Growing up Catholic meant having to go to church every Sunday. It didn't mean having to pay close attention. One way I passed time was flipping through the weekly bulletin, which outlined the cultural goings-on in the parish that week. Seeing as this was the quaint suburbs of Chicago's South Side, there wasn't much to absorb, so I'd quickly flip to my favorite section: the advertisements in the back.
Among the 50 or so ads—each the same small rectangular block as the next—for local businesses, there was one that always stood out. It was for an insurance agency, and it was elegant in its simplicity. It had the agent's face, name, phone number, and that was it. But there was one unique thing that set it apart from the rest: It was printed upside down.
“In this day and age, where people are literally absorbing, I don't know, a million and a half, two million marketing messages a year, you have literally a one in a million shot of being heard.”
When I asked my dad why, he responded in the mysterious teaching moment kind of way dads tend toward: “You noticed it, didn't you?”
“Turn it upside down” isn't just the name of that other Spin Doctors album. (Look it up!) It's also the mentality of any ad agency trying to get their work noticed in the sea of media saturation. It's relatively easy to accomplish when your competition is 50 ads in the back of a church bulletin. But how do you perform this in today's climate, when there are 48 million hours of television commercials annually and at least 4.57 billion Internet pages jockeying for the same sets of eyes?
“It's being OK with offending customers,” says John Walsh, an executive at the San Francisco-based advertising firm Iron Creative. “This has always been true of advertising. But in this day and age, where people are literally absorbing, I don't know, a million and a half, two million marketing messages a year.... I mean, you have literally a one in a million shot of being heard.”
The effectiveness of this mentality is evident in Forbes' list of the most effective ad campaigns of 2014. Dove's “Campaign for Real Beauty” promoted a portrayal of female beauty (i.e., real women, not models) that's sorely missing in the campaigns for every other beauty product. Prudential sold insurance by telling potential customers the uncomfortable truth that they're probably going to live longer (good!) than they financially planned for (bad!).
At Iron Creative, Walsh saw how effective this could be while working on a campaign for a shoe retailer that makes shoes with built-in orthotic technology. Despite it being a product that focuses on being fashionable, orthotics are still not exactly a youth market. “We did print that was pretty conservative,” Walsh says. Though the print was a “safe take” on the messaging, Walsh and company talked them into pivoting to a more surreal—and risky—tone when it came to the TV spots. “We said, look, you guys are looking to grow your company, so you're a growth investment. That's what this advertising is, it's an investment.”*
“You do the shocking thing, you get calls from lawyers, you have to pull it because of cease and desist. But in the meantime, your product sells out.”
The TV spots Iron Creative ultimately presented included talking feet in a soap opera setting, something that would maybe fit the audience of Adult Swim, but not the folks usually buying orthotics. “It was very out of left field for their target group,” Walsh says. “And within a month or two, their dealers sold out of their product.”
Why aren't more companies allowing upside-down and “out of left field” campaigns to happen? (Just look at the continual defanging of Super Bowl spots, which have morphed from showcasing a brand's new strategy to a series of over-the-top—that is, more expensive—versions of an already tried-and-tested campaign.) To Walsh, it's less because clients lack a sense of humor or don't trust the agencies and more that inherent cowardice is built into corporate bureaucracy. “If something doesn't get noticed, that's not going to make waves,” Walsh says. “But if your superior or your superior's superior gets calls from an outraged customer, you could get fired.”
Countering this mentality, however, is evidence that people respond more often to shocking content, whether they like it or not. A 2003 study of university students in England showed that ads with "shock appeal" had a recall rate of 96.9 percent and a recognition rate of 100 percent, as opposed to 78.1 percent and 81.3 percent for non-shocking ads. (Note, too, the discussion between the Media Researcher and Pig Vomit in Howard Stern's Private Parts.) In this era, it's less important to deliver a message that your target audience wants than to deliver a message they actually receive. “You do the shocking thing, you get calls from lawyers, you have to pull it because of cease and desist,” Walsh says. “But in the meantime, your product sells out.”
That said, shock value may not be what it used to be. A 2014 study in the Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences looked at what, exactly, is considered shocking these days by showing off a bunch of shocking ads to 300 university students. The result: "[S]hock advertising has become obsolete and ... marketers need to implement alternative ways of ‘breaking through the clutter.'"
The newest way brands have been trying to “turn it upside down” is by changing the medium completely. Rather than focusing manpower on 30-second spots, or even five-second pre-roll before YouTube videos, entire divisions have been created and devoted to a brand's social media usage. This includes Facebook posts, Instagram accounts, and other forms of outreach via whatever social networking platform is the hip new thing. But most of all, right now, it means Twitter.
Every brand, big or small, has their own Twitter feed. (While brand pages on Facebook have more likes than their Twitter pages have followers, the growth rate of the latter is outpacing the former.) This makes sense from the perspective of accessibility and the ability to “get your message” out there. For companies that need to give customers up-to-the-minute information (say, mobile food trucks), it's vital. But the feeds of brands that have ubiquitous market penetration (the Taco Bells, the Coca-Colas) are simply chock full of awkwardness.
“I don't want to hear what my wife is doing three times a day, I really don't give a shit what Taco Bell's doing.”
“Companies just don't get it,” Walsh says. “It's not organic, they're not building relationships with people, they're just creating a channel and bombarding people and people are accidentally signing up.”
One reason for this is simply too many cooks. A social media manager I spoke with—who wishes to remain anonymous—said that there's usually an advertising team, a marketing team, and a content team working on nearly every Twitter post. “Each link that's shared is carefully monitored for both engagement and revenue purposes,” the source said. “That famous Oreo tweet when the lights went out at the Super Bowl took a massive team.”
It's not exactly surprising, then, that Brand Twitter's one of the few corners of the Internet devoid of shock. Various studies have shown that groupthink—that is, members of a group drawing up a plan together—leads to decisions that aren't necessarily the best, as much as the safest ones that avoid conflict within the group. Another word for this is boring. And that does not have a place in the world of advertising.
“Mastering those mediums is much, much harder than mastering TV and radio,” Walsh says. “[In TV/radio], you have 30, you have 60 seconds to sell that thing, and you need to pull them in with a hook, and nobody's going to begrudge you for doing it that way.”
On social, the expectations are less straightforward. How many posts a day does a brand need to write? Which pieces of viral activity do they have to respond to? How many Photoshops of your product in a gold-and-white (or maybe blue-and-black) dress do you need to have up before lunchtime? What's the algorithm?
The aforementioned anonymous social media manager has a few answers. “You have to think critically about when people want to hear from you and when they don’t,” the source says. “It’s best to err on the side of silence because it’s more likely someone will call you tone-deaf for posting rather than staying silent. One of the smartest things you can do is know when to shut up so you don’t clog people’s feeds with unwanted information or posts.”
But when it comes to Twitter, maybe there is no real answer. While Walsh believes that interactive video will be a huge leap forward in terms of delivering a brand's message to the consumer, he isn't sold in the least on the possibility of Twitter.
“In real terms, [branded tweets] are not something consumers want, because it's not something humans want,” Walsh says. “I don't want to hear what my wife is doing three times a day, I really don't give a shit what Taco Bell's doing.”
The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.
*UPDATE — March 23, 2015: This story has been updated.