Being Weird in the Name of Making a Connection

Have you noticed over the last couple of years commercials have gotten weird? Not in like a “hmm, that commercial was odd,” kind of way either, I’m talking about ones that make you say “what in the hell did I just watch?”

More and more I am seeing brands introduce campaigns that enter the realm of absurd humor, borderline experimental in some cases, very much in the same vein of popular comedic styles like Tim and Eric or Eric Andre. What’s really weird about them is that they work!

Don’t get me wrong, as fan of this kind of humor I am very much in favor of this shift to these kinds of ads… and honestly I think that is the entire point of this phenomena. Let me explain why this trend in weird marketing has been so effective.

If I really try and think back, the first case of a television commercial absurdity was Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign that became an instant hit and has basically dictated the direction off every single piece of Old Spice marketing since it was published on YouTube in 2010.

At the time, this was a bold and risky move for the company. Old Spice’s customer base was rapidly aging and it was struggling to connect with a younger demographic with its dated messaging mostly surrounding being a good-smelling dad. They needed a change of course to help them from completely fading away in the face of new successful competition like Dove Men. So, they swung for the fences.

Not only did they change their messaging, shifting away from dads and catering more towards younger women who want a good-smelling man, but they seemed to do everything in their power to make the spot as odd as possible. But why? There are a couple good reasons.

It’s worth emphasizing that this commercial first appeared on YouTube before anyone ever saw it on their TV screen in between episodes of Law and Order. Old Spice realized early on the power of an online presence, identified that the younger audience they were really trying to connect with was in front of a computer screen and not in front of a television screen and pinpointed what this audience liked: weird s**t.

It’s also around this time that memes really started to take off, making their way from obscure message boards to mainstream social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and forming a tentpole for which much of the humor of this past decade has been molded by, also often dabbling in the realm of over the top and absurd.

In the name of connecting with a younger audience with evolving tastes in humor and style, Old Spice set out to make something so different, so bizarre and so unique that in a digital space it was bound to go viral… and it did.

Old Spice’s ads over the next few years have changed in messaging and style, but haven’t gotten any weirder. From singing moms slithering across the floor, Terry Crews literally crashing a Bounce commercial or whatever the heck this is, Old Spice hasn’t just embraced weirdness, they have doubled down on it. But, it didn’t take long for others to notice and start copying the Old Spice model.

Brands like Skittles, Mountain Dew, Purple Mattress, Totino’s, and countless others have released ads not only trying to emulate the weirdness kicked off by Old Spice but even trying to one up them – with varying success. In fact, both Purple Mattress and Totino’s have enlisted the help of the previously mentioned comedy duo Tim and Eric, giving them total creative control of their advertising. (Kudos to you if you sit through the entire Totino’s Pizza Roll spot, and keep in mind they promoted this on the homepage of their website at the time.)

With the exception of Purple Mattress, all of these are previously established brands, trying to catch lightning in a bottle like Old Spice did by creating strange, niche content that specifically appeals to the increasingly strange taste in humor of the new generation of consumer, or at the very least making something so weird that it finds its legs being shared over social media.

If you start looking deeper, it isn’t just commercials anymore. The trend has leaked over to social media as well, as brands like Wendy’s and MoonPie have let snarky, goofy, and weird become the face of their online presence. That’s what their audience resonates with and that is where their audience is.

Is all this to say you need to start planning your next campaign with a focus on being weird and trying to become a viral meme? No. What this is is a lesson in really understanding your audience and understanding that if you want to reach a new audience or rebrand yourself sometimes you have to think outside the box.

Personally, I feel like these ads may be effective in standing out, the arms race to one up each other’s weirdness has saturated the market. Messaging isn’t nearly as strong and clear as it was with the initial Old Spice ad and style has begun to take precedence over substance. Will people start getting tired of seeing nothing but goofy, surreal ads every time they watch a YouTube video or turn on their TV? That remains to be seen but I am very interested to see how the landscape of commercial styles adapt for the next generation of consumers.

The biggest triumph of Old Spice through all this was being able to really, really understand their audience. They knew exactly who they wanted to become their customers, realized the disconnect from their current messaging, and took steps to bridge the gap.

Do you understand your ideal customer? Defining an ideal customer allows you to focus your product designs and marketing messages. Start by creating a customer persona. Start here!

Online Form – Beginner’s Guide to Customer Personas

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