Sales through silliness

As well as seemingly endless choice, today's media landscape offers us all the luxury of immediacy. Miss your favourite TV programme and you can watch it on catch up; hear a song you like on the radio, and the likelihood is that you'll be able to download it straight away (legally, of course -- piracy's not cool, kids).

All this is good news for time-poor consumers, but, for the advertisers and marketers trying to grab precious seconds of the general public's ever-diminishing attention, things are becoming increasingly challenging. Somewhat spoiled by this new 'no waiting' culture, we've quickly gotten used to being able to skip straight to the content we want (so much so that the having to sit through stuff like those compulsory pre-video YouTube ads feels truly infuriating).

With fingers constantly hovering over the 'fast forward' button, traditional TV ads can't have the impact they once did. So, rather than simply trying to create on-screen campaigns that are memorable enough to make us want to buy into a brand ourselves, agencies often need to think about how they can make something that's sharable too -- that your consumers feel compelled to engage with and send out across social media, spreading the message wider and reaching those all-important folks whose Sky box lets them shut out all the non-essential noise.

More and more often, the way that advertisers are doing this is by plumping for straight-up silliness.

Over seven million people have watched one of the best examples of this shift to silliness: Three's '#DancePonyDance' video (strapline: "Silly stuff. It matters."). With supporting content that allowed you to personalise your own version of the clip (and, therefore, interact with the campaign on a whole new level), it was also responsible for sending the pony's tune of choice -- Fleetwood Mac's 'Everywhere' -- back into the UK top 20, 26 years after it was originally released.

And now competitor mobile network 02 is retaliating with 'Be More Dog', spearheaded by an ad featuring a morose looking ginger cat who finds a new enthusiasm for life when he decides to start behaving, ummm, more like a dog. It's on target to prove pretty popular too, with two million video views since its early-July launch and a whole bunch of infinitely shareable supporting content available on the microsite.

The most shared YouTube ad in June was the latest instalment in insurance firm GEICO's 'Happier Than' series of ads, which is basically a camel wandering around an office, annoying his co-workers by getting giddy about the fact that it's 'hump day'; also in the Top 10 for June is Melbourne Metro's 'Dumb Ways to Die' animation (54 million views) and Evian's 'Baby & Me' (over 200,000 shares). We've even tried a spot of silliness ourselves here at Code, with our mockumentary style video to promote Brother's labelling range.

While they might seem frivolous on the surface, there's sophisticated strategic thought behind successful 'silly' campaigns. You'll notice that an almost universal feature is extremely low-key branding. What do dancing Shetland ponies have to do with mobile phones, or camels with insurance? Nothing, and, accordingly, the Three and GEICO brands don't even get a mention until the last few seconds of the ads. That's because this is less about directly selling the virtues of your product, and more about subtlely building a brand association with fun, laughter and a desire to not be taken too seriously.

Although applying these types of campaign techniques is becoming more commonplace, having the courage to throw your all behind a 'silly' concept is still a brave move (I mean, you have to wonder whether the head honchos at Tango were immediately on board when Bartle Bogle Hegarty first pitched their '#argh' screaming, orange bodybuilders idea... ). The risk factor's high; if you don't pitch it quite right, your ever-so-funny campaign could end up doing you more damage than good.

Skittles wrong-footed follow up ad to the popular 'Midas Touch', featuring a woman snogging a walrus, was more mildly disturbing than funny (and bizarrely also led to accusations that the brand were promoting bestiality); Pilgrim's Choice Cheese's 'mini cowboy' ended up coming off a little creepy, plus he got slapped with a pre-watershed ban for playing around with guns and a razor (weapons aren't cool either, kids).

Go Compare's a particularly interesting case to consider when discussing these kinds of 'silliness fails'. To its credit, the company was savvy enough to realise that the cartoon-esque opera singer it began using in its ads back in June 2009 had becoming a source of intense irritation. So they hired ad agency Dare, who used the public's annoyance to their advantage by turning the concept on its head, transforming the tenor from hero to villain (and, more recently, to an unrecognisable, pretty pathetic figure, desperately trying to keep hold of his job).

And, of course, even well-executed silliness isn't always the right route to take. It's an approach that's not appropriate for every brand, particularly where you message need to have a distinct emotional impact; our campaigns for Refuge and Oxfam GROW, for example, are proof that powerful presentation of real issues can be just as effective in prompting social shares, too.

So 'seriousness' still has its place, too -- just don't try explaining that to one of those angry Tango guys...

Project work in progress – Part 3: Getting technical