9 Corporate Attempts At
Advertisers have this problem: Kids today want things that are "dark" and "edgy" and "not retarded," but some products just have nothing to do with any of those things at all. So how in the world do you shape a marketing campaign for cereal or eye liner that somehow makes it badass?
You don't. Or else you wind up with ridiculous campaigns like these.
Sony's Lesson in Desperation
The strategy makes sense, on the surface. Sony was competing with Nintendo's portable handhelds, and Nintendo has a kid-friendly image. What better way to market the Sony PSP than by going "edgy"? So what's the best way to do that...
First, they tried vandalism, by hiring graffiti artists to tag various buildings with images of, well, little kids playing the PSP.
Somehow the hip underground wasn't fooled, often vandalizing the Sony ads by spraying over them and (accurately) labeling it as "advertising directed at your counter culture."
OK, that didn't go over so well. So what else do kids like? Hey, how about racism? Like if we portrayed the introduction of the white PSP as some kind of interracial catfight?
And then, finally, Sony went for the whole "fake viral fan video" thing when they set up a "fan" site called alliwantforxmasisapsp.com with a blog and a "it's hilarious because it's bad" amateur rap video:
After somethingawful.com formally called shenanigans, revealing the whole project not to be the product of an eccentric fan but, in fact, a giant room full of advertising executives, the site was reduced to this half-assed admission of guilt:
Busted. Nailed. Snagged. As many of you have figured out (maybe our speech was a little too funky fresh???), Peter isn't a real hip-hop maven and this site was actually developed by Sony. Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever. From this point forward, we will just stick to making cool products, and use this site to give you nothing but the facts on the PSP. Sony Computer Entertainment America
Meanwhile, some guy in a suit smacks his desk and says, "I knew we should have stuck with the racism thing!"
Reebok Wants You to be Like Fiddy
What makes 50 Cent different from other rappers? If the first thing that came to your mind was, "He's arguably the savviest businessman," you're technically right. But the answer we're looking for is, "He was shot nine times."
Good ol' Fiddy has built his entire career on those bullet wounds. And while he may not seem like the brightest jewel in the pimp chalice, the man knows how to sell himself. So in 2005, possibly after sensing that his routine was getting old in America, he did a Reebok commercial in the UK.
It shows a typical day for 50 Cent: nothing to do but hang around a flooded diner, count to nine (get it?!) and reflect on life. Oh yeah, and he's wearing Reeboks. We almost forgot.
Reebok claimed that the ad was "a positive and empowering celebration of the right of freedom of self-expression, individuality, and authenticity." Meanwhile, a Mothers Against Guns spokeswoman said it "endorsed his type of lifestyle...by implying it was possible to survive being shot nine times".
Well, apparently it is possible, but it's a weird way to sell sneakers. The Advertising Standards Authority banned the commercial and 50 Cent was replaced by someone who doesn't brag about his wounds.
He even covers them up.
Pepsi Max is So Good it Will Make You Commit Suicide
"OK, so the product is Pepsi Max. Think, people. It's a diet cola, it's only got one calorie. One. One lonely calorie. Wait! That's it! The calorie is single, and alone, and so it's depressed! Because it's lonely! So lonely, that it's suicidal! So we do an ad campaign with the Pepsi logo right next to a guy blowing his fucking brains out! Brilliant!"
Oh, yeah, that's real. Pepsi only ran it once in Germany, but millions of people saw it, thanks to the Internet. And whether critics thought it was glorifying suicide rather than simply mocking it, not even the unexpected cuteness of the emo calorie could prevent the outrage that followed.
Pepsi's excuse was that they didn't think anyone outside the Deutschland would see the ad. And everyone knows that Germans have... well, let's just say they have much less delicate sensibilities.
Pepsi's director of social and emerging media apologized and the ad was quickly pulled. It wasn't long before the American Pepsi brand ended its 50-year relationship with the agency that was responsible. European Pepsi still works with them, though, because they are unafraid of the darkness within.
Rimmel Mascara. It's for Hardcore Bikers and Stuff
Many girls (and a few guys) know that the right mascara can make you feel pretty. But only a select group of people know that Rimmel's mascara can not only make you feel like riding a motorcycle, but it gives you the ability to do it without touching the handlebars. One of those few is feminist icon, Kate Moss.
