The super spoof weapon

The spoof ad is not a new concept but its use by the three main political parties has given it a high currency and pushed it up brands’ campaign agendas. Here, those that have mastered the technique advise on the process – and the pitfalls.

“I love the BBC so much I want to cut it up into little pieces and give it to all my friends,” says David Cameron in a political poster for the general election. This comedic line isn’t Cameron’s real marketing slogan, of course. It’s part of a crowdsourced spoof ad campaign started by the Labour Party.

This is just one of many spoofs generated by the political parties and their supporters in the election run-up. While party politics lends itself perfectly to poking fun at a competitor’s strategy, corporate brands are signing up to use the technique too.

Food brand Marmite has spent the past few months spoofing the election spoofs with its own campaign for the fictional “Love” or “Hate” political parties. It asks consumers to vote for either party after viewing the brand’s posters, broadcasts and even “manifestos” (see case study, below).

Betting firm Ladbrokes is also tapping into election spoofing fever with a TV spot showing a Tony Blair lookalike going into a Ladbrokes outlet to bet on David Cameron winning the election. Meanwhile, as an April Fool’s joke this year, BMW claimed customers could customise their vehicle’s roundel in the colour of their selected political party. And Ikea has created a spoof website offering kitchens styled according to the traits of the party leaders. You can choose Brün (durable and prudent), Kamerun (sleek and shiny) or Kleggi (touted as the week’s most popular offering).

Not all spoof activity out there is piggybacking on the political environment. Much of it is simply about brands raising their profile through any means available. Paul Bainsfair, regional CEO for Europe at agency Iris, which created a spoof campaign for the Liberal Democrats, explains: “It’s just about being topical. It has long been a trick of the ad industry to pick up on topical events and weave it into the brand message.”

Matthew Bundy, planner at agency DDB, which created the Love/Hate election campaign for Marmite, agrees: “We decided to create a spoof based around the election because everybody’s eyes were on it. You expect a few brands to jump on the bandwagon of an event like that; similarly with the World Cup.”

Unilever managing director for Marmite Matt Burgess adds: “Spoofing is an easy way to get attention, and that is what advertising is all about.”

As well as garnering column inches, spoofing can allow brands to associate themselves with the positioning and buzz of their chosen spoof subject, whether this be another company’s campaign or a famous personality.

We felt we could do the Orange Film Board spoofs as we had built up the right brand presence in the film and cinema category over time.

Spencer McHugh, Orange

A well-established creative moment that has stuck in the public’s mind can be spoofed to another brand’s advantage, suggests Richard Exon, chief executive of agency RKCR/Y&R. His agency was responsible for hotel chain Premier Inn’s recent television spots featuring comedian Lenny Henry which parodied films The Shining, Psycho and Oliver Twist. “If an idea has affected the population’s consciousness, it has media currency,” says Exon.

This is the theory behind The Sun newspaper’s TV ad, which imitates the advertising of Apple’s iPhone (see case study, below). Matt Tanter, senior planner for Glue London, the agency behind the creative, explains: “The key is to pick something that has been clearly etched into people’s minds. Apple advertising is so recognisable and iconic.”

Meanwhile, the high street optician Specsavers is using a spoof of the old Lynx “Billions” ad which shows a man pursued by gorgeous women. By awakening the latent consumer memories of a well-known raunchy ad, Specsavers, which does not operate in the most glamorous of market sectors, must hope to gain a level of sexiness by association.

Spoofs of this type must be original and clever enough to impress audiences, warn Tanter and Exon. If a new spoof does not offer style and originality, it will seem like a clumsy attempt to “drag onto another brand’s coattails”, says Exon; and Tanter adds: “You need to give it your own input to subvert the original. This adds something in your own right and delivers extra value to the audience.”

Spoofs can also be used effectively for inspiring consumer engagement or co-creation. This is arguably the reason that the political parties – often seen as divorced from the common people – have been so keen to embrace them. For example, the Liberal Democrats’ “Labservative” website, featuring a spoof manifesto for a party that mixes Labour and the Conservatives, invites people to post their own “mashed up” images of Labour and Conservative party members.

This co-created content has already garnered more than 46,000 views on YouTube and may inspire commercial brands to use consumer input more. “It may not be the most hard-hitting campaign, but it wins prizes for wit and originality,” says Mike Colling, managing director of marketing agency MC&C.

Iris’ Bainsfair argues that while spoofing can encourage co-creation, it should be remembered that this trend is not simply an effect of the political spoofs but part of a wider trend that has emerged on the back of companies communicating with consumers through online communities. “It is all connected to this new world of social media. People love being in a dialogue rather than just being talked at,” he says.

