The biggest night of the advertising year is almost upon us: the Super Bowl. After the game, we see best of and worst of lists for the ads. Every marketing executive dreams of creating an ad that gets high marks, but is it really that bad to create a bad marketing campaign?
We’ve all heard the adage “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” And we can picture marketing campaigns that have generated tons of buzz for the wrong reasons.
In the end, is it okay to create a marketing message people love to hate? Or does bad marketing do irreparable harm to a brand?
I don’t think there’s just one answer to this question. As a society, we deem things bad for different reasons–some valid, some kind of silly. Why your marketing message is hateable matters. Yes, there is such a thing as good-bad marketing. But bad-bad marketing is just as real. And bad-bad marketing can do harm to your brand.
Here’s how to remain on the right side of the wrong message, whether you’re planning an expensive spot for the Super Bowl, sketching out your next paid social campaign, or conceptualizing a drip email series.
An example from last year’s Super Bowl
One of the most polarizing ads from last year’s game came from Oatly. The brand’s CEO, Toni Petersson, stands in a wheat field with a portable keyboard (the music kind, not the computer kind). He plunks out some chords and sings an original song in a warbling, not-quite-on-key tenor. “It’s like milk, but made for huuu-maaans,” he croons. “Wow! Wow! No cow!”
At one point some synth drums drop in, but the track never gets fancier and the scenery doesn’t change. The Black Eyed Peas don’t pop up behind him in the field. Lady Gaga doesn’t rappel in wearing a dress made from Oatly cartons. It’s just one overly-enthusiastic dude jamming to his own kinda-terrible song.
The next day, all folks could talk about was how bad this commercial was. “Did you hear his singing voice? Yikes.”
“I’ve seen better cinematography in high school AV classes!”
The general reception to the ad could be called poor, but when Oatly went public a few months later, the company’s stock soared. So the negative talk about the commercial certainly didn’t hurt the brand. It may have even played a role in generating more buzz in advance of the company’s IPO.
This is a classic example of good-bad marketing. It worked because it adhered to these four rules.
Rule 1: Mind your medium and message
No one is going to solve the world’s problems in 60 seconds. Whether you’re creating a television ad or email campaign, you only have a fraction of a minute to get your point across, so don’t aim for anything too lofty.
Oatly stuck to this principle. The medium and message were incredibly simple. “Wow, no cow.” Not only is the message easy to remember, Toni delivered it in a way that is almost guaranteed to lodge in your brain.
By way of contrast, let’s reflect on another big-budget ad that flopped. Remember that Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner? It was universally panned for being opportunistic and glib. Not only is systemic racism not something a soda brand has any business discussing, but there’s no way to tackle such a monumental issue in one minute.
Don’t try to take on an issue that’s above your paygrade. Keep to messages that are relevant, appropriate, and can be resolved neatly in the timeframe and format you’ve chosen for your marketing.
Rule 2: Get the tone right
One of the things lots of people commented on in Oatly’s ad was Toni’s off-key singing. He’s quite literally not hitting the right note. But, ironically, the tone of the commercial is spot on.
Oatly wanted to position itself as a humble upstart in the world of alternative dairy products. No frills, no gimmicks, no ingredients you can’t pronounce. The simplicity of the ad reflects the purity of what the brand is offering to consumers.
Oatly could have gone another way. The commercial could have talked about animal agriculture’s massive carbon footprint. It could have tried to guilt people into drinking non-dairy milk because it’s better for them and the planet. The commercial hints at it with the line, “It’s like milk, but made for humans,” but the song doesn’t go all-in on dragging the traditional dairy industry.
And that’s wise. Defensiveness, guilt-tripping, sanctimony–these are not the kinds of things people want to hear from a brand, ever. Any time you start condescending to your audience, whether intentionally or not, you’re probably veering into bad-bad marketing territory.
Rule 3: Don’t take the bait
While it’s important to take legitimate concerns from your audience seriously, there’s something to be said for letting bad-faith arguments roll off your back, or better yet, getting in on the fun.
Oatly heard a lot of criticism of the commercial. The brand could have taken it the wrong way. A representative could have started finger-wagging about the dairy industry or how other brands waste gobs of money on flashy ads to hide the sins of their business activities. It could have gotten ugly.
But instead of veering into one of those forbidden tones listed above, Oatly went all-in on the joke. The company created t-shirts that read “I totally hated that Oatly commercial.” They were all snapped up almost immediately.
If you miss something egregious, be humble enough to own your mistake. Pepsi, for its part, apologized for the Kendall Jenner ad and pulled it from the air. And it should have–many people were rightly upset about it.
But if you find your brand taking silly hits on Twitter or any other loud corner of the internet, have the confidence in your idea to either remain quiet or double down.
Rule 4: Punch up–not down
Funny commercials are great, and humor often gives brands leeway to try some riskier messaging. Audiences are a lot more willing to accept a shocking or edgy premise if it also makes them chuckle.
But if you take the comedy route, make sure that humor is directed at the right target. Customers don’t want to hear that the joke’s on them. Instead, be willing to laugh at yourself. Oatly’s commercial is a great example of this; Toni clearly does not take himself too seriously.
Another example is that Match.com ad we wrote about last year, in which the devil and 2020–soulmates, obviously–find each other on the dating app.
Creating a commercial joking about COVID and 2020 was risky. The pandemic in and of itself is decidedly not funny.
But the brilliance of this ad is that the joke is not making fun of the situation around COVID. It’s acknowledging our shared difficulties. It unites viewers by creating an opportunity for us all to sigh and say, “Yeah, 2020 was a total dumpster fire for all of us, wasn’t it?”
Match.com takes an even bigger gamble, throwing itself into the comedic fray. The commercial is, in essence, insinuating that you can find really terrible people (like, say, the devil) on its app. But because the brand is willing to put its own neck out there, we viewers are further endeared to the message. We look past that ungenerous reading of the message so we can laugh together at the idea of the devil and 2020 shacking up together.
When big marketing dollars are on the line, brands can get skittish. Sometimes, they’re so afraid of creating bad marketing, that they don’t take any risks at all. I think what good-bad marketing teaches us is that it’s always worth it, as long as your heart is in the right place.
People are generally okay with you taking a chance, even if it’s a swing and a miss, as long as you do it with humility and good intentions. But before you green light any marketing messaging that could go into the bad territory, be sure to pass it through those four rules and make sure it ends up on the good-bad side of things.
Oh, and maybe have a marketing team on speed-dial to weigh in on your idea before you put it out there in the world. If you’re looking for a sounding board, give us a holler.