Yes, Rimmel knows that the real problem with mascara is people think it's too "girly." Got to toughen up the image. Maybe have another ad where some dudes get in a knife fight over some stolen mascara. We can't have a situation where your average meth-addicted dude in Harley chaps is afraid to be seen buying the stuff.
Sadly, the most Kate could handle was a ride on a fake bike in front of a green screen with some random guy's help. It kind of comes off like they shot it with one of those little rides outside the supermarket.
The controversy over the ad hilariously had nothing to do with the gross disregard for motorcycle safety, since they probably figured anyone who attempted to imitate the ad deserved to be eliminated from the gene pool. No, the problem came when Rimmel claimed in 2007 that their mascara could make your eyelashes 70 percent longer. To make this seem true, they allegedly gave Kate Moss fake lashes for the ads.
The Advertising Standards Authority in the U.K. later called Rimmel out for not being being able to deliver on their promise of giving you ridiculously huge cartoon lashes. The ads were banned, and huge biker dudes everywhere demanded a refund.
Raging Cow: Milk that WILL KICK YOUR ASS
If there's one thing we hate about milk, it's that it's so goddamn boring. It just sits in the cup or the bottom of the cereal bowl, doing nothing. Not, you know, screaming at us or anything.
Hey, that's what we need! Angry milk! Why didn't anybody think of this before?
Enter Raging Cow. It began in 2003, as the Dr Pepper Snapple Group's (makers of Dr. Pepper and 7 Up) competition to Coca-Cola's less awesomely named Choglit milk. Choglit had the additional disadvantage of only having chocolate flavor, while Raging Cow's flavors included Chocolate Insanity, Chocolate Carmel Craze, Jamocha Frenzy, Berry Mixed Up and Pina Colada Chaos. This milk was X-Treme.
Wow, I wanna take that milk skateboarding!
Raging Cow may have scared children, but not into drinking it. What to do?
Ah, yes, the constant friend of the desperate ad team, the "invent a fake fanbase" technique that has never, ever worked. Along with blogs authored by pissed-off barnyard animals, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group hired teenagers to plug Raging Cow in their blogs.
More like Raging Bull! And more like Raging Bullshit!, right?
As usual, the deeply cynical marketing technique was uncovered and Raging Cow became the target of raging adults who staged a boycott and the milk's website was removed. You likely can't find Raging Cow on the shelves any more where you are, though if you really want milk from a crazy 'roided-up cow, you could go to any supermarket.
Fruity Pebbles Goes "Urban"
If there's one product that suffers from a lack of hardcore street cred, it's sugary breakfast cereals. The Fruity Pebbles people wanted to tackle this problem, but since it was 1991, they didn't have the simple option of hiring 50 Cent to eat a bowl while talking about his gunshot wounds.
So they did the next best thing, which was to have Barney Rubble do a 1984-era rap:
To be fair, Barney does a much better job channeling Run-DMC than Fred's attempt at Jam Master Jay. But then again, he's using a pterodactyl for a turntable.
At some point they realized that their attempt to modernize the brand with this hip new "rap" thing was grossly out of date since, by 1991, rap had changed considerably thanks to one Mr. Hammer.
Someone must have brought that to Post's attention, because in 1992, a new and more horrible commercial appeared, with Barney in enormous Hammer pants:
It's Pebbles Time all right. Notice how Barney's rapping actually got worse after one year. Not to mention the nonsensical name "CD Rapper." Why not "FP Rapper" for Fruity Pebbles or "BR Rapper" for Barney Rubble?
We like to picture a guy in 1970s New York, taking part in the birth of the whole hip-hop scene, helping invent the genre. Then, 20 years later, he sits in front of his TV, watches the above ad, and weeps softly.
OK Soda: the Cola with Angst
By the time the masses stopped caring about Hammer in the early 90s, the truly cutting edge didn't care about anything at all. Realizing this, advertisers decided that their products became a lot cooler when they pretended not to give a fuck.
Calvin Klein sold jeans with models who would rather rot in existential torment than wear pants. Benetton sold shirts (or something) by showing dying AIDS patients. It all made perfect sense.
Black T-shirt: $59.95.
