I write this week to acknowledge the insane bravery of Phones4U. In this age of social media domination, it takes an enormous amount of professional and personal gusto to spend a large chunk of any marketing budget on an old fashioned TV campaign. But to go on and use that campaign to scare the bejesus out of your entire customer base is something else entirely.
It’s relatively rare to find any marketer with the guts to stand apart from the soft, vanilla trappings of the traditional marketing concept of making everybody happy, all the time. Deliberate attempts to illicit negative emotions are rare and typically only take place when a smart marketer realises that by pissing off large swathes of the non-target market he or she can turn on the target segments at the centre of their strategy. Think Abercrombie & Fitch with their six-pack wielding sentries or Yorkie’s It’s Not For Girls campaign. Wonderful but rare stuff.
But Phones4U is in an entirely different league with its current campaign. I say that because all the evidence suggests the company has managed to scare, upset and infuriate pretty much everyone in its stated target segment of 18to 35-year-olds. Caspar Nelson, the head of brand communications at Phones4U and the man behind the campaign, claims the response to his campaign is more positive than negative, but surely even he has to acknowledge that much of his target market were either angered or scared or both by his ads. Parents of small children too afraid to go to bed are “infuriated”, 17-year-old viewers find the ad “disturbing” and, judging by the online reaction, it appears that Phones4U has truly managed to anger a whole nation.
So what exactly is the brand up to? The most obvious explanation is that agency Adam and Eve and acclaimed director Garth Jennings were just too good at delivering the Phones4U brief. In less skilled hands this could have been the usual second rate, schlocky imitation of the horror genre. But it appears that this creative team has actually conjured up a genuinely disturbing 30-second film and been far more successful than the client could have hoped or intended.
But I think there is more to it than that. And I think much of the credit if that is the right word for it deserves to go to Nelson. He has quite correctly worked out that most advertising is a total and utter waste of time because it occupies the perceptual space somewhere between a half remembered joke and the wallpaper in the kitchen. Breaking through the ever-thickening band of clutter that now surrounds most target audiences has become the prime directive. And it’s a directive that most over-cautious, politically correct marketers are simply unable to deliver on.
Not the marketers at Phones4U, however. Barely six months ago the same team incurred the Advertising Standards Authority’s wrath for running a series of ads featuring a groovy Jesus promoting phones during Easter with straplines promoting “miraculous” deals. Clearly the latest campaign is a natural evolution into even more unsettling territory.
And there is some evidence that scaring the hell out of your audience may be no bad thing from a persuasion point of view. Advertising researchers have long demonstrated the value of garnering an emotional response. Get the juices of your audience flowing and your ad is much more likely to break through, to persuade and ultimately sell.
The problem is that almost all of this research looks at the impact of positive emotional responses on a campaign’s subsequent impact. There is even some pretty strong data starting with the famous Advertising Research Foundation’s Copy Research Validity Project from the late Eighties that ad liking is the single best predictor of whether an ad will actually drive subsequent sales of your product.
What’s less clear is what impact a negative advertising response will have on a campaign’s effectiveness. There is a mountain of research papers on “ad liking” but there are few examples where a brand team has set out to scare and generally upset its audience to know what impact this new campaign will have on its intended target market.
The decision that Phones4U has clearly taken is to trade taste and liking for attention and impact. And who’s to say it has not made a clever bargain? A little bit of negative response is a small price to pay for the unparalleled attention that the campaign has garnered or the 1 million earned exposures that the ad has achieved from bemused and curious consumers keen to see the ad for themselves on YouTube or the Phones4U website.
And ultimately Nelson and his team know that this is not a branding campaign where associations and relationships come to the fore. This is good old-fashioned awareness work and the only real measures of success are how many people become conscious of Phones4U’s offers and the traffic it generates into the stores. With those objectives in mind, this new campaign is probably going to prove to be scarily effective.
Mark Ritson is an associate professor of marketing, an award winning columnist, and a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands