Is it just me, or is advertising getting weirder?
There was a time not long ago when brands and ad agencies would talk about the big idea and the importance of telling a compelling story. But these days, with TikTok dominating the social media landscape, it seems like big ideas are being traded in for an army of smaller, weirder ones.
With the average TikTok user swiping up every three-to-five seconds, there’s less and less time for an actual story to get set up. The pressure of shrinking attention spans demands new hooks, new storytelling techniques, or new juxtapositions that are so strange that they’ll shock us into paying attention for just a few seconds longer.
To be fair, weird ads aren’t exactly new.
From the Quiznos Spongemonkeys singing “We love the subs!” to Mountain Dew’s Puppy Monkey Baby to the Skittles Long Beard Ad where a man’s beard proceeds to feed him and someone else several Skittles during a job interview, there have definitely been times in the history of advertising when certain brands have created some real head-scratchers. However, these days it seems like absurdity, anarchy and WTF are the driving directives in the creative brief.
Just take a look at this latest ad from Ocean Spray, Power Your Party, where not a single word is spoken and the ending feels more like a comedy-horror film than an ad. It’s an amusing, absurdist sequel to the brand's Power your Holidays ad from 2022, where everyone starts jiggling around the Thanksgiving dinner table. You can tell we’re not in Kansas anymore as these ads are a long ways away from how Ocean Spray used to sell itself.
Confusion + Humor = Engagement
The new storytelling strategy in advertising seems to be a delicate alchemy of confusion and humor. If the story is predictable, it’s guaranteed that people will swipe up or swipe left, so it’s critical that you put something in front of people that will confuse them just enough that their brains send a signal to their thumbs to stop scrolling and hover for one-to-two seconds longer to see where the story will go next.
Scrub Daddy, the smiley-face, scratch-free sponge that started off as a "Shark Tank" sensation seems to have mastered the equation of what kind of content keeps users engaged on TikTok. With 3.8 million followers and 80 million-plus likes on TikTok, Scrub Daddy is now reported to be worth $300 million, just six years after its launch in 2017.
In this Scrub Daddy TikTok video, which is just nine seconds long and has received 179,000 likes, a Scrub Daddy smiley face mascot is chasing after the Duolingo owl mascot through an office, running past four Teletubbies along way, all while a voiceover says, “I’m gonna go all the way up. Stop hiding. You hiding forever. Ricky, when I catch you Ricky, when I catch you Ricky …” and then the video ends. Hashtags and callouts include #cleaningtiktok #cleantok and @teletubbies among others.
Comments on the video include:
- What in the scrub daddy duolingo teletubbies did I just watch?
- I scrolled past but then I had to scroll back bc I didn’t process the teletubbies
- What is going on lmao
Other than the hashtag #americasfavoritesponge, it doesn’t feel like Scrub Daddy is trying to sell you anything. It’s more spectacle than story, more absurdism than sales pitch. But inside the apparent chaos of this video, there's that little Easter egg of the teletubbies. Why are those teletubbies there? As a parent, here’s my guess: it’s because teletubbies are obsessed with being clean.
Those who know, get it. Those who don’t are perplexed, but that’s OK because they just might watch it again and again in an effort to solve the mystery. Or, better yet (if you’re Scrub Daddy), they might forward it to a friend and ask, “WTF?” which means they just advertised your brand for you. No matter what, it ends up being a win-win for the brand.
In fact, in most Scrub Daddy videos on TikTok there are no “reasons to believe” or unique selling propositions. They mostly just feel like fragments of skits from someone’s mushroom-induced fever dream.
But here’s the reason why shorter, absurdist videos like these are becoming the norm: If each video gets you to linger just a little bit longer, then the TikTok algorithm will assume you like content related to cleaning and then maybe a few more Scrub Daddy TikToks will trickle into your For You Page. And over time, the thinking goes, Scrub Daddy will begin to occupy that prized position in the top of your mind when it comes to cleaning supplies, so the next time you go to Target or Costco, you’ll remember Scrub Daddy and put its sponges in your cart.
