Here at Overthinking It, we’ve been talking about a disturbing trend in advertising for several years. We saw several (nine, to be exact) instances of this in last Saturday’s Super Bowl. Here’s an example:
Message: “Eating Doritos will get you shocked by a dog.”
Huh? Why is this a good thing? How is this supposed to sell Doritos? Well, we’re not really sure, but we’ve coined a phrase that aptly describes this perplexing phenomenon:
“Bad Things Happen To You When You Use Our Product.”
Let’s explore this trend further with some more examples.
This one’s also from the Super Bowl:
Advertiser: Bud Light
Message: “Commitment to Bud Light will keep you stuck on a desert island instead of pursuing ways to get back home.”
Sure, it’s a party on the island, but the revelers are clearly depicted as not acting in a responsible, “let’s get back to our families” kind of way. Plus, fresh water is scarce on an island like that. Drinking alcohol will make them more susceptible to dehydration once the party’s over.
Here’s an older (non-Super Bowl) example:
Advertiser: Axe Body Spray
Message: “Using our spray turns you into irresistibly delicious, edible chocolate. Women will consume your chocolatized-flesh like crazed zombies. Say goodbye to your limbs!”
The reasoning behind these kinds of ads seems to be as follows:
- Depict usage of product in TV commercial, probably an expensive one that ran during the Super Bowl
- Show bad things happening to people using the product.
Doesn’t make sense, right? Yet advertisers keep doing it.
Let’s start with a reasonable explanation for this trend: these commercials all show what happens when a product is so desirable or attractive that it causes logic to be thrown out the window. In this era of marketing over-saturation, advertisers feel the need to depict extreme, over-exaggerated levels of product excellence to get theirs noticed above the rest.
Typical instances of positive exaggeration of a product’s traits yield positive results. Here’s a typical Coke commercial:
Message: “Coke is so great that it turns a misanthropic video game character in a charitable, joy-spreading, spontaneous-song-and-dance-inducing guy.”
But these “Bad Things Happen to You” ads go one step further. Their products are SO INSANELY GREAT that they’ll cause people act irrationally out of extreme desire for the product…
(Message: “Bud Light is so great it will cause you to discard logic and build a house made of Bud Light, which will start to fall apart as soon as the party starts)
…or the products themselves are SO INSANELY POWERFUL that the effects of using them cause things like the Axe Body Spray video above.
So it seems reasonable to me that increased competition in advertising leads to more extreme depictions of products. But this doesn’t full explain why advertisers think this will appeal to people or make their products more attractive. For that, we need a different explanation. I offer a few possibilities:
1. Advertisers are trying to tap into the previously unexplored masochistic side of the American psyche.
On some level, we like it when bad things happen to us. Great things often resulted from bad things happening to us. The Vietnam War gave us Creedence Clearwater Revival. 9/11 gave us a brief euphoric taste of patriotic national unity (and after that subsided, Team America: World Police). George W. Bush gave us Barack Obama. And so on.
2. Advertisers are trying to target irony “loving” “hipsters.”
Not likely, but I find it amusing to think that somewhere on Madison Avenue there’s a clueless version of Don Draper who thinks he’s figured out a surefire way to appeal to the youth market: irony. Putting on a trucker hat is a bad thing that happens to hipsters, yet they do it intentionally and seem to like it. Let’s do the same thing with houses made of beer and nachos that cause psycho dogs to shock you. Hipsters love bad beer and dogs–makes perfect sense!
3. Advertisers are trying to appeal to our love of the irrational and spontaneous.
This I find to be the most compelling explanation. So many of the “Bad Things Happen To You” ads depict people losing all sense of self-control and reason due to the extreme desirability of the product being advertised. The “bad things” that happen in these ads (being consumed by choco-zombies, collapsing Bud Light house, etc) are rarely relatable to everyday life, but the impulsive, Id-driven behaviors that leads to these “bad things” absolutely are. Seeing those behaviors depicted in fiction validates our own similar impulsive drives, and that sense of validation far outweighs anything else going on in the typical American noggin:
OK, so maybe it wasn’t the most shocking discovery to find that advertisers appeal to the Freudian Id, but I still find these ads to be fascinating little psychology experiments. And I’m curious to know what you think.
Readers: What are your favorite “Bad Things Happen To You When You Use Our Product” ads? What makes them effective/not effective? Can anything possibly be cooler than Don Draper in a John Deere hat?
Sound off in the comments!