Absurdity: The Best Way for Ads to Reach Millennials?

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Justin Guarini. A cat driving a tiny car. A confused dad as “the straight man” in a suddenly pink and bubbly universe.

Some form of this equation must have been chalked up on the wall as creatives dreamt up Diet Dr. Pepper’s latest ad. It reads like the episode of South Park where they discover Family Guy jokes are written by a manatee pushing balls into a Powerball-like machine. The theory is, if we string a bunch of random pop culture references together in a bizarre way, it creates magic for millennials.

This type of advertising is nothing new. Skittles has been pioneering it for years, and many other snack brands have followed suit since. Skittles’ brand of absurdity hasn’t historically rested on celebrity guest appearances, but their latest Superbowl ad featuring Steven Tyler seemed to indicate that they are heading in that direction. Before that, many Skittles ads focused on banal but relatable moments, like awkward job interviews.

This type of topsy-turvy “situation comedy” absurdism is reminiscent of Geico ads, which Matt Damon’s 30 Rock character Carol criticized for having too many mascots.

Absurdity has been going on in advertising for a long time, but lately I’ve felt like more ads than ever are super-weird. Being a millennial, presumably the target, I have had to question what it all means about me, advertising and the world. Here are a couple guesses.

Hypothesis One: People won’t pay attention to your advertising unless it is off-the-walls weird.

There’s a lot of noise out there, and more media outlets are vying for our attention than ever before. Beyond that, people just don’t see ads that often when they’re buried in Netflix, Amazon Prime or fast-forwarding through them on regular old TV. Advertisers are getting savvy as of late and asking creators of shows to help them make ads that blend into a show, so you’re less likely to skip through. This Old Navy ad starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein captures this well.

If grabbing attention is the goal, these ads do the trick better than, say, watching Selena Gomez toss her hair in a Pantene commercial or any more typical ad. So, in that case, well done. (No hate to Selena though — you’re magical.)

Hypothesis Two: Absurdity is brand’s self-awareness taken to the next level.

Because of millennials’ general literacy when it comes to branding, the reigning approach has often been self-aware advertising. “Yes, we know this is an ad. But at least we know that, so let’s have some fun.” Watch any channel aimed at 18-24-year-old dudes and the majority of ads use this tone. Absurdist advertising takes this a step further. “We know this is an expensive production about pillowcases. Isn’t that, by nature, a bit absurd? Let’s celebrate the bizareness of this.”

This morning I saw several La-Z-Boy ads featuring Brooke Shields throwing water in the face of a guy named Demitri who didn’t believe the chairs were La-Z-Boy chairs. Compared to most furniture ads, this one is pretty funny, and it’s smart to play on its daytime TV timeslot. But at the core, it seems to be saying, “This is a commercial about chairs. Who cares. Let’s make it weird.” Gotta say, it made me laugh out loud a couple times. Thanks Brooke Shields!

Absurd / Weird Advertising: Bad or Good? (Or Does it Work on This Millennial?)

In my opinion, absurd ads can be sorted into two categories: ones where it seems like the people making them had fun, and over-engineered ones that feel forced. You can tell the people making the La-Z-Boy ad were having fun. The Justin Guarini ad for Diet Dr. Pepper sits in the gray area between feeling generally fun and feeling weird in a “safe/pandering” way. The Skittles ad falls firmly in the latter camp, in my opinion.

Engineering a bunch of random celebrities to “go viral” in an ad comes from a very different place than taking a risk with your brand and trying something different and self-aware. When we work on brands, they become very important to us. But remembering that to consumers, your brand may just be fun — and not the center of their world — can lead to some incredibly refreshing advertising. If there’s one style that’s going to dominate commercials, I’ll take gleeful absurdity over the alternatives, as long as it’s done well.

Becky Lang

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