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Advertisers, viewers: It's OK to be funny again

The advertising landscape seemed to come full circle in 2002. Advertisers, overly cautious not to offend in the early part of the year, eased back into the laugh cycle and devised some post-9/11 ways to make people smile.

Marketers immediately put the brakes on tasteless humor after the events of Sept. 11. Even as advertisers took the pulse of consumers, USA TODAY's Ad Track poll monitored America's emotional recovery. A look back at the year's Ad Track results reveals one clear trend: TV commercial viewers want to be entertained.

Messages that were simple, light-hearted and downright funny were in.

Witness: The top-rated Ad Track commercial of the year was a simple spot for iMac.

In the ad a stylish young man walking down the street is taken by the sleek design of the new thin-screen Apple computer. In a Marx Bros.-like exchange, when he turns his head to look, the computer shows off its swivel display and turns, too. The exchange continues until the guy sticks out his tongue. The computer responds by sticking out the disk drive in its base.

Messages that were viewed as unkind or tasteless were out.

Witness: The seemingly mean-spirited ads for Pier 1, with actress Kirstie Alley bullying people into shopping at Pier 1, rated very poorly.

The retail chain had the single most disliked campaign, with a 27% dislike score vs. the Ad Track "dislike" average of 13%.

"We're living in a world that has gotten very complicated," says Warren Kornblum, marketing chief for Toys R Us, whose return of Geoffrey the Giraffe campaign was ranked No. 5 in 2002. "Advertising is entertainment and should put a smile on someone's face."

Here's what worked in 2002:

Keep it simple.

The overriding theme for the Top 10: simplicity.

No over-the-top antics or high-tech production. "Everyone is under so much stress to control what they say in their message," says Ann Hayden, executive creative director at Young & Rubicam, which made the No. 2 most-liked ad for Computer Associates.

Tickle the funny bone.

Computer Associates promoted proper tech backup in a slapstick ad that shows two associates and a boss on their way to a big client meeting. The boss is left in a lurch after one associate gets knocked out when he walks into a filing cabinet and the other, giving an update on his colleague, slips and knocks his head on the conference table. Problem: They had the presentation filed in their heads.

"Technology is always a challenge to convey in ads, but we did it in a very simple, funny way," says Nancy Bhagat, senior vice president of global marketing for Computer Associates.

Appeal to all ages.

Five of the Top 10 most-liked ads were enjoyed by people of all ages. Computer Associates, Miller Lite, iMac, Toys R Us and Bank of America's Olympic ads all ranked as favorites for people 18-29, 30-49 and 50 and older.

Of the younger set, 41.5% liked their top ads "a lot" on average. But only 32% of 30-to-49-year-olds and 22% of those 50 and older liked their favorites "a lot." The overall Ad Track average for "like a lot" is 22%.

"We get everyone from students with their first checking account to those with sophisticated estate and retirement planning," says Catherine Bessant, chief marketer for Bank of America, whose Olympic ads scored eighth overall.

Make the product hero.

Miller Lite finally has a campaign that consumers like. America's No. 2 brewer introduced "Story Tellers," which shows men and women recalling embarrassing moments with friends over a Miller Lite. The ads were a hit with men (No. 3) and women (No. 4) and were No. 3 overall.

"We have one of the best-liked campaigns we've had in a long time," says Tom Bick, brand manager.

But well-liked doesn't always mean effective. Just five of the top 10 most-liked campaigns were among the top 10 "very effective" ads. Consumers polled say they think effective ads are those that will help marketers better sell their products.

Miller will push its campaign to be more effective in 2003, but Coke already figured out how to be well-liked and effective. Vanilla Coke ads with Chazz Palminteri, who rewards curious youths with a bottle of Vanilla Coke, were ranked sixth for overall likability and No. 3 for effectiveness. The product is a hit, too, and is expected to be 10% of Coke's volume within the year, thanks to help from Palminteri.

"He appeals to everyone," says Yolanda Ball, brand manager Coca-Cola Classic. He's been around for a while, and every time you see him he reinvents himself. That's what Vanilla Coke is all about."


Theresa Howard, USA TODAY. December 30, 2002

Copyright © 2002 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.