You’re not the target audience for every marketing strategy. You’re not the target demographic for every brand. For instance, when JC Penney teams up with Karina Smirnoff for a sales pitch about health and fitness products, I zone out. It’s not going to work on me.
On the other hand, when Skittles puts together a quirky acid trip of a commercial or a lovably bizarre tweet, I pay attention. I don’t often think of Skittles, but when their absurd marketing tactics hit me, I might just think “Hey, I could maybe go for some Skittles right now.”
Or I would if they hadn’t, you know, replaced lime with green apple. That’s unforgivable. (Author’s Note: Please excuse this brief detour—it was wholly necessary, I promise.)
So, check out these two videos:
And these Tweets:
— JCPenney (@jcpenney) January 14, 2014
The best time to get hit by a shrinking ray is when you get down to your last couple of Skittles.
— Skittles (@Skittles) January 3, 2014
Which one appeals to you? If the Skittles content is the winner, then I’d like to welcome you to my 2700 word nightmare.
Let’s keep these commercials and tweets in mind as we step into a world where the gleefully absurd meets online marketing.
I want to show two recent examples of how absurdity can be a great marketing tool. I spoke with the brains behind both of these campaigns so that we might learn their thought process and take some lessons away.
Wash Your Hands
The article details their thought process and the amazing success of the campaign.
- Eat24 determined they could get more exposure from porn sites than from Google, Facebook and Twitter combined.
- The cost of each impression on any given porn site was 1/10th of what each impression on those larger sites
- 90% of the visitors from that ad campaign were first-time visitors
In the end, Eat24 had a smash success. They roped in a ton of new customers and saved a ton of money.
But that whole campaign is kind of strange, right? I’d even venture to say it’s absurd. Porn sites tend to deal with porn advertisers and porn marketing.
The juxtaposition of ordering a sandwich alongside streaming a porn video is inherently absurd, so the content had to match that level of absurdity—and Eat24 delivered, as shown in the image below.
It’s absurd, effective and brilliant all at once. There’s nothing serious or straight-laced about it.
I spoke to the Eat24 crew about their campaign and the aftermath, “We’ve been thinking outside the box since day one, and now thanks to this campaign, we have an even bigger audience for our already filthy minds.”
The aforementioned article about their journey through porn marketing alone garnered over 2k tweets and 7k Facebook likes, which is incredible for a brand with no big-brand backing. It was all over Reddit and BuzzFeed. So their porn advertising campaign worked wonders, but when they shared their results, they marketed their brand even more effectively.
I asked a pointed question about how absurdity factored into the campaign. The Eat24 team told me:
“We are absurd people, so weirdness automatically factors its way into everything we do. We just looked at the market, looked at who else was advertising there, and tried to make banner ads that would catch eyeballs and make people hungry. The decision to advertise on porn sites was made using logic. Cheap cost with tons of traffic; the only thing we were curious about was why has no one else done this before?”
I’d personally never heard of Eat24 before that article, and I don’t think their service exists in my city. After I read about their porn marketing adventure, though, they made a huge impression on me. I figured they made a huge impression on the online marketing community as a whole.
“We definitely had to get extra help answering phones and emails, especially when it first hit. Even now, five months later, we still get invites to speak at conferences, guest blog, and answer interview questions just like this 🙂 We definitely turned heads, and made new people hungry for sandwiches… we’ve [also] had several companies reach out to us for advice on executing this type of campaign. And the porn community loves us even more than they did before, so that’s a plus.”
When a small company is approached for conferences, guest blogging and interviews, that means they’ve made a real impact. And it just so happens that Eat24 made its impact through something inherently absurd. Smart as hell, but absurd.
It was so smart, in fact, that it came up in the real world. The week that Eat24 released its article, I found myself talking to my friends about it at bars or in the car on the way to a punk show. If people hadn’t heard of it, they instantly wanted a link to the article. My friends in marketing, design and media were interested—but my friends who work in automotive repair shops and restaurants were interested, too. They’d now heard of Eat24.