Another factor that has been important in spoofing’s becoming a well established tactic is YouTube. “Spoofs are a huge success on YouTube, because it enables anyone to be a writer or director,” says RKCR/Y&R’s Exon.

The Sun’s iPhone spoof ad was originally created to be just an online viral, and while it eventually ended up on TV, its initial online presence saw the newspaper connect with a new and younger audience.

Rob Painter, who is portfolio, strategy and planning director at News International but was The Sun’s interim marketing director at the time of the campaign, explains: “This viral enhanced wider activity we were doing at the time. We reached a new online audience because it proved very popular with under-35s. It set us apart as a clever, entertaining brand.”

If your whole campaign is based on spoofing, what are you then saying about your own brand? You are not saying much, and the point of advertising is to tell people what your brand stands for.

Rob Painter, News International

Meanwhile, Marmite aims to use YouTube to make its time-sensitive election spoof last long after today’s election. The consumer “vote” will culminate in the winning party’s manifesto being implemented – if the Hate party wins, Marmite will briefly be renamed “Tarmite”; if the Love party wins, a Marmite shrine will be built.

Spoofing has added an extra element to the way brands can leverage an association with real-life events, Marmite’s Burgess believes. “The nature of the internet has revolutionised how we talk to consumers. This has made all brands more responsive and nimble. I expect brands to become more ingenious in the way they bring everyday events into their advertising.”

But that does not mean there is a free ticket for all to jump on the spoofing bandwagon. A brand should only go down this road if it fits its overall brand tone. “You have to have the right heritage, background and tone for spoofing to sit right with consumers,” warns DDB’s Bundy.

He cites television channel E4 as a brand that has successfully used spoofing in its promotional slots – it too has spoofed Apple and the election.

“The way E4 spoofs different genres complements the overall brand’s tone, which it has maintained over the years. Because the audience knows to expect that tone, they can immediately get into it. However, if a campaign like this comes out of nowhere, people just get confused,” says Bundy.

Similarly, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s spoofs of country stereotypes to advertise his new “Jamie Does…” programme may work for the cheeky young cook, but might not have gone down so well if they had come from one of his more serious counterparts such as Gordon Ramsay.

Orange brand director Spencer McHugh believes the mobile operator has the right personality to spoof films and their associated actors in its Cinema Gold Spots. These show takeoffs of famous films, such as Home Alone and Die Hard, through productions made by the fictional Orange Film Board. The strategy has allowed the company to tell in an entertaining way what is essentially a dull message – asking cinemagoers to switch off their mobile phones – while strengthening its association with the film industry and further distinguishing Orange from its competitors.

“We felt we could do this kind of thing as we had built up the right brand presence in the film and cinema category over time,” says McHugh. “You have permission to be more playful if you are the right kind of brand. If not, you can come across as vindictive.”

Once a brand has established it has “earned” the right to spoof, it must also ensure its desire to spoof doesn’t override the most important thing – the brand message. For all the detail that went into creating a humorous election campaign parody, Unilever’s Burgess maintains that the Marmite brand message of nutrition remained paramount: “We still wanted to showcase that Marmite contains B vitamins. We paid a lot of attention to how that message came out. Hopefully, we struck the right balance as you can lose the message and be consumed by the conceit of the campaign.”

Companies must also remember that even if they get caught in a spoofing rollercoaster, the aims are the same as that of traditional marketing activity – driving brand awareness and, ultimately, sales. DDB’s Bundy confirms that the Marmite Love/Hate election campaign has also served to increase the brand’s customer database, as people who wish to “vote” must supply their email address.

For this reason, the creative idea development process must begin with the brand message; the idea for a spoof should come as secondary. Glue’s Tanter warns: “You can’t go into it thinking, ‘we want to do a spoof’. Starting with the brand message is how you end up injecting something new into it.” Orange’s McHugh agrees: “We didn’t originally set out to do spoofs, we just wanted to create something entertaining and engaging within the cinema theme.”

While spoofing can be the helping hand any brand needs to compete for consumer attention and engagement, its use must be limited. Despite Marmite building a whole campaign around spoofing, both Orange’s McHugh and The Sun’s Painter claim there is no value in over-relying on spoofing in marketing.

“We have always kept spoofing to a specific part of our marketing mix and we wouldn’t rely on it completely,” reveals McHugh. “The one area we use it in has been successful but our use of spoofing is rooted into a bigger strategic idea.”

Being a market category leader, as Painter proclaims The Sun to be, also makes spoofing less appropriate as the need to grab the public’s attention is not so urgent. He says the iPhone spoof formed part of a wider campaign that highlighted the wit of the newspaper’s headlines and the relevance of its columnists; and spoofing should always take place within a wider framework such as this.

