Inside the Mix

Spoof ads may be funny, but they require too much from consumers, too little from firms

Spoof ads may be funny, but they require too much from consumers, too little from firms

When Saturday Night Live takes a break from its live broadcasts, one can normally expect a re-peat. But last week brought a treat in the shape of a compilation of scores of advertising spoofs across a number of years.

After 90 minutes of that show, every normal ad seemed like a spoof. Watching a shouted demonstration of a cleaning product, I was still in spoof mode and thought it was the latest in the wickedly medium-referential Geico campaign. (It wasn't.) Spoof ads have become increasingly popular in recent years - more so, perhaps, than bad ads.

So why are spoof ads so popular? Is it that there are simply no more new ideas to be had, so all that can be done is to plunder the medium and generate a "new" type of self-referential ad?

That these are being made is another sign of adland's acknowledgement of the fact that consumers know a huge amount about advertising. These ads don't advertise the product so much as make consumers laugh, make them feel as if they're in on an inside joke, and then mention the product, hopefully in such a way that will be inextricably linked to the ad in the consumer's mind.

It's also very easy for ad agencies to make them - quite possibly because the majority of them have had to make them for real at some point. Not every client wants consumers to laugh or even smirk. Many want to go the route of shouting product demos with a straight face, with fanatical repetition of the unique selling proposition. Ad agencies sell themselves on previous work, so it's easy to see a client making the leap from saying "Give me a Nike" to saying, "Give me an OxiClean spoof with a Billy Mays-type character."

Naresh Ramchandani, an advertising executive who gives a lot of thought to how messages are created and conveyed, suggests that a majority of ads fall into one of 27 types he's identified, including the classic before and after, the idiom made visual, and the unexpected celebrity endorsement. Though he doesn't mention it anywhere I can find, I'm sure the cheesy spoof makes his list, too.

Consumers these days may have the knowledge to see when an ad is a spoof of another and even be able to recall the product name and the plot of the ad that's being spoofed. But they'll recognize an ad even more when it is genuinely the result of new thinking - one that the likes of Ramchandani will fail to classify. As he explained in an Op-Ed recently, "Don't forget that every consumer is a semiotic genius," and went on to say that if a brand finds a new way to communicate, then the consumer will associate newness with that brand. If the communication has been seen before, then the consumer will also think they've seen the product before.

Spoof ads can be funny, but they're the lazy way out. Instead of telling the consumer what is unique about the brand, they ask the consumer to figure out what they're seeing, realize it's not real, think of another brand (who appeared in the spoof's original), then remember what this current ad is actually for. Why make them work that hard?

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