Web Copy Blog

Web Copy Blog header image 2

The importance of irreverence in advertising

846 Comments · advertising laws

The G spot Café answers their phone with “hello” so the caller has to ask, “Is that the G’spot?” The response is: “Ob, yes, yes, my God, you’ve found it.”

Advertising is an expensive business. That’s why the Crime of Being Earnest is so common. So much is at stake, it’s hard to stay loose.

Yet, spend a few moments before you waste your money and watch people flicking a cross TV channels or flipping through a magazine; you soon realize that unless you first stop people in their tracks, you’ll never get around to delivering your message.

Shock treatment is an answer. But unless your shock is relevant to the product, then it is pointless and dismissed by the audience.

This is where a little irreverence is a good thing. It provides a mild surprise, a spark of life, among all the deathly try-hards, with a pleasing lack of pretension.

Advertising festivals are full of wonderful examples of irreverent success. Award juries are clearly attracted to chutzpah; they reward ads that are cheeky and roguish.
It’s the same with real people: they love a bit of knowing naughtiness – otherwise the rock’n’roll industry may never have gotten started.

Yet, wherever you look, mainstream advertising, whether you’re in the US< UK, EEC or Southeast Asia, is numbingly PC.

Major Brands talk about having character and personality, yet they’re more dully politically correct than even the most colorless real person.

This is an opportunity that hasn’t escaped marketers with youth products. A brand is a badge of honour for teenagers even if more sensible and mature folk disapprove of something they buy. Same with its advertising.

Risqué is cool, particularly if only the prime target audience “gets it.” The Cannes award-Winning print ad from a couple of years ago, where the erect nipples of a bratty young couple gawking for the photo were in the exact shape of the playstation’s control teats, is one example.

Years ago, I remember a notorious magazine called OZ sough to do the most irreverent ads they could possibly conceive: One, for the Formal Wear Hire Company showed a news photo of a Buddhist monk in the act of self-immolation, with the headline:
He’s warm, but is he well dressed?

More recently, the Church of England in Birmingham, England, ran a poster campaign showing the crucifixion with the headline: “Body piercing? Jesus had his done 2,000 years ago.”

The Anglican high churchman, defending the campaign, said: “Anything that makes impact on the close up world is of value.” Damn right!

Irreverence works in many categories, not just because it can be provoking, but also because it is real.

Satire works in communication because it taps into (healthy) skepticism among consumers about the sincerity of advertising and brands.

Ads honest enough to admit that most people don’t believe ads – like the old Joe Isuzu Campaign – stand out because of it.

In South American, the rampant Kidnapping industry is a reality, so some irreverent advertisers have even successfully played on that.

One campaign recently showed a businessman being snatched off the street, subdued not by chloroform or guns, rather by the incredibly comfortable and sleep-making mattress the advertiser was promoting.

Too much advertising is too glib, too far removed from the laughable reality that everyday people cope with.

So create advertising around the way real people talk, not the way other advertising people write – greasy, slick and old-fashioned. Irreverence cuts ice because it demonstrates real humanity.

It says: “We are one of you, not one of them.” Monty Python comedian, John Cleese, once noted: “You usually find that it’s the thing that a small number of people object to that makes the large number of people laugh the most.”

While the examples I’ve quoted above may seem shocking and totally inappropriate for mainstream commercialism, don’t forget that, in their day, mainstream phenomena like the Beatles, Madonna and Shakespeare were considered irreverent.

When it comes to success, Forbes magazine’s editor, peter Kafka, talking about the rating in Forbes Top 100 celebrities list in 2003, commented: “Good press, bad press, all press in equal in our eyes.”

Be provocative. Be unafraid. Because, as Bill Bernbach noted, there is practically nothing that is not capable of boring us.

Australian-born advertising author, cutting-edge writer, and former creative director, Jim Aitchison, lives, lectures and broadcasts in Southeast Asia, where advertising is often strait-laced by government decree-yet the wonderful citizens there fairly bubble with untidy humanity. Here, he calculates the commercial virtues of a sense of naughtiness.

The second-greatest television commercial ever made, as voted in viewer polls and based on the collective opinion of the American marketing communications industry, is highly irreverent. When it was first screened in 1969, it certainly raised eyebrows as well as sales.

And even by today’s more liberal standards, it remains fresh and challenges convention.
The commercial is Volkswagen’s Funeral. The brief had been prosaic enough: Communicate the economy of owning a Volkswagen.

The solution: a funeral cortege of expensive limousines tailed by a sobbing young man in a lone VW Beetle.

The voice of the deceased, a rich old miser, intones the provisions of his Will as each beneficiary is seen riding in his or her limo. “To my wife, Rose, who spent money like there was no tomorrow, I leave one hundred dollars … and a calendar.

To my sons, Rodney and Victory, who spent every dime I ever gave them on fancy cars and fast women, I leave fifty dollars … in dimes.

To my business partner, Jules, whose only motto was ‘Spend! Spend! Spend!’ … I leave Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!” At last we reach the young man in the VW.

“Finally, to my nephew Harold, who oft-times said, “A penny saved is a penny earned,” and who also oft-time said, ‘Gee, Uncle Max, it sure pays to own a Volkswagen,” I leave my entire fortune of one hundred billion dollars.”

