In praise of smart senseless commercials

Mark Duffy has written the Copyranter blog for 11 years and is a freelancing copywriter with 25-plus years of experience. His hockey wrist shot is better than yours. 

What’s the difference between a smart senseless commercial and a stupid senseless commercial? It’s just one thing: whether or not the agency/brand has respected the intelligence of the viewer. This is, of course, a rule (yes, there are rules in creating good advertising) that should be followed for all ads.

Secondarily, it’s also a matter of taste. And since I’m the internet’s most popular ad critic who’s not only watched more senseless spots in the last 11 years than anybody else in the world (probably true) but also has “ideated” hundreds of TV/video ads, including both smart senseless and stupid senseless ones (definitely true), I have a better-developed ad taste filter than you.

To the intelligent senselessness.

GEICO: “Octopus,”

You’ve probably seen the “Marco Polo” and “Ice T” spots from GEICO’s new “It’s not surprising how much money you’ll save…” campaign. These are stupid senseless spots because the jokes are tied, awkwardly, to the sell message. And the commercials could literally be for any brand that wanted to say something “not surprising” about itself.

However, the above GEICO renters’ insurance spot from 2010 is pure 100 percent beautiful senselessness. It could be an ad for any person, place, or thing in the world. But it’s not. It’s for GEICO, something you’ll never forget. Why an octopus singing “zuba duba duba do, zaba daba daba da?” Why the strange, pointing man? Why a study? Shut up! That’s why.

With the two newer spots, you knew (I did, anyway) that they were GEICO ads before the v/o said one word. Not so with Mr. Octopus back when the spot debuted. You were captivated, waiting for an explanation. And then there was none. FYI, there was also a homeowners’ insurance execution. Agency: The Martin Agency. Director: Tom Kuntz.

Jolly Rancher: “Turtle,” USA

Unlike with Marco Polo and Ice T, there is a reason why a turtle is in this Jolly Rancher spot from 2012. Like the new Ranchers, he is crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. But that’s the only sensible thing about this completely batshit ad (“You still talking to that bird?”).

Probably a spec spot because no ad agency is listed in the credits, just a director: Olivier Augustini. But I’d rather watch 100 commercials like this one than one more disingenuous “Kumbaya” brand “cause” ad.

Le Slip Français: “La Surprise du Chef!” France

Lastly, from 2012, this is quite simply the most senseless — and greatest — men’s underwear commercial ever made. Show me a better one, nonbeliever. Agencies: BETC and Rita, Paris.

If we (I mean “you” creative director, CMO, brand manager, not you, digital “guru”) want to save the dying creativity in advertising, we need to stop worrying about what every overly sensitive, reactive schnook on the internet thinks about our ads and start — in the words of David Byrne — “stop making sense.”

A note on Japan
Japan is the birthplace of many of the most barking-mad commercials ever produced, it’s true. But most all of those are “crazy” ads not “senseless.” It’s a fine line, but it’s a line that’s there — like with this CLIO-winning spot for the Sunshine Sakae department store (ad agency: Asatsu-DK, Tokyo).

OK, this 2009 Hall’s commercial is pretty senseless:

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