“Spoofing can be a good tactic but I don’t believe it should be the centrepiece of the work,” says Painter. “If a whole campaign is based on spoofing, what are you then saying about your own brand? You are not saying much about yourself, and the point of advertising is to tell consumers what your brand stands for. It should be part of a number of pieces of communication that also talk about what you actually deliver. We have to talk credibly about what we provide our readers. We don’t always want to base our work on other brands.”

Highlighting other brands can be one of the downfalls of spoofing. A spoof piece can revive interest in the original brand, which won’t harm the brand doing the spoofing – unless it is poking fun at a rival brand.

This is when brands can land themselves in trouble, warns Painter: “If you are spoofing your competition you might just end up reinforcing their strengths.” He mentions last year’s Christmas campaign for Dixons, which parodied the snobbiness of the electrical offerings of high-end department stores. In some consumers’ eyes, the brand may have been highlighting what is good about its rivals.

Similarly, brands can see themselves summoned before the watchful regulators if spoofs are seen to cross the line into defamation. EasyJet found itself in this situation when it decided rival Ryanair was fair game. Its ads were banned by the ASA in March.

“It can be safer to spoof something that is unrelated to your brand,” says Painter. Referring back to The Sun’s iPhone spoof, he adds: “The iPhone is not an overt competitor. It’s not like we were spoofing The Mirror or The Daily Mail.”

As well as avoiding regulation problems, companies also need to keep an eye on how consumers are using spoofs of their campaigns. For the most part, claims RKCR/Y&R’s Exon, this is all positive stuff.

“It is great news for an advertiser when consumers spoof a campaign,” he says.

“Virgin Atlantic’s 25th anniversary ad featuring the hostesses walking through the airport has been spoofed a lot on YouTube. So have Marks & Spencer’s food ads. But this is a sign that the original brand has displayed leadership through powerful advertising. It’s an homage to their work.”

The less positive side of this is that spoofing can be used to highlight a brand’s faults, as was the case with Dove and Greenpeace. In 2008, Dove produced a campaign to highlight its use of  palm oil that it had classed as sustainable. The environmental activist group was quick to pounce on it, circulating a campaign that turned Dove’s message around to portray how its use of palm oil was destroying rainforests in Southeast Asia.

To the brand’s credit, its parent Unilever agreed to collaborate with Greenpeace and stop sourcing palm oil from the region, avoiding the public relations debacle that brands such as Toyota and Eurostar found themselves in earlier this year when they did not respond quick enough to consumers’ concerns.

So while this election has made spoofing a hot potato for ad campaigns, brands using such tactics should approach with caution. The political parties have attracted some criticism that they used spoofing because they had nothing original to say – something every brand hopes to avoid.

The spoof-happy mood of the past few months does, however, demonstrate that this can be a valuable technique to inspire interest among consumers. This is particularly true for anything involving crowdsourcing and user-generated content. But coming up with a joke that people not only understand but laugh at may still prove a too difficult task for the majority of companies to achieve.

Case study: Marmite

A Marmite scented perfume? Surely not? This might not exist in reality, but the idea was the catalyst for the brand’s spoof campaigns this year to promote its new Marmite-flavoured cereal bars. Alongside the perfume, Marmite’s ads joked that the brand would produce scented shower gel and laundry detergent, setting the scene for its ongoing spoof tactics that would run alongside this month’s general election.

“The cereal bar spoof campaign genuinely shocked people,” explains Matt Burgess, Unilever managing director for Marmite. “We did it with such a straight face with nicely shot ads. We went to a lot of effort to replicate the genre. We tried to give it enough credibility to make people stop, think and to shock them with an unexpected surprise.”

Credibility and clarity were early issues for Marmite in the spoofing process – a few gullible members of the public did indeed swallow the news that Marmite was launching a perfume. Burgess concedes that some of the campaign’s early posters didn’t make the connection to the new cereal bar, so an image of it was later added to the posters.

Love or Hate? Marmite is holding a real election and will implement various ‘policies’ depending on which party wins

For the next stage of its spoof campaign, Marmite latched onto the election, enabling it to position its creative alongside a current event as well as open up opportunities for consumer engagement. Consumers were urged to vote either for the Love or Hate party, which both boasted parodies of party leaders and manifestos. Marmite also produced videos “canvassing” public opinion.

While a spoof might be amusing, the task of producing a satire of a real-life event that is to run over a period of time requires a lot of consideration. “The risk of picking an event to pin your spoof on, such as the election, is timing. We were worried because we heard that the election campaign was going to be brought forward to April. That would have meant we would not have been able to get the ad out on time,” recalls Burgess. “There was also a small fear that people would think we as a company might have a political agenda, which is definitely not the case.”

