Do irritating ads serve in aiding brand recall?

By , agencyfaqs! | In | December 17, 2001
Bad ads bombarded through the media get on the nerves of the consumer. However, does the irritation factor actually aid in brand recall?

Notwithstanding the fact that the definition of what constitutes a bad ad is yet to be satisfactorily addressed, it is universally agreed that there are two broad ad types: good and bad. Segmentation could further extend the scope, starting with 'phenomenal' right down to 'awful'.

Clustered at the bottom-end of this ladder or pyramid or whatever are the really bad ads - the ones that are either shorn of all creativity, run-of-the-mill or lacking in 'strategy' or 'consumer insight'. All eminently forgettable ads, essentially.

But a closer look at this pile reveals a strain of ads that aren't all that forgettable - even if one sincerely wished to. Unlike standard ships-in-the-night ads, these have a certain weed-like tenacity about them. They refuse to be ignored, and keep bouncing back from their abysmal depths, assaulting intelligence and sensibilities alike. And end up irritating viewers.

To make a distinction, one could, with a reasonable amount of patience, vapidly sit through the average bad commercial. Not so with ads that irritate and make viewers baulk. These are ads that trigger mental 'aaarghs' and 'uhgs', and actually make the switching-off of the mind very cognizable.

Examples abound. The commercials for pen brands Add-Gel, Stic Geltra and Today's, for instance. The Kunwar Ajay and Tarang saree ads; the Lux thermals 'Yeh andar ki baat hai' ad featuring Satish Kaushik; the Mortein commercial with a frenetic Tiku Talsania; the no-brainer ads for All-Out (and quite a few other mosquito repellant brands); the commercials for D'Cold (the way the pharmacist parrots "D'Cold Total" as a cure-all, one would imagine the brand could shore up the Sensex and settle Kashmir in India's favour); the Dr. Lips commercial; the J. Hampstead ad; the Ring Guard ad; the ad for Samsung cellphones; the commercial for Philips bulbs; almost all the ads for MRF Tyres; and, of course, all those boy-falls-for-girl's-gorapan ads for sundry fairness creams, and those outrageous gutkha ads. Needless to say, this list is not comprehensive - it can never purport to be, so tedious is the original list.

What characterizes these ads is not merely the message - if at all there is one - embedded in the communication, but the way this message is delivered. All 'irritating ads' are either senseless, or trite and hackneyed. As a counterpoint, take, for example, the ad for Rasna International featuring Paresh Rawal as the penny-pinching sethji. Nothing new about the message - Rasna International is better than your current favourite. But the exchange between the know-all Rawal and the 'Rasna representative' is handled so well, the communication comes alive and is saved from falling into a pit of clichés.

One of the biggest problems with these ads - all bad ads, for that matter - is there is no incremental takeout for the viewer every time she sees the ad. See the ad once, and that which registers in the mind is all that will ever register. There is nothing new for the viewer to discover on repeat viewing. This, of course, holds true even in the case of good ads, where the message has to hit home immediately. The difference being what makes good ads watchable are little nuances - like expressions on the models' faces, sound effects (like the sound of glass breaking in the background when the woman asks for 'one black coffee' in the Ericsson ad)… layering, actually. In that sense, the absence of 'entertainment' makes an ad less likeable.

"I am a great believer in irritation and its ills," insists Rohit Chawla, associate vice-president - creative - HTA. "The likeability factor is a must in advertising if you have to connect with the consumer. You have to bring a smile on people's lips to make them favourably disposed to your brand." Of course, most mediocre-bordering-on-bad ads manage eliciting yawns, at best. Not so with irritating ads, however…

So what exactly makes an ad irritating? Intrinsically, almost nothing. If an irritating ad were to be viewed just once alongside other mediocre/bad ads, it would quickly get lost in the clutter. Meaning it would be just another bad ad. Its makeover from 'bad' to 'irritating' is more a function of visibility in the media. Agrees Narayan Kumar, unit creative director, Lowe Lintas & Partners, "Irritating ads are the rank bad ads on television, seen by their sheer frequency. They're so insufferable, and you are forced to see them over and over again."

Of course, there are ads that are seen as irritating for the way they depict situations. Ring Guard, Itch Guard and Smyle are the most commonly cited examples. "You are having dinner when they show you ads with all those blisters in the mouth," says Sagar Mahabaleshwar, creative director, O&M. "It's totally repulsive." Kumar doesn't take too kindly to the sight of people scratching their armpits and whatnot either. "Such advertising is a violation of taste," he says, quickly adding, "But in a heterogeneous country like India, such things need not affect consumers equally."

One argument in defense of these ads is that although they might be seen as gross, they have managed creating strong problem-solution associations for the respective brands. And one can't deny that through sheer share-of-voice, some of these brands have managed generating a lot of brand recall.

"Brand recall is bound to be there," admits Chawla. "The point is, does it translate into a positive or a negative image?" That's a tough one. As Mahabaleshwar says, "People might not want to be associated with a brand that irritates them on TV, but the consumer is not stupid. She'll buy the brand as long as the product is good. Also, sales might actually be up, but that could be a function of pricing, distribution etc."

Then, of course, there is this entire thing of whether consumers view advertising differently from ad professionals. "Within the industry, good advertising is that which fits a format," feels KS Gopal, creative director, Quadrant Communications. "In print, a great ad is 99 per cent visual, small logo, basic copy. In television, it is having a plot with quirky humour. So, for ad people, irritating ads are those that don't fit this format. What you must ask is does the ad's target consumer find the ad irritating?"

Gopal also feels that many of these 'irritating' brands are new players in the market. "A Times of India, a Pepsi or an M-Seal can afford to speak in a different tone as they are established brands. But maybe these new brands see merit in repeating a brand name 10 times over. Yes, nothing stops it from getting better. But I strongly feel that the things ad people like are not necessarily what general people like."

Kumar does not quite agree. "Through sheer exposure to better ads, the consumer has come to expect ads of a particular standard. While they may not know how to make an ad, they have developed a composite picture of how an ad ought to be. And when an ad insults their sensibilities and taste, consumers become superior to the ad." Chawla admits that consumers look at ads differently, but adds, "The gap between good and bad ads is narrowing because ad audiences here have got savvier. There was a time when feature films were terribly tacky, but today, such tackiness won't wash as audiences have got used to better stuff."

Perhaps irritating ads do achieve brand recall. Perhaps they even manage selling the product. But, as Kumar sees it, that's being myopic. "Irritation does aid brand recall. So if the objective of advertising is only publicizing the brand name and selling, it's fine. But as advertising professionals, we have a responsibility other than selling. As producers of advertising, our job is to contribute to expanding tastes. If Lagaan had not been made, our idea of what a movie can be would have been that much smaller today."

© 2001 agencyfaqs!