Tuesday, September 25, 2007

This sucks. Go with it.

According to Ad Age Today, that awful “HeadOn” commercial that we’ve all seen and groaned about is clearly one of the “worst commercials ever from a creative standpoint.” Jay Leno and John Stewart have both mocked it on the air and NBC News called it the “most annoying ad on television”.

Brace yourself.

Since they started running the spot, HeadOne sales have skyrocketed. We’re talking a 234% increase in 2006 from 2005 and already this year (September), they have nearly equaled 2006 sales. What the Hell does this tell us?

The VP of sales at Miralus, who owns HeadOn, says they are more interested in brand awareness than winning creative awards.

No kidding.

But it’s hard to deny their success. So what does that mean for those of us who believe that creativity sells? Those of us who spend our days looking for the different creative approach that we think will cut through the ad clutter for our clients?

I don’t know. I know that Miralus spends just $15 million a year on measured media – which is a drop in the bucket for a national brand. Much less than brands that have lost sales.

I also know this. Whether the creative is good or whether it’s garbage, whether it wins an award or doesn’t, whether the creative director is proud of it or embarrassed by it, the goal remains the same. To sell stuff (and by “stuff”, I mean things, services, ideas, positions – all of it). That’s something people in our business sometimes forget in the push for creativity.

If any of you reading this are clients and you’re going to hold this up to your agencies as a justification for bad creative, don't. One reason I think HeadOn has worked so far is because it is just so awful it stands out. Everything can’t be the worst. So in the spirit of Harvey Keitel’s famous line in “Pulp Fiction” let’s not all start shooting for bad creative. Besides, fame is fleeting.

Nobody values or believes in creativity as a practical business tool more than I do. Creativity and advertising effectiveness certainly go together in my book. But maybe it sometimes takes crap like HeadOn to remind us that the Point of The Exercise is, after all, to sell stuff. And I do know that sometimes creative folk let their ideas get away from them.

A few years ago, Karen and I were at a presentation Dan Wieden of Wieden + Kennedy made at the Museum of Radio and Television. With the famous (or infamous) “Dick” campaign for Miller Beer having just bit the dust, I perhaps foolishly raised my hand and asked what could we learn from the fact that a wildly creative, award-wining campaign like “Dick” didn’t sell much beer?

Clearly Dan took offense and in a tone of voice that was equal parts condescending and angry told me that “It's not about selling beer, young man . . . "

And although I loved the "young man" part, I don’t even remember what he said after that. I was so blown away that someone I’d admired so much didn’t even seem to know what the advertising was supposed to do, I kind of blanked from that point on. If it's not about selling beer, then WTF is it about?

But I was put properly enough in my place that I didn’t challenge him on it. I just sank down in my seat as all the New York creatives in the audience sneered at me and asked Dan if they could show him their books.

And then again, there’s HeadOn. An absolute joke of creativity that just happens to be pretty damned effective. Much more effective than “Dick.”

Which I never liked anyway.


Life Out of Bounds said...

I definitely appreciate you putting a spotlight on the HeadOn commercial and using it to illustrate the fact that there are creative bodies out there who allow their need to use advertising, not to sell, but as a platform for their artistic ego's. The first time I witnessed the train wreck of the headache remedy, I knew I was watching the American commercial equivalent to Who Let the Dogs Out or a Spice Girls song. You can't help but have them all stuck in your head -- and I don't miss the irony that the songs can lead to the need for a dose of HeadOn -- which is ultimately the goal. They obviously 'get' their target. I definitely would have appreciated a more creative means of execution but I can't argue with the results. There is a big lesson to be learned though in that it is the creative director's responsibility to temper their ideas with a cultural recognition of the audience. An idea can be an 11.5 on the creative Richter scale, but if you don't recognize how or if it is going to connect with the audience, then you are just shooting blanks in the air. Will you win awards and recognition amongst your peers? Sure. Will the client renew your contract? Doubt it.

BTW. Love the blog and your eye. You bring great attention to a lot of my favorite talent out there and even some I have never seen before.

Kyle Peppers

Marvin Clonky said...

Where did you learn that advertising's job is merely to sell product? If you could brainwash people into buying your stuff, would you?

Bad advertising sometimes works, and works exceedingly well, at selling product. This was Sullivan's point with Whipple.

But there are two problems with annoying ads (I realize this is subjective, but we can all agree that HeadOn is annoying). One, they make the world a more annoying place to live in. And two, they're not likeable.

What you guys call "artistic ego" is more often than not an agency's attempt to build a brand. Which is way, way bigger than moving the damn needle four seconds after the campaign launches. Arnold built a hell of a brand with VW in the '90s, for instance, because they had their eye on a bigger ball than short-term sales.

Which is why Dan would still take offense to your question. He knows his job -- not to be the plaid-suited vacuum salesman, but to be an agent of cultural change.

Woody Hinkle said...

The thing is, we’re all lucky to be in a business where we get to use creativity to do our jobs. But I think the work has to be both creative and ultimately effective – “Tastes Great. Less Filling.” comes to mind. Otherwise, what’s the point? I mean really?

I’m not coming down on the side of bad creative. My point in the post was that sometimes we get too caught up trying to do something creative we forget why our clients are paying us to do this work in the first place.

If the goal is “cultural change”, then I wonder, to what end? Umm, to sell something maybe? An idea, a position, a brand or even - gasp - a product?

My guess is that Miller didn’t hire W+K to be “plaid-suited vacuum salesmen”, but neither did they hire them to be agents of cultural change for FOR ITS OWN SAKE. They hired them to – ultimately – sell beer. Many of us believe that creativity properly applied would be the way to do it. But it has to work, or it’s a waste of time and money.

Thanks for taking the time to disagree and post a comment. Really.