Absurdity is the New Authenticity
The underlying message of most absurdist advertising these days seems to be, “Don’t take anything too seriously.” After all, it’s just advertising.
The more unpolished or unvarnished a video looks, the more it reads as authentic, as if it were just something that the brand threw together at the last minute on a shoestring budget (which may or may not be the case).
If the content looks polished, chances are you’ll assume it’s coming from the brand. But if it looks like a nine-second tribute video from a fan with Easter eggs or references to internet culture that go deep, then you’re more likely to stick around.
Just look at this Axe Body Spray TikTok video and the way they’re leaning into the trending Alpha Wolf meme. Here’s another one that may make you ask, “Why?” or “What’s going on here?” or “How on earth do these videos help sell Axe product?” But maybe those are the wrong questions. Maybe the goal of these videos is to start a conversation or be part of the larger cultural conversation among a very specific audience.
If that is the real goal, then it seems Axe may be onto something. At this point, the video has 876,000 likes, 81,000 bookmarks, and 22,000 comments, including:
- This marketing team is awesome. 🔥🔥🔥
- Whoever made this needs a raise
- THIS IS REAL THIS IS AN ACTUAL AD AAAAAHHHHHHH
- WHEN DO THESE DROP I NEED THESE
Everybody’s in on the Joke
Now you may be thinking, “OK. So all my brand has to do is be random, weird and absurdist, right?” Wrong.
As Kaylie Volpe, a senior strategist at 72andSunny in Los Angeles points out, “It’s about striking a balance between being absurd but understanding your brand’s place in the internet culture. As a TikTok user myself, it’s not that exciting anymore to see that a brand has co-opted the latest sound or the latest meme. That’s now level one activation and I’ll usually scroll past that immediately. However, what’s beginning to happen with some brands and what's exciting is to see when brands understand certain aspects of internet culture and take it somewhere new or interesting. They get the in-jokes. You can’t understand the wolf art content that Axe is tapping into these days unless you’ve been chronically online since 2008 when it first became a thing.”
In a way, Axe is simultaneously tapping into the alpha wolf meme and reviving it, which serves as a form of social currency for the brand.
But brands do need to be careful when it comes to this approach.
Volpe explains, “Brands that take something that was intended to be funny, but then try to turn it into a hard-working message, that’s when it becomes cringe.”
For brands that are trying too hard to speak the language, you’re likely to get this reaction image.
The assumption among today’s savviest marketers and consumers is that everyone already knows what the products in different categories are supposed to do. If it’s deodorant, you know it’s supposed to make you smell good. If it’s a sponge, you know it’s supposed to help with cleaning. No need to waste time telling us how it does the job 10 percent better than the next brand. Just make us laugh or get us to like your crib sheet of one liners spread out over 20 short videos.
That might be enough to start a beautiful relationship.
If you’re a brand trying to get attention today, don’t worry so much about the one big unifying idea for all of your branded communications. Irreverence on certain channels can now be the new path to relevance. Therefore, be brave enough to throw out your brand guidelines, sharpen your punchlines, and if you really want to hold people’s attention, do the unexpected.
Chris Kocek is the CEO of Gallant Branding and author of “Any Insights Yet? Connect the dots. Create new categories. Transform your business.”
Related story: Ads That Dazzle This Holiday Season Hint at Trends for 2024
CHRIS KOCEK is the CEO of Gallant Branding and author of “Any Insights Yet? Connect the dots. Create new categories. Transform your business.”
Prior to starting Gallant, Chris worked as a strategic planner at advertising agencies in NYC and Austin, developing nationally recognized campaigns for a number of Fortune 500 brands and highly respected nonprofits, including AARP, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Hyatt Hotels, Ace Hardware, John Deere, and The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. In addition to guest lecturing at colleges around the country, Chris is a public speaker whose talks on creativity and innovation have been featured at strategic symposiums as well as TEDx. For more information and weekly inspiration, connect with Chris on LinkedIn or visit chriskocek.com/newsletter.