 

And highly visible brand spats can theoretically pay off for both parties. "Outdoor is the most embarrassing place to be called out," Griner said. "It's public shaming … In [Newcastle's] case it generates online buzz for both brands. I'd guess Stella is saying 'Hey, sweet we just got millions of impressions we didn't pay for.' "

Murphy shared some behind-the-scenes perspective on his agency's profanity-laden work for K-Swiss starring fictional sports star Kenny Powers. In 2010, when the brand asked the agency how to sell its K-Swiss Tubes—"a funny looking shoe with holes in it"—"the obvious move would have been to sign some mega-star athlete to lend his credibility," Murphy said. But the budget was limited, and much of the top talent was already spoken for by competitors. "For us, the idea of signing a fake athlete to a real endorsement deal was the [judo] we needed."

The target was athletic 18- to 24-year-old males, "what we sort of call mall-rat dudes," Murphy said. Still, they realized that Powers, the f-bomb-dropping Eastbound and Down character, wouldn't necessarily have universal appeal and accepted that "we're not going to win over everybody, we're going to alienate some people. Because K-Swiss was kind of the family brand." They also had to rope in Eastbound's lead talent: Danny McBride, the actor who plays Powers, and Jody Hill, who created the show. "They weren't looking to sell Kenny Powers to advertising," Murphy said. But 72andsunny made it clear to them: "We're not trying to change anything about your character," he explained. The past two years of collaboration, though, have helped fuel the ongoing campaign, Murphy said. "The amount of trust we had to build not just with HBO but with Danny and Jodi going into this … that's the blood that keeps this going forward."

What should creatives avoid? The panel panned Go Daddy's scantily-clad work with Danica Patrick as the wrong kind of risqué—lacking a point, or relevance for the brand. "I kind of lower my head for America when I see those kind of things," said Murphy. "If there were no boobs on the Internet, that would have been a genius move." He added: "I haven't seen them, but I hear." 

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