Why pissing people off can be good advertising

Many advertisers put a lot of emphasis on the “likability” of their ads. The idea is that if people like the ad, they’ll buy the product. But is that always true?

There’s nothing wrong with people liking your ads, but I’m not so sure that likability is a prerequisite for selling. Consider the infamous “Head On” TV ads.

(If you can’t see the video here in my feed, click on to the blog to watch.)

Likable? Hardly. It’s one of the most hated ads on TV. It’s so disliked, it has become an icon of annoying advertising. The company even acknowledges this in follow-up ads where the commercial is interrupted by “viewers” who say, “Head On, I hate your commercials, but I love your product.”

Personally, I love these ads. Well, I don’t love them exactly. I think they’re annoying, too. But I wish I’d written them. Why? Because they’re pure genius. They do exactly what they’re supposed to do — burn a brand into your brain so when you’re at the store you’ll recognize it and buy it. Can you think of any headache medicine with a commercial this memorable? I sure can’t.

I would love to have sat in on the meeting where the ad team presented this idea to the Head On people. “You want to do what? Say it how many times? You’re joking, right?”

Likability? I don’t put much faith in that. I like what works. Sometimes that means creating an ad people like. Other times it means creating an ad that pisses people off. The question is, do you have the guts to do what it takes no matter what that is?

I touched on this in a popular article I wrote some years ago about a lesson my grandfather taught me with a dead chicken. In that article I quote Charles F. Kettering, inventor of the electric self-starter for cars, who once said, “My definition of an educated man is the fellow who knows the right thing to do at the time it has to be done. … You can be sincere and still be stupid.”

I think that’s what I really like about that Head On ad, and it’s what I like about all effective advertising. It does the right thing at the time it has to be done. Unflinchingly. Unapologetically.

Can you think of other ads past or present that were annoying but effective? Have you created annoying ads, mail, or promos of any kind that worked like gangbusters?

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Comments

8 Responses to “Why pissing people off can be good advertising”

  1. Josef Katz on February 22nd, 2008 4:28 pm

    I agree if it works, it works everything else is noise. The problem with creating this sort of advertising is that there are usually too many people involved in the process. There is always one person that says something along the lines of ‘that is going to get us in trouble’. People are afraid of loosing their jobs, upsetting the board of directors etc if the ad backfires so they go with average and safe ads.

    Go Daddy is another example of ads that piss people off but in a different way. I am sure you heard that Fox wouldn’t run their original Super Bowl ad so they put it online and replaced their ad with a drive to web.

  2. Dean Rieck on February 22nd, 2008 5:07 pm

    Josef: As Dave Barry said, “Remember that a lone amateur built the Ark. A large group of professionals built the Titanic.”

    As for Go Daddy, they get a lot of attention for their ads being rejected. More than if they ran probably.

  3. Chad | ProFreelancing on February 22nd, 2008 6:03 pm

    Hey Dean,

    Great observation. There are loads of ads out there that piss me off but still grab my attention. I wish I could name a few off the top of my head, but I can’t at the moment – but I can say that “attention” outweighs “entertainment” when it comes to advertising.

    Obviously the best combo would be entertaining ads that grab attention.

  4. Grant A Johnson on February 22nd, 2008 6:58 pm

    GEICO comes to mind.

    Go Daddy works not because of the ads, but because they know how to use PR spin to get their ads more attention both before and after the big game, thus increasing their ROI by increasing exposure and mentions of the ads with no or very little added costs.

    Sales Genie/InfoUSA ads are also annoying but work (drive sales), thus are successful.

    Grant

  5. Dean Rieck on February 22nd, 2008 7:40 pm

    Chad: I always say ads should be “interesting” rather than “entertaining.” I think we’re saying the same thing.

  6. Ted Grigg on February 23rd, 2008 1:58 pm

    It goes back to what you and I discussed in our blogs earlier but used different language. I call this another form of disruptive advertising.

    We have to awaken the need for our products in people very quickly and with impact. Otherwise, the message has no chance whatsoever of prompting action.

    In our trade as direct marketers, we have to get awareness AND a response at the same time. We can’t play around and wait forever for someone to buy. Only pure awareness or positioning advertisers can afford this luxury. Or at least, they have persuaded their clients that this is the way it works.

  7. Josie on February 26th, 2008 11:25 am

    I agree that this ad really gets the viewer thinking about the product. It’s hard not to get it stuck in your head after that.

    However, what do you think about this commercial in terms of forming a NEGATIVE association with Head-on? Just curious.

  8. Dean Rieck on February 26th, 2008 1:23 pm

    Josie: A negative association with a product is always possible, but I think that would happen only with those who are hyper-sensitive about advertising. In this case, it appears not to be a big factor because it’s a long-running campaign and the product is being sold in stores nearly everywhere.

    I read a study once on TV ads and it concluded that creative types relate to ads professionally while real people relate to them personally. In other words only people like us have conversations like this.



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