Eat24 still runs its porn banner ad campaign, and they’re not slowing down. The team said, “We’re always thinking of crazy stuff to do. You should see the sketches on our whiteboards after a brainstorming session. Is there a rating stronger than NC-17?”
Absurd marketing is just about the opposite of sterile marketing. It takes a clever, possibly dirty mind to come up with Eat24’s campaign and the tremendous piece of content marketing that followed. Pairing a food delivery app with adult entertainment was a risky move because it’s an absurd pairing. Eat24 pulled it off regardless, and the results were indisputable.
Death to False Furniture
Let’s switch gears from the carnal to the occult. Occult imagery raises another red flag for many straight-laced people, and so does extreme metal.
Enter Pennsylvania-based marketing firm Gatesman+Dave. In October of 2013 they had a smash success with ‘IKEA or DEATH,’ an online game in which the player has to determine if a Scandinavian name represents something Ikea sells or an extreme metal band.
The game was just branded with Gatesman+Dave’s logo. Their name was the only thing attached—other than Ikea and the featured metal bands, of course.
The game garnered 656k Facebook shares and a decent number of tweets. As the Eat24 campaign did, IKEA or DEATH also came up in the real world. I have many friends who play in bands, run music shops or own music venues—they were bragging about their scores and talking about how funny the whole experience was. It was all over my friends’ Facebook pages and it became a competition. IKEA or DEATH united marketers and music fans.
The pairing of affordable furniture and extreme metal is absurd. Sure, the connection between the product names and the band names is there, but it’s not something a straight-laced marketer would have created.
I spoke with Gatesman+Dave’s Sam Panico (Senior Copywriter) and Jeff Barton (Associate Creative Director).
“[IKEA or DEATH] started as a joke while we were at IKEA, to be honest. We needed new furniture for a brainstorm space and when you have no budget, what better place to go? I couldn’t stop laughing while we were there, because I’m a huge metal listener. Every single product there sounded like some Norwegian black metal band – which makes up a good chunk of what I listen to while I write on a daily basis. Jeff Barton and I kept laughing about it for a full day after our trip, until he said, “Let’s make a web site and share this.” The only real hard work was having to go into our bosses’ offices and convince them to let us launch it (and that wasn’t all that difficult, either).”
I asked Panico and Barton if IKEA or DEATH gained Gatesman+Dave some brand recognition outside of Pittsburgh, where they are based.
Barton replied with a cautious affirmative:
“In tracking where people have been visiting IKEAorDeath.com from, we saw that we were able to reach an audience that we would’ve never reached before. It’s been great to see how many of those people also visited the Gatesman+Dave site to see what we are all about. While we’ve gotten a lot of attention, I would say that our brand recognition might not be as large as you think. The largest boost we received for our brand is that it has given us more opportunities to show ideas and concepts that are more out of the box. Now, we have real life numbers that show just how powerful a really smart and entertaining idea can be, particularly once it gains organic sharing.”
A well-executed idea that’s bubbling with absurdity gains those organic social shares, and people are naturally curious about the brains behind that perfectly absurd piece of marketing. The range of people that contacted Gatesman+Dave after IKEA or DEATH hit was vast, as were their reasons for making that contact.
“From a company perspective: We had many companies contact us from all over the world with a range of needs a broad as the distances that separate us from them. Most are interested in talking about how we approach what we do and how that could apply to their needs.
From a personal perspective: My network of contacts increased considerably with other creatives, vendors and even brands. Plus, we had an influx of people in the advertising and creative profession that reached out to see if we had any job openings because they like the idea of working in a place that isn’t afraid to publish things that may be a bit out there for other companies.”
“The world has become so small, in that this site that incubated in our brains led to me meeting so many new people in the space of a few days. For example, I met a copywriter from South Africa who went through every picture on the Gatesman+Dave site until she found my photo, then emailed me saying, “I bet this IKEA or Death site was written by you, because you’re the only person wearing a Darkthrone shirt on a corporate site.”
I asked Panico and Barton about why IKEA or DEATH was such a big crossover hit. I wondered how they calculated that perfect ratio of niche appeal to mass appeal. Their answer surprised me—there were no real calculations.