It was the first time an American TV commercial had lampooned death ad funerals. Its creator, the legendary are director, Roy Grace, than at Doyle Dane Bernbach New York, is a staunch believer than any ingredient of irreverence in communications really makes people pay attention, wins their favour and amuses them.

“Everyone likes to see you take a poke at the establishment,” he chuckled when I met him. As Roy recalled ironically, the client’s brother had died just before the “Funeral” storyboard was presented.

Fortunately for Roy Grace, and millions of viewers, the client was not influenced by personal considerations.

Why is irreverence so important? Simply because it’s one thing to be funny, but another matter entirely to create an enduring piece of communication.

Mostly, humour alone is not enough. A bare joke wears thin after repeated viewings. Humour needs and edge.

Irreverence invests a commercial with a very different quality.  Irreverence has the potential to make the as an icon, to enter the public consciousness and remain there long after the commercial has finished playing.

Significantly VW funeral was voted into second place in 2000, 30 years after it had first run.

The commercial voted into first place, Apple’s 1984, arguably also contained a big dose of irreverence, irreverence, certainly towards IBMD Simply put, despite all the “funny” ads made since 1969 nothing better had come along. VW funeral remained a defining moment in television advertising.

Irreverence can be applied in four ways:
• Lampoon the client and product
• Lampoon people that people love to hate (rude hotel employees, for example)
• Lampoon the establishment (lawyers, politicians, the police, officialdom and authority figures)
• Lampoon the human condition, including death.

Lampooning the client and the product calls for a certain bravery, admittedly, but it’s very sound strategically and psychologically.

We all rather like people who can tell a joke against themselves. We’d like to spend time with them, have a drink with them.

Self-depreciating humour signals they don’t take themselves so seriously because they’re confident of themselves, and comfortable with who they are.

They don’t resort to pomposity. In the hands of Bill Bernbach, Helmut Krone and Roy Grace, Volkswagen engaged in many classic executions of the notion that VW is “ugly but it works.”

Another master of this genre was a Sydney used-care dealer Ron Hodgson, a major TV advertiser in the 1970s.

While his competitors desperately tried to communicate sincerity and integrity, Hodgso pioneered politically incorrect humour with himself as the butt of the joke.

One memorable commercial featured British comedian Warren Mitchell in his Alf Garnett character, challenging the honesty of the client. (“You believe that, mate, you’d believe anything … “) Hodgson clearly recognized the fact that he had to work harder to win the trust of cynical viewers, and he won it through irreverence.

Lampooing people we love to hate is very satisfying and disarming. Roy Grace employed this form of irreverence when he made the famous American Tourister commercial where a gorilla hurls a suitcase around in a cage, smashing it against the bars and stomping on it.

The voice-over addressed not the consumer but, rather, those who would handle the consumer’s luggage; “Dear clumsy bellboys, brutal cab drivers, careless doormen, ruthless porters, and all butterfingered luggage handlers all over the world, have we got a suitcase for you … “It was irreverence that truly resented!

If the connection with the brand is appropriate, then lampooning the establishment wins lots of friends.

For example, Saatchi & Saatchi Wellington satirized politicians. In their delightful commercial, a politician canvasses for votes door-to door and is offered a piece of Whittaker’s ‘Good Honest” chocolate.

Immediately after he takes a bite, he tells the truth. “As your MP, I’ll be abusing the free airfares, as will my wife and my mistress … I’ll go joyriding in government limos … I’ll spend a lot of time in bars, massage parlors …”

Lowe & partner India went even further in their campaign for The Times of India. Demonstrating how well the newspaper understood the Indian ethos, they satirized money-minded cricketers who endorsed a barrage of products.

Next, they bravely satirized India’s corrupt bureaucracy: an old man, trying to lodge his papers at a government department, is shunted from one shabby desk to another in a sped-up, band parody of a hockey match.

Irreverence directed at the human condition is enormously powerful. Clitt Freeman & Partners New York have titled at windmills for clients such as Little Caesars Pizza. They lampooned babies and hospitals.

Even that sacred cow called death did not escape. To promote the movie The Minus Man, Freeman showed two young adults so engrossed in talking about the movie that the girl ran late for her job.

By the time she had sprinted to where she worked, she discovered two elderly people floating face down in an indoor swimming pool. Only then do we realize that she was supposed to be the lifeguard.

Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney. (Under the creative direction of this project’s originator, Michael Newman) applied gram irreverence for client No Frills Funereal.

The whole sentiment of the campaign was “When you’re gone, you’re gone.” One commercial contained a black screen throughout.

The first caption appeared with the message: “This is what it looks like to be buried in a $25,000 funeral.” Retaining the black screen, the next caption observed: “This is what it looks like to be buried in a $5,000 funeral.”

The golden rule is to make sure your irreverence isn’t irrelevant, The gorilla was relevant to the strength of the suitcase.

The funeral was a parallel world to cars (it would not have worked so well for a product like chewing gum, for instance) and a miser’s funeral was relevant to the economy of owning a Volkswagen. Being “good honest” chocolate was all about the truth. No Frills was all about no frill and being thrifty. And so it goes.

In this age of cynical, disbelieving viewers, irreverence lets a message bond better with the audience. Audiences are all too ready to laugh at advertisers, and mostly with good reason.

If we can accept that reality, smart marketers should factor irreverence into their communications and make the brand-consumer conversation more real and more rewarding.
Keywords: advertising, ads, irreverence,


846 Comments so far ↓

Leave a Comment