By
msnbc.com contributor

Explainer: Anti-advertising campaigns

  • Image: Miracle Whip ad
    Kraft

    Love it or hate it — which, really, is the whole point — Miracle Whip has brazenly abandoned its Madison Avenue soapbox to bare its nationally divisive soul, “sweet lotion” flavor and all.

    In a new series of comically candid TV commercials, celebs and everyday eaters take turns bashing or blessing the shiny, white “sandwich spread.”

    “Miracle Whip tastes like disappointment,” sneers an office dude on city steps. “If you don’t love Miracle Whip, you’re incapable of love,” purrs a blonde woman with a twinkle in her eye.

    The Kraft Foods product closes its ad with the underwhelming tagline: “We’re not for everyone.”

    But is this campaign — and similar, self-deprecating spots peddling everything from pizzas to prunes — endearingly clever or potentially catastrophic?

    “They are extremely risky,” says Larry Leach, an advertising consultant who works in Calgary, Alberta. The art is finding “that fine line between underselling and turning off your market. The risk is that in today’s instant media availability, that line can move quite quickly.”

    Now put down that remote and gaze upon nine products or services that hope to grab you — even as they poke fun at their visual shortcomings, ugly industry or weird name.

  • Motel 6

    For years, accompanied by fiddle strains, Tom Bodett has employed his folksy twang to pitch the budget brand. Motel 6 won’t pamper you with pillow chocolates or French soaps but it does offer “clean, comfortable rooms at the lowest price of any national chain,” Bodett says.

    It all feels so “Roseanne.”

    The commercials work through their delicate balance, Dalakas says.

    “There are a couple of important factors that can reduce the risk" of such purposely earthy campaigns, Dalakas says. “First, the weakness the ad mentions has to be relatively minor. Second, the positive claims about the brand have to relate to whatever negative has been mentioned.”

  • Trolman, Glaser & Lichtman

    The New York City law firm, which specializes in personal injury cases, airs commercials that deride the industry’s famous dark side: frivolous lawsuits.

    One tongue-in-cheek spot features an overwrought woman complaining about her paper cuts. “Someone has to pay,” she demands. A voiceover then asks victims to call, adding: “but keep in mind, you really need to be injured.”

    “By making fun of most injury lawsuits … we have positioned our client on the high road,” says Joel Tractenberg, a partner at the Levinson Tractenberg Group, a New York agency that created the ads.

    “Potential clients see that this is a firm that has the confidence and humanity to poke fun at themselves and their whole industry,” Tractenberg says. “It makes them seem more approachable and likable.”

  • Sunsweet Prunes

    In 1967, the California company broadcast a commercial featuring a snooty British fellow who flatly states, “I don’t like prunes,” particularly because of the pits. After a pitchman hands him a Sunsweet pitted prune, the Brit chews and says he has “possibly” changed his mind.

    He then sniffs: “They’re still rather badly wrinkled, you know.”

    “Self-deprecating humor is very effective … for companies that are trying to reinvent their product,” says Graeme Newell, president of 602 Communications, brand marketing specialists in Knightdale, N.C. (His firm has no affiliation with the vintage Sunsweet ad). “These companies openly acknowledge the inadequacies of their product, then move on to show that it doesn't matter, or that they have other features that make up for the inadequacy.”

  • Shredded Wheat

    Image: Shredded Wheat print ad
    Post Foods

    Amid the economic turmoil of 2009, the Post cereal positively reveled in its 119-year-old simplicity during a winking, no-nonsense commercial.

    “Here, we put the ‘no’ in innovation,” says the somber-sounding pitchman.

    “They find the most deprecating thing their critics can say about the product and then boldly proclaim it as a strength,” Newell says. “In essence, they have turned the bad around and made it a benefit.”

    Watch one of the spots here.

  • Hulu

    Does TV rot your brain?

    No! Well, not much anyway. Hulu, an online video service offering a variety of television shows, tapped actor Alec Baldwin to gleefully inform you, “TV only softens the brain like a ripe banana.”

    “Mmmm, mushy, mush,” Baldwin beams while watching a Hulu download of his own NBC program, “30 Rock.”

    “By making themselves the brunt of their own joke, they show themselves as cool and rebellious,” Newell says. “For a young audience bent on rebellion, this sort of creative approach played seamlessly into this audience's own self-image. Smoking, driving fast, and rebelling against authority are things that young people do to show the world they cannot be controlled.”

  • Volkswagen

    Image: Volkswagen ad from 1966
    Volkswagen

    In a pair of vintage print ads, the carmaker derided the Beetle’s unique shape, telling consumers to “think small” in 1959 and claiming “ugly is only skin deep” in 1966.

    “It essentially was making fun of the look … while highlighting its high performance (and its) more important car-related attributes,” Dalakas says. Again: a balanced plug.

  • Smucker’s

    What’s in a name? This company thought: lots of bucks.

    For years, Smucker’s playfully mocked — but also used — its odd-sounding moniker with the tagline: “With a name like Smucker’s it has to be good.”

  • Miracle Whip

    We close with the latest dollop of self-scorning ads. From political insider James Carville (“Miracle Whip is America!”) to “Jersey Shore” star Pauly D (“I would never eat it. I would never put it in my hair.”), the commercials merrily dig into what has become a consumer civil war over the product.

    “The Miracle Whip commercial really shows that although you may not be a fan, everyone has tried it and can relate to it,” says marketing expert Grimsely. “The fact that a reality star (Pauly D) — who’s not a favorite — is against it actually sparks conversation about the product probably being OK.”

  • Domino’s Pizza

    A focus group is filmed verbally slicing up the pies as fake tasting disasters. Suddenly, their meeting room walls drop to expose busy cooks in a Domino’s kitchen or tomatoes growing in a farm field. Gotcha.

    In other spots, Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle explains the campaign’s premise while showing a photo of an open pizza box tangled with a gnarly web of melted cheese. Doyle declares: “This is not acceptable. … We’re better than this.”

    Does the mea culpa work? Two experts offer different opinions.

    “When consumers see ads like Domino's where the company acknowledges weaknesses about its product, they are more likely to see the company as … genuine and trustworthy,” says Vassilis Dalakas, an associate professor of marketing at Cal State University, San Marcos.

    “My first reaction to the Domino's campaign: I immediately thought about the old Bud Bowl commercials – ‘Bud vs. Bud Light’. However, Domino's simply wasn't able to gather the concept as well,” contends Ebony T. Grimsley, owner of Above Promotions, a marketing company in Tampa, Fla.

    “Competing against one's own brand is totally different than recognizing” past flaws, adds Grimsely, who believes the ads may “just cause a consumer to consider another brand.”

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