Can a campaign be TOO clever?

25 min. read

In this episode of the Heartbeat Podcast, Conor sits with Andrew, Roland, and Caleb to get to the heart of one major question:

How clever is too clever when it comes to campaign ad copy?

We run through some of the most memorable taglines or headlines we’ve seen in the wild (especially on billboards and social media ads) and get into whether this kind of cutesy, pun-filled approach is an asset or a detriment to the overall impact of the ad.

This is a conversation about the impact of creativity, strategy–and, critically, the context around which an ad is presented. There’s a unique challenge to making a clever tagline work, and placement is crucial.

But are bravery and creativity like that really rewarded in the industry?

Listen and let us know what you think… and feel free to pass along yoru favorite great (or horrible) taglines from the wild.

Transcript below:

Conor Snell: Hey everyone, you’re listening to the Heartbeat Podcast with Digital Impulse. I’m here with the guys, this is Conor Snell, we’ll go around the horn.

Roland Davin: Hey, Roland Davin.

Andrew Kolidas: Andrew Kolidas.

Caleb Parker: I’m Caleb Parker.

CS: And today we’re talking about something that we think about a lot: other advertising that we see out in the wild.

Just kind of like our reactions to, you know, a tagline or a headline on a billboard or social ad that’s sometimes maybe like two clever by half? Or just makes you think for a while. And is that an asset or a detriment to the ad?

Caleb, this was your idea. I just wanted to toss it over to you for your thinking.

CP: Yeah, this is something I’ve kind of done unconsciously for a while.

I think since I’ve started working in this capacity is when you, say, spend all day writing ads and you go outside and you see an ad you automatically think about like, “who wrote this? What were the goals? Was it outsourced to an agency? Was this somebody in-house?”

And there’s just no way to really turn off that part of your brain when you leave the office and you just see a billboard with a tagline that you’re like, oh man, that needs a second pair of eyes on it.

Or you see one you’re like, “wow, I’m genuinely jealous of whoever thought of that.”

So it’s, you know, I don’t always write them down, but I do sometimes make a note of ones I see that I really like and then when I do see one that is particularly bad, especially if it’s just plastered all over town, you can’t stop seeing it. It really does kind of stick in my craw.

CS: Yeah, totally. There was one example you had shared with us for a golf club manufacturer that was, you know, “clubs for those who want to play less golf more often.”

Which, I think is a very clever tagline. Definitely makes you think about it longer than you might just seeing an ad, which I think could be a benefit to that ad itself, just kind of generating conversation.

I don’t know, What do you guys think, Roland and Andrew? Like about an ad that’s so clever, it kind of gives you pause.

AK: Yeah, I think it depends on the overall strategy. You know, was a company trying to accomplish with their advertising?

Is it that they’re trying to increase their brand recognition? Are they trying to actually, you know, generate revenue?

So I think ads are best for their part of an overall strategy. So if it is something to like that is a little bit more unique or a little bit more hit or miss, I think if companies really working on, you know, getting market share and getting their name out there, that could be a very effective strategy.

If you’re looking for potentially, you know, revenue to start coming in directly from it, sometimes you need a different approach.

RD: Yeah, I think I’m totally agree with all of that.

For me, I think when you’re going into this space of creating a new ad, sometimes you’ve got these top down goals. And then someone comes in with something sort of out of left field, everyone goes, “oh, no, that’s, that’s right.”

So I will say that, and I think there are times where, you know, you have to know what your goals are. Sometimes the creative process brings you to something totally different.

And for the example of that golf ad, that might not have been what they started off with. And they might have ended up going in totally different direction because that was the best creative and they thought that that worked.

Which I always think is fun, you know, that when you end up with something a little different than what the folks asked for.

CS: Yeah, we got through this all the time. I feel like with client pitches it’s like, you want to build a strategy that makes a lot of sense, but you also want to wow a client and users like audiences with a clever, you know, idea tagline.

Sometimes it’s easy to make that, you know, a great line, be like the leading piece of a campaign. And then the strategy follows from that, which isn’t always bad.

But I feel like it’s easy to get lost in like, well, we have this great line. How do we use it? How do we deploy it? And that’s, I think something we always have to juggle with.

AK: Yeah, I think it’s about the creative executions too and what the point of each execution is, like a billboard for instance, you’re trying to get somebody’s attention. Like people are driving, they’re not going to take out their phone while they’re driving and like take some sort of action.

But if it’s something like a landing page, I think you could still bring in that bigger creative idea into it, but it has to get a little bit more tactical with features and benefits because they’re at a different point in the funnel.

So I think the best ideas can cascade through the top awareness and go all the way down to conversion.

RD: Totally, totally agree.

CP: Yeah, there’s another one I saw. That’s running right now over town. That’s where I, we’ll just say it’s for a medical center in Boston.

AK: We’re not naming names, so that’s fine.

CP: It is kind of a branding… it seems like it’s about kind of a public image branding campaign where they’re saying that they’re rewriting healthcare and all of the ads will say, “Docters who don’t listen” and then the “don’t” will be crossed out.

So doctors who listen and that’s sort of like the whole thing. A bunch of sentences like that and it’s the ideas rewriting healthcare, but you can tell that the campaign started with, “We want it to be rewriting healthcare.” What’s a bunch of examples of this? Because none of the particular ads in my opinion are that good.

The big idea is great, but like doctors who don’t, like do doctors not listen, like is that something people have problem with? And also it’s crossing something out, rewriting it.

AK: Yeah.

CS: Yes.

AK: Like editing, right?

CP: Yeah. So when I see something like that, I’m like, “Oh, this was like someone who was told this is the idea we need 25 headlines.”

And instead of one particular headline, say like the golf club, the unnamed golf club one, that one was particularly good and then they probably broke it out from there whereas this was more like top down, big idea and then the little ideas are sort of so-so.

CS: Yeah. I think to your point, Roland, like there is a value to coming up with a great line, a great one-liner and being like, this has to be the foundation of it.

RD: Yeah.

CS: Like working like that. