There’s been a debate on ad campaigns in recent years. How far should a brand go to stand out from competitors? How exactly far is too far? Well, I have two examples for you. One good, one bad. And both revolve around soft drinks.
There’s a fine line between being edgy and disruptive…to offensive. Being from Scotland, we have a perfect example of how to blur that line and still be popular. There’s a national soft drink called Irn Bru (Fun Fact: Irn Bru is the Number #1 soft drink in the country. It even beats Coke). They just released a few campaigns in the last couple of months that are very tongue and cheek, to say the least. Anywhere besides the brand’s home country, the campaign may not pack as big of a punch. Instead, it could majorly offend viewers.
So what Irn Bru did was put a series of videos, 30 seconds to a minute long each with a character going through an awkward situation. One, in particular, shows a young couple sitting across from the girlfriend’s parents. It’s very uncomfortable. The boyfriend then asks his girl if they can leave to which she replies “We can’t right now.” The boyfriend quickly responds (to the horror of her parents) “Don’t be a can’t.” Then he adds with a smile “Be a can,” then everyone starts partying and drinking Irn Bru. When you see that written down there’s a strong play on words for an expletive that can be quite offensive. You have to understand the Scottish accent, it’s very colloquial, ‘cannae do this’ means I can’t do this, so it makes more sense to us. The advert may not be very pleasant, but being from Scotland, it’s pretty funny. Irn Bru understands its Scottish audience and adheres to our personal humor. Irn Bru hits fairly close to the bone. It’s not going to be for everyone, and there are certain generations that will obviously be offended. This campaign could struggle in universality. In Scotland, the humor makes sense. Over here in America, that’s totally inappropriate and basically offensive.
So how do brands bridge that gap or tread lightly around that grey area of “how far is too far?” I think honestly that it’s up to you knowing and understanding your industry. I would probably take a step back and do an analysis on “who are we”, “what are we known for”, “what’s the reputation and voice” and “what is it are followers or customers or consumers like about us?” If you’re known for being sarcastic with some irreverent humor, then you can skirt a little closer to the edge. Irn Bru understands the Scottish people who buy their product. Make sure you understand yours. It can be a very jarring task to really understand what your audience wants and this is something we’re going through internally right now. You might ask yourself, “What do you do when you’ve played it safe and now you want to come out with a big splash?” and “What’s the right way to play it?”
If it comes out as something shocking and totally over the top, you could blindsight everyone. Well, it will definitely get people talking. But I’m not convinced that will necessarily pay off in the long term. They say that all news is good news. If you make it big for good or for bad, you become top of mind. But I think that hurts you in the long term. It can look like a stunt, disingenuous. It lacks authenticity. Especially if you’re only going to roll that dice the one time. However, in the case of Irn Bru, their ad campaigns of that kind of dirtbag really close to the bone humor worked. What works for one brand will not work for another. It’s imperative to know your market.
One brand that took a good idea too far, was Pepsi. They received a lot of backlash with an ad featuring the popular young model, Kendall Jenner. Kendall is shown taking pictures outside when a protest march begins. She then joins in the march (which seems to have no real apparent purpose) and then walks up to one of the policemen standing in line near the protest. Kendall hands him a Pepsi, he smiles, and the crowd cheers. Audiences thought, “Hmm the only way to solve the world’s issues is to give everyone Pepsi?” Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, tweeted “If only Daddy knew the power of Pepsi,” with a picture of him and police at a protest. Ouch. Pepsi really missed the mark on that one. It took them awhile to acknowledge that. For a while, Pepsi claimed,”The ad depicts people from different walks of life working in harmony,” but that’s not how it was perceived. They executed that vision really poorly.
I get it. Those people that feel they’ve gone too far have a point. But I would also say, where is your outrage place? Did you get it in the previous campaigns they’ve launched, progressing towards this kind of campaign? If not, then they haven’t tested it first. A brand must be prepared to build itself towards the campaign it wants to launch. If a classical piano company known for its expensive wood pianos started promoting using millennial jargon and tongue in cheek jokes, audiences would become disoriented and confused. It wouldn’t make sense in that circumstance.
Know your audience and be authentic to your brand. Then you can experiment with campaigns that your brand will be fondly remembered for.
Check out the Irn Bru and Pepsi videos below.