Call of the Weird

Posted May 6th, 2012 at 6:53 pm (UTC-4)

Thoughts On The Strange World Of Online Ads

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

I’ll admit it. As an organization, we here at VOA can be a rather starchy bunch. Which is usually fitting, given the very serious issues we cover on a daily basis. Still, in general there’s not a lot of laughs to be had on our site.

And that includes this blog. Over the last few weeks we’ve contemplated the hazards of a cashless society, considered the possibility of a cyber-war with Iran and fretted over how much of our lives the Internet is stealing. Whether it’s a crackdown on free speech on the web in Vietnam or a continuing erosion of online privacy, our coverage has tended to see the Internet in serious, if even threatening, terms.

But the web is at least as much about humor, or just plain strangeness, as it is ponderous issues. With few exceptions, it’s a near certainty that any random “cute zoo animal” video or juvenile humor site has more traffic and Facebook “likes” than the most serious of stories from the most august of news organizations.

At times it seems that the Internet was built with funny and weird in mind. Odd and humorous go over well in small doses, which the web readily provides, and they want to be shared with friends, which is what social networks do best.

Correction: Brett Erlich, mid-snark

People hunt the net for this kind of stuff, for that next weird thing poised to go viral. Those that do it well can become something like kingmakers. Take Ray William Johnson for example. A one-time history major and future lawyer at Columbia University, Johnson began recording short videos, offering amusing (at times) commentary on other short videos – the odder the better.

But what started as a knock-off has grown into “Equals Three,” one of the most popular channels on YouTube, generating over 2 billion views. When Johnson (and his staff of writers) mentions a new video these days, its view numbers skyrocket.

All this came to mind while watching Erlich’s’ most recent video, where he spotlights an odd online ad hawking a rather dyspeptic-looking product, the “Crown Crust Pizza.” Less a pizza and more a garbage plate, the CCP is essentially 12 mini cheeseburgers encircling dough with cheese, meat, tomato and “special sauce,” whatever that may be.

But as unlikely as the product – which is under test in several Middle Eastern markets – may sound, the commercial itself is just strange. “May I have the cheeseburger?” asks one young patron, eliciting snorts of laughter from his fellow patrons. That’s immediately followed by what looks like a 14th-Century royal footman bringing in the CCP through blasts of regal trumpets.

For this viewer, it’s not a very effective way to sell food. But this ad has received millions of views online, and led this writer down a rabbit hole of weird online ads, some for food, some for politicians, and some that still have me scratching my head.

For example, the Burger King corporation recently released an online advertisement for…well, we still aren’t sure:

So, OK. Huh?! doesn’t even begin to describe this ad. The unicorn, the dachshunds, the dancers in tutus on the counter? Is this what makes mouths hunger for flame-broiled beef in Russia? We think this is something that would have left even the late director Ken Russell confused.

Speaking of confusing, there were a series of online ads released in 2008 by the campaign of presidential aspirant Sen. Mike Gravel. A former U.S. senator from the state of Alaska, Gravel waged a long-shot campaign against the likes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama the only way he could: through eye-catching, if incomprehensible online campaign ads.

Take, for instance, and ad simply titled “Rock.”

Now just in case you thought you made a mistake, the ad is literally just Mike Gravel silently staring at the viewer for over a minute, uncomfortably close to the camera. Then, without a word, he turns, picks up a rock, tosses it into the nearby water, and walks away. Andy Warhol couldn’t have done any better. But in spite of, or perhaps because of, the weird factor, the ad received millions of views and boosted contributions to Gravel’s campaign.

In fact, some online marketers increasingly believe that if you want to catch eyes on the Internet, you need to give people a jolt of something: humor, shock, or as above, oddness. But there are still limits, as Carly Fiorina learned in 2010.

