It's no secret that there's a method to this madness, and that by pushing the envelope, marketers hope to create controversial ads that will take on a cross-platform life of their own. If the ads migrate into the viral world--cropping up on YouTube, Yahoo and in blogs--it not only justifies the investment in TV time, it reaches key buyers who wouldn't be caught dead watching regular TV.
"Increasingly, companies realize that to get noticed, they need to push the boundaries in ways that their core audiences won't find offensive, and that their peripheral audience might," says Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "Companies are trying to find ads that create buzz across platforms. To do that, they create a sense of community around this in joke, and this potentially schismatic issue."
"In order to create an ad with that kind of afterlife, the bar for entertainment value has been raised," adds Jamie Tedford, senior vice president of media and marketing innovation with Arnold Worldwide in Boston, "and it's forcing agencies to take some risks. We know what works in terms of getting something to move around You Tube-we know there are Golden Rules to virality. Humor is important, so is controversy and maybe even a little shock value." In other words, to go viral, it helps to have an ad that's entertaining and offensive."
If marketers play it right, they can bond with customers in two ways: First, consumers get to laugh. Secondly, they get to feel morally superior to the uptight advocacy groups that object. On blogs that post these ads, there are pages of posts like: "No one has a sense of humor any more" or "Americans just can't take a joke." And in a peculiar way, Turow points out, such ads even create a marketing opportunity for the lampooned. Whether it advocates for suicide victims or gay-rights activists, "the uproar that surrounds these ads offers the advocacy groups a chance to get their point across, too," he says.
What is a secret, though, is what makes an ad edgy enough to go viral, says Stefan Tornquist, research director for MarketingSherpa, a Rhode Island-based research company. "There just aren't very many ads that are that compelling. People aren't going online to see a Budweiser or Snickers ad because they enjoyed it so much that they want to see it again--they're going to see it for the first time, just to see what all the fuss is about."
So far this year, there's no arguing that suicide was the joke du jour. In addition to the GM and VW spots, Washington Mutual has an ad with bankers out on a ledge, and CareerBuilder.com shows a pack of crazed workers jumping off a cliff en masse. Media pundits quickly weighed in, as well they should have. It's easy to recall the good old days when no one complained that the theme song for 1970's "M*A*S*H was "Suicide Is Painless" or that Bill Murray found so many clever ways to off himself in 1993's "Groundhog Day." But given what mental-health researchers now know about teen suicide and contagion in the post-Kurt Cobain era, it's probably not a bad idea for creatives to swear off suicide jokes for a while.
But what might spark a controversy changes fast, says Tornquist. Janet Jackson's nipple prompted a huge reaction, he points out. But even though poor Prince pranced around with a shadow phallus, it barely got a few wisecracks on the next day's talk shows.
So what's the next envelope-pushing topic marketers will try to exploit? Tornquist's money is on religion, either Christianity or Islam. "In this country right now, it doesn't get any edgier than that."
But that won't work for many mainstream marketers, says Tedford, who points out that sooner or later, companies will tire of the run-an-ad/yank-an-ad strategy and insist that creatives spend more time with the crisis-management team before launching a potentially divisive ad. "We don't have to go looking for the next taboo," he says. "There's plenty of fodder in the realm of being entertaining without being offensive."