In 1993, an exec at Coca-Cola came up with the idea of a beverage made entirely of irony. It was called OK Soda, and it came in gray cans covered with edgy comics. The name of the soda played off the fact that "OK" was the second most recognizable word among worldwide languages, the first being "Coca-Cola."
All right, so OK had a witty name and interesting packaging going for it. They could have left it at that, but OK happened to be the brainfart of one of the geniuses behind New Coke. That meant it was destined to not only cross the border between ironic and stupid, but to keep running until it reached Retardedville.
First, there was the OK Manifesto. It was like the Ten Commandments, except that instead of "thou shalt not kill," you got crap like "never overestimate the remarkable abilities of OK brand soda." Then there were the hotlines. OK had an 800-number where hip young consumers could leave messages. An automated voice on the phone told them that their messages might be used for advertising or "exploited in some way [they] haven't figured out yet." OK's most famous message went like this:
"This is Pam H. from Newton, Massachusetts, and I resent you saying that everything is going to be OK. You don't know anything about my life. You don't know what I've been through in the last month. I really resent it. I'm tired of you people trying to tell me things that you don't have any idea about. I resent it."
Pam H.'s message ended up in OK's TV commercials. This was one soda that was so full of youthful rebellion that it didn't even want you to buy it!
And no one did. OK Soda never reached a national market. It was a corporate version of a kid running away from home and wondering why his parents aren't looking for him.
Earring Magic Ken is Cool and Fabulous
Ken has been a problem for Mattel from the very beginning. The guy never had a chance: he was fully emasculated before the plastic was even poured into the molds. He then spent the next 30 years forced to go on ridiculous dates with a woman he couldn't fuck. Mattel seemed to relish the joke as their efforts to make Ken believably butch became more sarcastic over the years:
Then in 1993, this happened:
Mattel said that their intent was to make Ken "a little cooler." The design execs had presumably held a meeting two years earlier that went like this:
"Let's make Ken look a little cooler. Any ideas?"
"You know who's cool right now? That Right Said Fred group. They've got earrings, mesh shirts and leather pants."
"Hmm. That could work. Keep the mesh shirt idea, but replace the leather pants with some high-waisted jeans and put a vest on him."
"Periwinkle blue?" "Yes! And give him a chain with something that looks like a doll cockring hanging on it. Kids like cockrings, right?"
"Sure. Just keep it subtle."
The little girls didn't know, but the men understood. Earring Magic Ken was uncomfortably fabulous, particularly with what reporters awkwardly dubbed his "ring pendant and vest accessory." The doll was discontinued and even pulled from the shelves in a few stores, but he remains the biggest selling Ken doll in Mattel's history, simply because no other toy lines bothered to make theirs into a gay icon. There's a market there, fellas.
McDonald's Finds Where Sell-Out Rappers Draw the Line
The other attempts on this list may be pathetic, but at least they got off the ground. After the marketing firm Maven Strategies got Kanye West and Petey Pablo to plug Seagram's Gin in their lyrics, their other client, McDonald's, wanted in on the action. So in 2005, McDonald's and Maven asked well-known rappers to name-check the Big Mac in one of their songs. The artist would be paid every time the song was played.
"Go ahead and make it rain, fellas."
No one took the offer. No one.
Ray Kroc must have felt that kick in the nuts from his grave. Think about it: the Big Mac doesn't have the glamor of, say, Courvoisier, but more unlikely brands have shown up in hip hop: Brillo, Microsoft, Carvel, Verizon, Coca-Cola, Jello and Chippendale's should all write checks to MF Doom just for "Beef Rapp." And Seagram's success showed that it wasn't a bad business deal. So what went wrong?
The same thing that happened to Raging Cow and Sony. According to Russell Simmons, the plan would have worked if the details weren't revealed on the Internet. That's the lesson here. Being underhanded and manipulative in your marketing doesn't work unless you can keep it a secret.
To see products that made the successful evolution into awesomeness, check out 8 Old School Toys That Got Badass Makeovers. Or let wayward columnist Ross Wolinsky show you some products that need more than shitty advertising and a makeover to save them, in The 5 Most Ridiculous SkyMall Products Money Can Buy.
And stop by our ridiculous attempt to be badass: the Top Picks!