A republican Senate hopeful from the state of California, Fiorina was locked in a tough primary battle with opponent Tom Campbell. Fiorina’s campaign turned to veteran ad-man Fred Davis, who for pennies put together an ad that’s infamously known as “Demon Sheep.” Take a look:

At 3:22 in length, it’s sort of the “Gone With The Wind” of campaign ads. Except that is isn’t very good. In fact, the red-eyed demon sheep, which is obviously just an actor wearing a bad sheep costume on all fours, was so strangely over the top that it became the subject of great mockery, and contributed to Fiorina’s ultimate loss to incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer. Going viral, it turns out, is not always a good thing.

But fast food and politicians by no means have a corner on creepy online. Recently, in a larger story about the erosion of privacy on the web, we spotlighted an online ad featuring Bill Oberst, Jr.; a talented actor who has grown rich by playing creeps. Viral marketing director Jason Zada wanted to create something that would raise awareness about the sometimes hidden ways Facebook uses personal information, so he fashioned a customizable ad featuring a sweaty, disturbed Oberst obsessing over your very own personal Facebook page:

Everything about this online campaign is designed to make people feel queasy, which Zada says was exactly his intention. Yet somehow it was, for a moment, the most popular thing online. (For his part, actor Oberst says he was genuinely pleased by how “icky” the ad made people feel, and for some strange reason, his on-the-edge portrayal of a stalker won millions of “likes” on Facebook. Go figure.)

There are countless more examples; our most recent find is the “dating site murderer” meme, which takes a threatening looking picture and scenario and turns it on its head, with arguably questionable humor. But however you look at it, marketing executives are clearly getting paid lots of money to craft Internet ad campaigns that touch not on the serious, but on the weird, funny, or just plain creepy.

12 responses to “Call of the Weird”

  1. Thank you for this, Doug. The internet does indeed lend itself to the creepy and the cringe-inducing. I’m not complaining as an actor, but as a human I wonder if all that emphasis on shock and discomfort is good for us. I think there’s something inherently disturbing and false about the internet as a primary form of human communication. It has made shallow liars out of us all. So I didn’t feel so bad about being the face of the fear we should be feeling (but don’t) every time we surrender a little more of ourselves to the technology.

    • Doug Bernard says:

      Mr. Oberst; thanks so much for the thoughtful words. I’m often in an odd place, being something of a skeptic about the promises about how the Internet can transform our cultures. It’s clearly transformative, but not always in the ways we would hope. I just hope we continue to assert control over it, rather than the other way around. Thanks again, and btw, huge fan here. –db

  2. Brett Erlich says:

    Thats not Ray William Johnson in your pictures. That’s me, Brett Erlich. I’m funnier.

  3. Kyle N says:

    Google “Viral Video Film School”

    Trust me, he’s funnier.

    Also… You acknowledge you Attached Brett’s face to someone else’s name and you don’t fix it?

  4. Alex Laz says:

    Hey…that is BRET ERLICH!!

    That dude is HIGH-LARIOUS! LOL

  5. Blake Maynard says:

    That’s Brett Erlich! He goes hard in the paint, whilst Gay Vilhelm Poundson is lame.

  6. Thunder Cat says:

    And I believe he is mid-snarf, a tasty creature; so plump and delicious. Snarf, snarf.

  7. @Doug Bernard – Wow I was surprised and really gratified that you replied to my comment and said you were a fan. I think what I do is is so little value, while I am a fan of sharp writing about ideas. I grew up with my head always in a book, so writers are my heroes. You made my day – thanks! Bill

  8. Lee Findley says:

    Brett Erlich is so much funnier than Ray Willie! He also knows to dial down his delivery to a bit less than manic pseudo-euphoria. Hummingbirds find Mr Johnson’s presentations “too nervous”.

  9. Shaun Apple says:

    As a Social Media Expert who specializes in Internet advertising I find this a very detailed and intriguing look into the state of online ads from the past few years. Good read.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What’s Digital Frontiers?

What’s Digital Frontiers?

The Internet, mobile phones, tablet computers and other digital devices are transforming our lives in fundamental and often unpredictable ways. “Digital Frontiers” investigates how real world concepts like privacy, identity, security and freedom are evolving in the virtual world.

Find us on twitter


May 2012
« Apr   Jun »