How absurdism came to dominate advertising
Thirty years ago, a drug agent-turned-drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton II fell to his death after a parachuting mishap in the sky over Knoxville, Tennessee.
Moments earlier, he had jettisoned a duffel bag filled with about 75 pounds of cocaine into the Georgia forest, where a black bear found it, ate a stomach-full of it and promptly died of an overdose.
That bear since stuffed and mounted spent the ensuing decades in a pawn shop, a Chinese medicine store and, for a brief stint, Waylon Jennings’ mansion until it found its way into the hands of three Kentucky advertising executives, who tracked it down on a whim.
Now known simply as “cocaine bear” or “Pablo EskoBear” its owners recently featured it in a whacked-out local commercial that looks as though it could have also been the result of drug over-indulgence.
The ad may have been too edgy for the three local broadcast stations that initially rejected it, but its quirkiness hardly stands out online, where major brands like Old Spice, Skittles, Mountain Dew and KFC have found that surreal visuals, absurdism and anti-humor play especially well to the internet’s eclectic tastes.
As the bar for attention-grabbing gets higher and once-cult humor goes mainstream, young people are growing bored of straightforward marketing, which is making advertising weirder.
Old Spice, probably the most extreme example of this aesthetic, was once your dad’s aftershave a stuffy, outmoded brand that advertised to older men with pictures of boats in magazines.
A years-long makeover later, its most recent commercial featured a three-eyed man with a nose ring and elf ears sharing a set of five-eyed binoculars with a hawk-woman.
“My dad loves me and is very proud of me, but he kind of barely understands what I do for a living,” said Jason Kreher, a creative director at Wieden+Kennedy who has worked on Old Spice campaigns. “I legitimately once had a fight with a creative about the color of the lasers coming out of a bear’s eyes.”
KFC’s kindly-old-gentleman caricature of Colonel Sanders has morphed into an enigmatic creep who keeps inexplicably switching identities. A laser-eyed, seemingly omnipotent George Takei currently plays a role once held by an offensive Spanglish-speaking chihuahua. And the most infectious commercial of this year’s Super Bowl starred an unsettling combination of a dog, monkey and baby that hypnotically repeats its name.
“People are just exposed to more stuff,” says Joe Baratelli, chief creative officer at Santa Monica-based agency RPA. “You see more crazy things. [The Internet] has opened up a world where 15 years ago, no one thought about that kind of stuff… Some of it seems so random, but it strikes a chord with people.”
But even when an ad looks like a messy salad of internet memes, there’s always a method to the madness, ad execs say. Absurdity for absurdity’s sake should never be the goal.
“You need a voice that fits well within a culture that can be absurdist or you are going to fail at trying to be, ‘LOL, look how random,'” Kreher said.
In the writers room where the Old Spice ads are assembled, silliness is taken seriously, Kreher says. Hours are spent poring over each ad to ensure they’re funny, original and not too pandering.
“We’re not sitting around being like ‘No, what’s weirder than that? Ha-ha-ha-ha.’ It’s like, ‘Oh I have this assignment. We see what works, which is, in a general sense, weird. This seems like a funny thing to me,'” he said.
“The craft is what separates it from, like, Wheat Thins’ ‘How many times a day has bae told you this? We need more Wheat Thins!’ or something,” he added.
Such wackiness is obviously not suited for every brand. Usually, the advertisers that take this route are youth-focused particularly on the most digitally tuned-in subset of young people and don’t mind not being taken entirely seriously.
But even for brands that don’t want to go full-Old Spice, hackneyed jokes or cliches don’t cut it in a culture where humor is often wrapped in multiple layers of irony.
“There does seem to be a certain sensibility on the internet where everything has a bit of irony like ‘I know that you know that I know that,'” says Greg Hahn, chief creative officer at BBDO New York. “But you also see that in prime-time TV, like 30 Rock did a lot of that, and if you go way back, Gary Shandling’s show.”
Creatively speaking, the internet has opened a lot of doors to experiment and go after niche audiences that otherwise wouldn’t be reachable.
“It opens the palette,” Hahn said. “You can do stuff that’s really esoteric or specific if that’s what the taste of that particular audience is.”
But social media and the ease of publishing has also added a cacophony of new voices that make it that much harder to surprise people or stand out.
None of the execs Mashable talked to for this article thought the creative freedom made the quality of advertising as a whole any better.
The mastermind behind the “cocaine bear” hunt is Whit Hiler, a creative director at Lexington-based ad agency Cornett, who started the state-themed merchandise shop Kentucky For Kentucky where “cocaine bear” is kept as a side project with two friends in the industry.
Hiler, whom Digiday once speculated could be America’s most talented ad creative, is an expert at bizarre stunts that sometimes captivate the internet.
His jewelry made from gold-plated KFC chicken bones enjoyed massive popularity and earned write-ups in dozens of national publications. He once made tiny billboards that clipped onto men’s beards, and he coined “the world’s longest hashtag” for A&W.
Other more boundary-pushing ideas have included viral sets of flyers inviting people to recreate a human centipede or join the “Rainbow Bus Club,” a meetup for straight men to “pretend to be gay for an hour or so.”
“A lot of times we’ll throw an idea out there as a joke it’s something that’s just absurd and we’ll be laughing our asses off. And then we’ll be like ‘Hey let’s do it,'” Hiler said. “Those types of ideas are typically pretty successful.”
After years as a car salesman, Hiler got his unorthodox start in the industry a decade ago selling polo shirts that he had blasted with a shotgun. At the time, few other advertisers were doing the same kind of outside-the-box guerrilla stunts that he did best and mostly because he couldn’t afford any real ads.
“There were a few pioneers in that space at the time,” he said. “It was just crazy how quickly the internet could take a hold of an idea and how quickly it could be shared by hundreds of thousands or millions of people without having to spend a dime.”
In the years since, the mainstream advertising industry has realized the same thing.