Over the weekend, I watched the new documentary Dreaming Murakami. Directed by Nitesh Anjaan, the film follows Danish translator Mette Holm in her efforts to translate Haruki Murakami’s novel Hear the Wind Sing. One of my favourite aspects of the film was how - despite being a factual documentary - it frequently experimented with incorporating surreal and fantastical elements from the cult novelist’s works. These served to illustrate the translator’s inner life and thoughts on the art of translation really effectively, where a more straightforward and unembellished documentary approach may have fallen short.
When it comes to content marketing, dabbling with the weird can definitely be a bit of a gamble. Something bold, experimental, and strange can potentially really resonate with an audience, striking them like a lightning bolt of imagination and revolutionising their perception of a brand… or it can just as easily fizzle out into nothingness, dismissed as weird for the sake of it.
Looking at a few examples from the past, then, what can marketers learn from these campaigns to improve the chances of such a gamble paying off?
It certainly paid off for Cadbury’s and ad agency Fallon London with their 2007 Gorilla ad, which featured (simply enough) a gorilla playing drums along with the Phil Collins track In the Air Tonight. The ad won countless awards, and a public poll conducted by Marketing Magazine in 2015 deemed it “the nation’s favourite ad”.
On the surface, you can be forgiven for thinking that Cadbury’s were blindly jumping into a funny, surreal premise with the hopes that people would sit up and take notice (especially considering that the premise has absolutely nothing to do with chocolate). Look a bit closer though, and there’s definitely method behind the madness. Talking to The Guardian in 2016, Cadbury’s then-marketing director explained:
“The whole business had become quite earnest and serious, when in fact it’s chocolate and should be more about things such as Willy Wonka … The brief I gave the agency was: Eating Cadbury’s chocolate makes you feel good.”
Another key to the advert’s success is that it pairs its whimsical, absurd premise with a more subtle expression of the Cadbury’s brand identity. The company’s distinctive purple is prominent,, which helps it to not fall into the common trap of audiences remembering the content, but instantly forgetting the actual product being promoted.
Where the Cadbury’s example worked to engage with its established audience and their feelings towards the company’s product, Sony’s bold marketing campaigns for the PlayStation in the 1990s sought to completely change the public perception of what they were selling: taking the games console out of the child’s bedroom, and transforming it into a home entertainment option for the front rooms of an older demographic.
Once again: on the face of it, something as odd as the Mental Wealth ad could be viewed as Sony simply trying to stand out from their competitors with their fingers crossed for success. As with the previous example though, there’s an amount of careful consideration beneath the surface. Talking to The Independent, games journalist Alex Wiltshire noted the shrewdness of Sony’s break with the traditions set by their competitors:
“They quite cannily noticed that a lot of the people in the market were actually in their teens and twenties, not children … They were the people who had played on their Spectrums in the Eighties, and they were still interested.”
A great number of their unorthodox marketing choices can be seen to be almost laser-focused towards the ‘rave generation’ of the 1990s. For example, Chris Cunningham, fresh from having directed a number of controversial and similarly striking music videos for Aphex Twin, was picked to direct the Mental Wealth ad. The themes of social alienation and escapism present in both that ad and the award-winning Double Life advert have clear echoes of a defining film for that generation, Trainspotting.
The expansive multimedia possibilities of the Internet have inspired many marketers to create highly immersive campaigns that break the fourth wall between content and its audience. As with the previous examples, the most successful of these sorts of campaigns display an acute awareness of identity and audience: one of my personal favourites of these was the band Boards of Canada’s pre-announcement campaign for their album Tomorrow’s Harvest, which played on their fanbase’s notorious attention to detail. The campaign sent fans down a rabbit-hole of cryptic clues that, when solved by online communities, led to the album’s official announcement.
Toyota and Saatchi & Saatchi’s campaign for the Toyota Matrix is an example of how prioritising an audacious, ambitious concept without care and due diligence can have dire consequences.
Their campaign encouraged users to prank their friends: by entering someone’s details on an online form, that person would receive several messages over a five-day period from one of five fictional characters. Each character had fleshed out online personas and social media identities, and the messages contained personal information about the victim of the prank.
It was a campaign geared towards grabbing the attention of a younger demographic who had become more media-savvy and skeptical and towards traditional advertising, with Saatchi’s Alex Flint proudly stating the campaign’s depth and realism to MediaPost:
“Even when you get several stages in, it’s still looking pretty real… I think even the most cynical, anti-advertising guy will appreciate the depth and length to which we’ve gone.”
To cut a long story short though, a woman ended up suing Toyota for $10 million in part due to emotional distress at having been convinced that she was being cyber-stalked by a football hooligan.
The potential viral success that a subversive or idiosyncratic campaign can bring can easily tempt brands into just plunging right into the deep end of making something as bizarre as possible, and hoping that it’ll be received well. As we can see, this isn’t without risk and so isn’t for any brand.
As these examples show, however, a sound understanding of audience and message can go a long way to ensuring that a weird idea can translate into groundbreaking marketing.