In a recent British television advertisement for the mouthwash Corsodyl, an attractive model is filmed in modish, sepia tones getting ready for a night out. Suddenly she starts bleeding from her eye and the voiceover says: “We wouldn’t ignore blood from any other part of our body so why do we ignore it from our gums?”
The model then spits a mouthful of bloody toothpaste into the sink and the narrator explains that spitting blood is an early sign of gum disease, which can lead to tooth loss. The spot finishes with the model looking in the mirror and revealing that a tooth is missing. In other parts of the campaign, the product even uses the tagline “Corsodyl: for people who spit blood when they brush their teeth”.
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Chris Hirst, chief executive of Grey London, the agency behind Corsodyl’s campaign, says the idea was to be honest about the product without being sensationalist. “The ad deals with an unpleasant subject – and the image jolts you,” he explains. “But I think it’s OK. The blood is relevant to what the product does, it’s not breaking a social taboo, and it’s not shock for shock’s sake. So you don’t feel short-changed or tricked.”
The campaign’s in-your-face bluntness is in sharp contrast to what consumers have come to expect in marketing campaigns for products that deal with sensitive issues. From feminine sanitary products to toilet paper, the traditional response from companies has been to largely ignore the product and concentrate on showing people having lots of fun while using it. The item itself is only ever shown in a clinical, laboratory-type environment. But recently, some advertisers have started pushing the “yuck” envelope both by using humour and by being frank.
In 1999, Zovirax, the cold-sore cream, launched a long-running campaign featuring a woman wearing a motorcycle helmet to go swimming, to visit the gym and so on. The campaign was humorous and in some of the ads a cold sore was even shown – although it did appear to be a rather toned-down, television-friendly sore.
More recently, in 2010, Kotex, the female hygiene products company, took aim at traditional tampon advertising with an ad that had a woman sarcastically discussing her menstrual cycle: “How do I feel about my period? I love it . . . ” The slot concludes by asking: “Why are tampon ads so ridiculous?”
Last year Bodyform, another female hygiene products maker whose ads famously show women skydiving, mountain biking and horse riding during their menstrual cycle, sent itself up in a well-received viral ad. In response to a Facebook post by a male consumer who claimed the cheery, active commercials had deceived him, the company released a spot featuring a fictitious chief executive who admits that it has not been completely honest because “some people simply can’t handle the truth”. It has been viewed more than 3.8m times on YouTube.
Tanya Hamilton-Smith, business director of JWT, the advertising agency whose clients include Kimberly-Clark, the US-based personal care corporation, says dealing with somewhat unsavoury products is nothing new. “We have a lot of products like these and are continually faced with ‘icky’ subjects,” she says.
But Patrick Barwise, emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School, says the advertising of such products is always a challenge. “One general principle is that all publicity is good publicity. But another is that you avoid negative emotions,” he says. “If you look at charities, they struggle with this all the time. If you make people feel bad, you get their attention, but they may not contribute – so successful campaigns tend to be emotionally positive.”
The tabular content relating to this article is not available to view. Apologies in advance for the inconvenience caused. He adds that even pretesting adverts may not give you a definitive answer. “If you test commercials, you have to ask questions and in doing so, you get people’s interpretations of their reactions. The US tends to be more pro-testing than the UK, where the view is that if no one hates your campaign it’s very unlikely to be a great campaign.”
One of Kimberly-Clark’s brands is the UK toilet paper Andrex whose ads have featured labrador puppies at play since 1972. Recently, it decided to try a different tack in order to speak to a younger audienceand push itself to the top of consumers’ minds. So it launched a campaign called “Scrunch or Fold?” asking consumers if they scrunched or folded their toilet paper after use and inviting them to register their answer in an online poll. “People are becoming more accepting of talking about these products, and even willing to have a bit of fun, although the rise of social media also means they’re far more outspoken,” says Ms Hamilton-Smith.
The Andrex campaign sparked a great deal of debate – but much of it was negative. Helen Edwards, a columnist for Marketing Magazine, described it as “one of the saddest and most insane acts of brand self-harm ever conceived”.
Even the edgy, controversy-friendly media group Vice weighed in, declaring it “the worst advertising campaign ever”.
Jordi Connor, head of planning at Dialogue, a marketing agency, was also critical. “I found it bizarre on a number of levels,” he says. “Andrex has a great brand with great awareness. Then they do something totally out of character. Why do we need to have this discussion?”
So why do brands choose such a blunt approach, especially when they have a successful strategy?
Ms Hamilton-Smith says despite the “negative reaction, there has also been a big positive reaction”. She points out that once many people discovered the online polls, they decided it was fun. “We’ve had a huge level of response and even those who were negative couldn’t help but engage in the debate.”
Kimberly-Clark says the campaign has provided a boost in customer awareness and that early indicators suggest an uplift in sales, including promotions, of 22 per cent.
“Overall we’ve been very pleased with it,” says Carrie Stanley, commercial programme manager for Andrex. Although she admits that “about 10 per cent of the population who skewed towards middle-aged to older men didn’t like the subject matter of the campaign and were very vocal about it”.
Despite this apparent return on investment, Ms Hamilton-Smith adds a note of caution: “There’s a very fine balance with these campaigns – and Scrunch or Fold probably pushed it as far as UK customers are willing to go.”