Extreme Ads Aim to Shock 'Em and Lock 'Em

In a television commercial for Capital One, a man and a woman tumble head over heels down a rocky ski slope — without the snow.

Change the channel and a man gets attacked by squirrels in a Western Union ad. Next up: a Vonage ad where a man saws down a tree, only to have it crush his car.

Welcome to extreme advertising.

While situations like these might be described as "tragic" in any other context, they are the stuff that gets laughs — and eyeballs. Or at least that's what companies like Capital One, Internet phone service Vonage and money transfer business Western Union hope.

"These [extreme] ads are designed to turn up the volume … and basically prevent you from fast forwarding them on your TiVo," said Christian D'Andrea, an entrepreneur who markets the military-created HOOAH! power bars for commercial sales.

"Before, you had 30 seconds to catch someone with your advertising, now you have two," he added.

Ad industry watchers say this brand of in-your-face physical humor — particularly that which results in damage to body and property — is used today to sell everything from cell phone service to window blinds.

"If one style seems to work, then other advertisers want to use it," said AdWeek magazine editor-at-large Barbara Lippert. "At the same time, it reflects cultural trends — ads are very reflective of movies and music and what is around, in the buzz."

Twenty-something Michigan high school teacher Amanda O'Neill agreed that these ads fit in with today's fads.

"We have extreme sports, extreme music, extreme food and drink ... ad agencies are just trying to keep up," she said.

In the most recent Capital One credit card commercials, a guardian angel fails at every turn to protect his oblivious charges as a woman gets whacked in the head and a man is attacked by jellyfish, among other painful mishaps.

This follows the Capital One ad where a husband convinces his wife to ski down a dry slope in summer to save money while their kids look on, and the long-running series of barbarians wreaking havoc against non-Capital One card carrying victims.

"We use humor and metaphors to break through the clutter. We strive for intelligent/clever humor, with hopes of generating more than a chuckle," said Capital One spokeswoman Pam Girardo.

"We believe that humor enables greater engagement with the consumer and helps to ensure they do not reject additional viewings," she added.

Not everyone is charmed by the strategy.

"I really hate those Capital One ads and always have," said Lippert, adding the ads seem to strive to connect to viewers "by getting them to laugh at other peoples' pain."

Bob Garfield, an ad critic for Advertising Age magazine, said this kind of pitch isn't new, but he's seeing more extreme physical slapstick than in the past.

"A lot of this stuff is very, very funny," he said, noting that a recent Sprint-Nextel commercial where a guy hits another guy with his cell phone in a locker room "made me wet my pants."

At a time when advertisers are wringing their hands over an ambivalent, or even worse, disconnected audience, this seems to be the reaction they are looking for.

"[Commercials] have become wallpaper, you don't notice them anymore," said Michael Medico, president of E&M Advertising in New York. "Because of the passivity of television viewing you have to jolt people into taking notice."

D'Andrea agreed with this explanation for the shock 'em and lock 'em ads.

"Maybe when words and ideas have lost their meaning, a person getting crushed by a dinosaur foot is the only other way to get the message across," he said, referring to a current FedEx commercial in which a hapless caveman gets crushed by a dinosaur after getting fired for not using a FedEx courier.

But the problems plaguing television advertising go way beyond disinterest, Medico and others say. The growth of digital video recording devices such as TiVo, which allow the viewer to record television shows and fast forward through commercials in near real-time, are making advertisers plenty nervous.

A recent survey of national advertisers found that almost 70 percent of them think DVRs like TiVo and video-on-demand will "reduce or destroy the effectiveness of traditional 30-second commercials."

The survey results, released in March by the Association of National Advertisers and Forrester Research, also found that when DVRs spread to 30 million homes, close to 60 percent of the advertisers polled said they will begin to scale back their investments on conventional TV advertising.

Right now, according to industry figures, more than $67 billion is spent each year on broadcast and cable television advertising.

So if "extreme" advertising is an attempt to get to viewers while it still can, is it working? The jury still seems to be out.

"With this extreme stuff … what are you supposed to be subconsciously associating with it? What is the viewer supposed to take away?" asked D'Andrea. "Personally, a kid jumping off a trampoline, hitting the side of a house and hurting himself is not a pleasant image. But I'm sure the advertiser has a really good explanation … he obviously sold the ad to the company."

Garfield acknowledges that while laughter seems to be the best way to grab eyeballs, advertisers had better have a strategy that ensures the viewer remembers the product at the heart of the shtick.

"The problem with comedy in advertising is when everybody is cracking jokes, at the end of 10 minutes you remember laughing, but you don't remember what the ad was and who told the joke," he said.

Lippert takes a harsher tone. "I don't think violence sells," she said. If anything, "it needs to be integrated in a way that gets people to remember the product."

Like Capital One's current campaign, which combines the violent images with the tagline "What's in your wallet?" Sure, she said.

"We apply a great deal of rigor around research and measurement of our advertising and marketing effectiveness," said Capital One's Girardo. "Capital One (with our tagline) quickly became household name."

So, like it or not, if the gimmick works, extreme advertising is here to stay — at least until the next flashy trend in the Big Sell.

"The ultimate end of these ads is to part you from your money, how they do that however is another thing — using violence is just another tool in their arsenal," said Connecticut graphic artist Michael Dagata.

"There isn’t a base emotion the ad industry hasn't tried in order to part you from your money and in turn sell a product."