Marmite’s agency, DDB, ensured that all the details of a real election campaign were covered to give the spoof some credibility. Back stories were written for the party leaders, and news releases around party members were planned in advance as they hit the campaign trail alongside their real-life counterparts.

“The detail of a spoof is very important because people want to get involved with it,” says DDB planner Matthew Bundy. “We put a lot of thought into the words, hand gestures and backgrounds were used for the leaders. We even used parodies of real speeches.

“Everybody likes getting in on a ‘hoax’ if it’s a good one. We knew it would be a big task. But if people get into it, they want more, so you have to be ready for that and give it to them.”

Case study: The Sun

When The Sun newspaper created a viral ad spoofing Apple’s iPhone advert as part of the newspaper’s 40th birthday celebrations, News International executives were so impressed by its humour and creativity that they requested for it to be redeveloped for TV.

The ad, which presented The Sun as easily consumable and sharable content without the hassle of network coverage and download speeds, reached the public on a range of levels, according to Glue London senior planner Matt Tanter, who worked on the campaign.

“We delivered against lots of different parameters,” he claims. “People have been talking about the ad from different points of view, from commenting on the role of newspapers in the digital world to talking about it in the context of News International’s online paywall strategy.”

Tanter adds that the online viral put The Sun forward to a wider audience than purely traditional ads would have done, and he hopes it got some to rethink their preconceptions of the paper. “We looked initially at how we might do a viral that showed how the category could be better than digital for consuming content on the go. So we quickly looked at the iPhone ad’s construction, and it was a perfect platform to deliver what we wanted to say and make it interesting,” he says.

Core tactics: The Sun’s viral take on the Apple iPhone ads was so successful online, company chiefs wanted it replicated for television

“It worked on several levels. Our readers would see it and share that point of view, but we also wanted to tap into a more techie audience and make them think again about The Sun, and make them think, ‘I wouldn’t have expected The Sun to come up with that’.”

The Sun’s interim marketing director at the time, Rob Painter, sheds further light on the development process, pointing out the importance of media placement when planning a creative. In this instance, the iPhone spoof had to be adjusted slightly for transition to TV to be in line with regulator Clearcast’s requirements. Also, online budget demands vary significantly from the finances needed to secure TV slots.

“Initially our plans were to run a viral online only. Around 250,000 people viewed the piece on YouTube and we paid for another 250,000 views through other online channels. Our company execs were bowled over by it and wanted us to put it on TV, which we hadn’t planned for,” he explains. “You can be braver with online activity as it’s generally a younger, savvier audience. You can take more creative risks and the costs of the media and production are lower.

“We had to make minor adaptations for the TV version because of broadcast rules. We had to talk about The Sun newspaper more overtly rather than in context of the iPhone. But it was more about nuances of language than massive changes.”

As the viral became a hit on YouTube and turned heads when it appeared on TV, it can obviously be seen as a successful piece of work. But Painter states that spoofing would never form the sole basis of a Sun advertising campaign: “I don’t see why we wouldn’t use spoofing again, as long as it wasn’t the only thing we did.”

Q What kind of extra awareness/buzz has the Lynx spoof campaign generated? 

The response has been incredible. Like all great parodies, it creeps up on you and bites you when you least expect it. People have certainly bought into the spirit of what we were trying to achieve.

Q What are the risks to consider when you are looking to use spoof tactics in advertising?

We never sought to replicate perfectly any scene from the original but you have to make sure you capture the memorable essence of it – then you can have fun with it. We were in very safe hands with director Danny Kleinman – he knew just how far you could push the comedy and still take people with you.

Top tips for marketers from the experts

Ladbrokes PR director Ciaran O’Brien:
“A spoof has to be funny and clear without being offensive. If people can see the humour, they will take it in the spirit it was intended.”

RKCR/Y&R chief executive Richard Exon:
“Be careful when you start playing with your own brand DNA – you can come across as being too clever for your own good. And it’s easy to overstate how engaging a campaign is. You must be sure the spoof is really going to deliver against the brand’s objectives, as well as surprise and entertain people.”

Iris regional chief executive for Europe Paul Bainsfair:
“The only way to be “spoof-proof” is to come up with something that is created as a spoof rather than a reaction to something else. That’s the case with the “Labservatives” idea. Nobody can spoof it, and people can join in. You get the benefit of the doubt this way.”

Glue London senior planner Matt Tanter:
“There is a kind of respect needed when it comes to making a spoof. You must add value to the original creative rather than just replicate it. Also, if you aren’t spoofing a competitor, you can be a bit more free in your creative licence.”


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