Opinion: A quirky plague has hit the advertising business

Conventional brands are suddenly looking to get weirder. But for the most part, stability is a selling feature — weirdness isn’t.

A hand-drawn figure walks across some hot food until it burns his feet right off. An elderly woman steals a sandwich and falls to the ground, calling for help, pretending that she’s the one being robbed while a narrator with an incongruous accent declares that the sandwich made her do it. A father, at the dinner table, announces to his wife and eight kids that he’s gay — not only gay, but “super super gay.” He smiles, happily, and rubs his daughter’s head while delivering this announcement.

These may sound like sketches on a late-night comedy show, but they aren’t. These are Canadian-made commercials, all for the same brand (Mr. Sub) in three consecutive campaigns over several years. And they’re all, for want of a better term, quirky. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but quirky.

Quirky is the new normal in advertising. Koodo, the cellphone brand, markets itself with made-up words, neon colours, and stop motion aliens. Milk commercials (is there anything more mainstream than milk?) are five-second collages of seemingly random animation, punctuated by a cowbell, a cow, and a cartoony “mooo.” Old Navy has replaced celebrities and models with mannequins who don’t move but somehow yell at one another about infidelities. It’s all just getting too…strange.

Brands that used to market themselves in a conventional fashion are now looking to get weirder. Sometimes this can really be effective, especially when quirky exists as a subset of cool. For instance, Apple was once known for extreme earnestness: “1984” is one of the most legendary ads ever andit’s so over–the-top serious that it paints the competition as Orwellian fascists. The ad ran only once, and it looked like a really expensive, solemn film. Now, Apple ads are just two guys against a white background, one a frumpy PC, one a cool Mac, standing around and chatting. Cool, quirky, but effective.

But it’s starting to feel like many imitators are weird for weird’s sake. To some extent, this quirkification (it’s a word!) of marketing is a natural response to the media that surrounds it. It’s one thing to be running an earnest 30-second TV commercial in the middle of Family Ties, say — it’s another entirely to be on in the middle of 30 Rock, or surrounded by odd videos on YouTube. We like quirky and random and weird in the things we watch that surround our advertising — why shouldn’t our ads feel like that, too?

Well, they shouldn’t because more often than not it’s bad for the brand. We’re compromising effective selling techniques simply to stand out from one another or to fit into the current culture of entertainment. In fact, quirky is often an ad in search of an idea, an interesting execution bereft of a real strategy. It can work, but the truth is that for most of the things that we buy, stability is a selling feature — weirdness isn’t.

Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the aforementioned Mr. Sub ads. Mr. Sub is a tough brand to advertise. It’s dwarfed by the Jared-fuelled ascendancy of the Subway brand, which built its identity around freshness and quality. So much so that Subway now owns these earthy, straightforward attributes, and that leaves little room for competitors to tryto exist in the same space. It’s dull, maybe, but sensible: does anyone really need exciting and different when they’re spending $3.29 on a cold-cut combo?

Mr. Sub thought so, and maybe so did Bos, the agency that created those ads. But the results weren’t good. The “not everybody likes surprises” campaign (including the “super gay” ad) drew some negative feedback, originally due to a perceived insensitivity to the coming-out process. Bos recently lost the account, and thus became our first national casualty of the new quirkiness.

The official statement from the folks at Mr. Sub as to why they fired Bos is telling. They said that the “campaign has not met the objective of positively engaging with [their] customers.” In an effort to be different, and odd, what got left out was consumer engagement, forging a connection based on something more relevant to the brand. We don’t connect to quirky.

This isn’t all Bos’s fault, of course. The client had to sign off on a brief, and a script, and the finished ads for them to get on the air in the first place. And the truth is that this campaign wasn’t really about anything relevant to Mr. Sub, or subs in general. They were 30-second bundles of weirdness, with nothing to sell.

Bos will bounce back, and Mr. Sub will try again with another partner. The good news for them? Subway has been trying to jazz up their advertising lately, and seems to have settled on animated monkeys, of all things, shilling for the brand. Sounds quirky, doesn’t it?

Max Valiquette is a Toronto-based consultant on marketing, media and modern consumers.