“I wouldn’t say that we calculated the ratio of niche vs. mass appeal. But I will say that as a company we strive to tap into the different demographics, human cultures, challenges, and things that entertain us. We dissect all those things to the core of why people are engaged with them. Then work to create new unexpected ways of flipping how people engage or think about how those things inside out.
As far as the execution of the game, I will say that from our experience, we knew that if we kept it simple, easy to play, yet challenging to answer with some quirky fun that there was a much larger chance of its success.”
“This is going to sound like a cheat, but I have always gone with my gut. If it feels right, chances are it’s right. It goes back to what I love about metal: you can always tell what is true and what is calculated. I wanted this to make you laugh, but when you went back and read about the bands or the furniture, you had to feel that it came from people who 100% lived and breathed both IKEA and metal. I think the fact that it feels true is why it resonated and worked.”
That’s another gamble marketers face when they use absurdity as a tool—authenticity. If something feels like it’s trying too hard or it’s inauthentic, then it’s going to feel less artfully absurd and more cheesy or dorky.
Eat24’s staff has a genuine enthusiasm for adult entertainment, and Panico and Barton have a genuine enthusiasm for the darkness of extreme metal. Poseurs couldn’t pull off either of these campaigns. Absurdity only works when it’s executed with authority.
No one’s an authority on everything, though, and that big risk factor is inherently there with any absurd campaign. I asked Barton and Panico what they learned from IKEA or DEATH.
“The thing that I learned most from IKEA or Death is that content is king and people are incredibly hungry for new and fun ways to look at life. You can’t guarantee that you will break into that next big thing. But you can control the quality and the quantity of the content you create, and how quickly you get that content out into the world. It doesn’t make sense to over think, over test or over complicate things. It is more economical and efficient to get your ideas out and into the world then adjust performance based off real-time results.”
“I love that this started as an idea between two creatives, then we got one developer, and within a few days, we had these results. At the heart of it all is a very simple idea that you can explain in under ten words: A furniture store has products that sound a lot like metal band names. That simple idea had so many legs: those that love IKEA, those that love metal, those that are looking for something funny.”
Barton hits on something important with “new and fun ways to look at life.” Absurdity usually comes from a bizarre juxtaposition that sheds a new, different light on something basic or mundane—such as food or furniture.
Over testing or over thinking the absurd doesn’t work either. It has to come from an authentic place, and it has to succeed despite the risk. Especially with something as heady and abstract as absurdity, you have to be able to simplify and explain your idea—and Panico did that in under ten words.
So, here are the takeaways for absurdity to work in online marketing:
- You’re taking a risk. That’s a given. Deal with it.
- Go with your gut.
- In addition to the risk, you’re really putting yourself out there. You’re going out on a weird limb and doing a bizarre balancing act. Don’t be surprised when people don’t “get it.”
- Using any form of absurdity means you lose a lot of broad or mainstream appeal.
- Your absurd idea has to apply to something that people want or are interested in.
- You have to naturally stand out—like food ads on a porn site.
- It needs to come from an authentic place. If it feels forced then it’s dorky, not absurd.
- Regardless of how high-concept your idea is, you need to have a simple explanation for what it is and how it will work.
- Don’t over think it. Absurdity is, by nature, unpredictable. Have your own ducks in a row and move forward with your best work. The rest either comes or doesn’t.
- Give your audience a new, fun way to look at the world.
I have an absurd sense of humor, so I was naturally drawn to both of these campaigns. Sure, there are hundreds more I’ve never seen or heard of, but when an absurdist campaign takes off I’ll remember it forever.
It won’t resonate with the people who want a straight-laced advertisement for Karina Smirnoff merchandise at JC Penney, but will attract the oddballs and have us talking online and in meatspace if it succeeds. That’s hard to top.
Above all else, it takes a special kind of mind to create an absurd marketing plan that actually works.
As Sam Panico says, “Personally, who knew that my love for loud, abrasive, depressive and completely abhorrently evil music would pay off in my professional career?”
The notion of a man’s love for black metal helping him succeed in marketing is inherently absurd, but it worked out—and it was unforgettable.
Now, who wants to buy me a new Darkthrone t-shirt?