By Warren Berger

For as long as anyone in advertising can recall, small companies did the edgy work while larger ones tended to play it safe. But in recent months, something strange has been happening with a growing cadre of brands that are part of large, heretofore conservative corporations. Some of these brands have taken to making quirky viral Web films, or developing brand-specific Web sites that feature off-color humor and bizarre characters. When not using the Web to test new limits, a number of these mainstream brands are also producing commercials that, in terms of sheer weirdness quotient, put the old dot-commers and their flying gerbils to shame.

Among the big companies whose brands are now producing more edgy, offbeat content: Procter & Gamble, whose recent Folger's "Happy Morning" Web film has an absurd, hallucinogenic sensibility; Unilever (Client of the Year at the most recent One Show), whose Axe brand is pushing new limits in terms of risqué sexual scenerios and over-the-top "guy humor;" Masterfoods, whose candy brands such as Skittles and Starburst are turning out wickedly weird commercials featuring kleptomaniacs, "Sheepboys," and more; and Philips, which has created a Web site dedicated to having fun with the idea of shaving one's pubic hair.

So what's going on here, and does it signal a new era in which anything goes, even for the biggest of marketers? According to agency creative directors in the midst of the trend, there are several forces now coming together and having the effect of pushing large marketers closer to "the edge," in terms of doing more unconventional work. For starters, the popularity and ubiquity of offbeat advertising has grown such in recent years that it now seems less risky to join in because, well, everybody's doing it. Secondly, the big brands are more eager than ever to connect with the youth demographic, and often, in particular, the young male demo—who seems to respond well to communication that is offbeat in tone. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, new technology is having the effect of encouraging brands to take new risks—indeed, almost demanding they do so.

Put it all together, and the result is more experimentation and more weirdness. "I'm seeing a lot of stuff targeting teens, from all kinds of brands, that is getting more and more strange," says Zak Mroueh of Taxi. He likens the new prevalence of oddness in advertising to the old trick of putting the word "sex" in a headline—"that was the old vehicle for getting attention, and weirdness might be the new one," he says.

Mroueh and other CDs are quick to point out that offbeat or odd ads can be good, but often aren't. "A lot of it is just being done to get attention. The hard part is to get attention in a way that's relevant and that sells. With oddvertising, you can end up just getting people frustrated, because they don't know what your point is—which is what happened with a lot of the dot-coms. Weirdness has to be in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing."

Gerry Graf of TBWA adds: "It does look like there are a lot of people trying to be weird these days. It's like, if you don't know how to be funny, just be weird—but that doesn't work. I think there's some crazy-for-crazy's-sake going on, probably because clients are telling their agencies that they really want to break through and get noticed, and maybe get a viral phenomenon going."

Graf knows weird: His agency is producing the current crop of Skittles work that seems to be setting the bar for pure craziness that actually works. The Skittles "Beard" commercial—which defies description, except to say a man on a job interview lets his long flowing beard wreak creepy havoc—is "maybe the best odd ad I've seen in a quite a while," says BBDO's Eric Silver, who has produced more than his share of oddvertising through the years.

So what makes a big client like Masterfoods buy something as strange as that spot? Graf, speaking of the Skittles work in general, says: "It was hard to sell that work in the beginning. It took a lot of rounds of work for the Masterfoods people to feel comfortable. Then, once it started running and sales went up, that really made the difference." Graf says the weirdness made sense for the brand and the audience. "Masterfoods had sort of set up this magical rainbow world that the Skittles brand lived in, a place where anything can happen. We took that idea of a magical world and really pushed the ‘strange' factor."

Other CDs echo the point that "relevance to the brand and audience" is the key to selling offbeat work and having it be successful. That's true with any client, but particularly with larger ones. Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Kevin Roddy, whose agency works on Axe for Unilever, says: "There's more freedom to try more risky stuff for big clients now, but at the same time, as an industry, we don't want to fall into the same trap as with the dot-com bubble. We went wild, creatively, and clients seemed to let anything go—and it didn't work. And then you lose the trust of those clients. So I think, even if it seems like there's more room to experiment creatively now, there's also the responsibility: Don't do something that's not right for the brand."

Silver says in his agency's work for larger, more established brands such as FedEx, "We're always doing the dance with them of how far can we push—and it's a scary dance at times, because a bigger client has so much more at stake. But if you're not getting them talked-about, then you're probably not pushing them far enough."

To read more about Oddvertising, pick up the latest fall issue of one. a magazine.

To download a pdf version, click here.

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