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Is ‘extremity’ the new template in advertising?

Top creative personalities debate whether extreme story board situations work for a brand

Neha Saraiya | Delhi | September 19, 2011

There has for long been a belief among advertisers and marketers that a campaign works only if you manage to irritate or shock the viewer. This belief stemmed from the underlying assumption that a forced reaction not only triggers registration of the brand among the target audience, but also created a strong top of mind recall whenever a consumer walks in to a store. This theory in recent times appears to be getting replaced by a new thinking – ‘extremity’ in the story board.

After having tapped an entire range of emotions ranging from joy and anger to pathos, humour, sex, disgust, rage, fear, lust and what have you, advertisers are experimenting with extremity of situations, often bordering on the bizarre, as a weapon with the intention of gaining traction with viewers. Recent examples are the Tata Docomo ads that show extreme situations. Like when the phone rings in the blouse of the maid after she has stolen the phone, or while a couple is busy love making in a car, or a guy is in the loo with his flight about to take off!  These are situations in which a person would want to avoid a call to come through.

The question is if a brand opts for this route, does it create a positive or an annoying effect on the consumer?

“Exaggerating to make a point is stock-in-trade for advertisers,” says Sumanto Chattopadhyay, ECD South Asia, Ogilvy & Mather. Josy Paul, Chairman & NCD, BBDO India, adds, “Dramatising product performance by going to the extreme can be entertaining. Remember the ad for Fevicol where the guy catches fish using the adhesive? It is fantastic, still memorable.”

Industry veterans feel that extremity as a tool has been prevailing for long, in the form of its better-half cousin ‘exaggeration’. Says Vistasp Hodiwala, Vice-president & Senior Creative Director, JWT Mumbai, "We call this pushing the envelope And I take this expression as an advertising exaggeration evident everywhere. Even's famous ‘Hari Sadu’ was an exaggeration of that sort.”

To stretch the exaggeration factor, KV Sridhar ‘Pops’, NCD, Leo BurnettIndia, cites the example of a snack brand, Time Paas, from Britannia, launched in early 2003. The commercials of the health snack portrayed extreme situations in which a man will indulge in the snack by nibbling either while being chased by a dog or doing yoga.

However, it is to be noted that in recent times, the use of the extremity factor has been a tad different. It has become more edgy, provocative and at times repulsive in its approach. For instance, the latest ads of deodorant brand Killer shows an over-confident, chauvinistic male protagonist treating the opposite sex with extreme ruthlessness, posing ‘Who’s the man?’ attitude to the females.

Globally also, this trend has been doing the rounds.  Paul recalls a commercial of Gillette in the US, where the brand tries to prove a point that its blade works smoothly even if a man shaves in shark infested waters, and he comes out of the water free from any nicks and cuts. Even the famous Volkswagen ad of the 60s – ‘How does the man who drives the snow plow get to the snow plow?’ – remains a benchmark for extreme situations to prove performance.

Thus, extremity can be segregated into two broad categories – situational and physical. Situational extremity is one in which the extremity factor is injected through a tricky situation or a series of such situations, while physical extremity is when the ad depicts a tangible extremity set up through a natural environment. While the Tata Docomo and Killer Deodorant ads fall under the former category, popular cases of the latter version of extremity can be the Mountain Dew or the Thums Up commercials, showing victory over physical challenges.

Of course, while both have their own advantages and disadvantages, what is more crucial to advertisers is the appropriate degree of extremity used in their communication. “When the exaggeration leads to a negative situation, the jury is out as to whether it is beneficial or not. Sometimes it works; sometimes it bites the advertiser,” says Chattopadhyay. Further, he points out that a minor overdose of the factor can not only invoke the wrath of audiences but also eventually push the ad under the tag of repulsive advertising.

To make the contrast clear, Titus Upputuru, National Creative  Director, Dentsu Marcom, cites the example of a campaign done by him in his early days for ‘Eicher Good Earth’. The commercial showed a smoking car emerging out from exhaust pipes, with the copy reading ‘Only dogs excrete on roads’.  “The ground-breaking idea behind the campaign was to wake up the audiences, leading to environment safeguarding steps. The ad was not the in-your-face kind, but still managed to deliver its message strongly,” he explains. Another example given by Titus is the Sprite campaign that appeared few years back, wherein a handsome boy explicitly tells his two girlfriends about his double dating.

Thus playing on extremity has its own benefits. It helps in clutter breaking, builds top of mind recall and establishes the brand persona, but needs to be used with prudence. As ‘Pops’ cautions, “When you are exaggerating, then firstly it has to be true to the product benefits that you are exaggerating, and simultaneously it should fit the personality of the brand. Otherwise 60 per cent of the people applying fairness creams in our country would not quit within just two weeks of its usage.”

Upputuru also has his own list of points to consider when banking on extremity in brand communication. “The context, media and the timing have to be really correct while implementing it,” he avers.

It's a risk that just might pay off -- but it's a risk that is more worthwhile to take for a challenger brand. Also, one thing is sure, that the brand is the ultimate boss, and if the brand demands a bit of extremity, the creative community cannot shy away.

And, to look at it a bit differently, wouldn’t advertising be a bit boring if we didn’t have the occasional sight of Akshay Kumar jumping off a cliff for his cola, or kids giving a complex to a crow by pumping air into his bubblegum balloon, or the giant bird swooping down on the pompous Englishman who didn’t “earn” his Bournville?

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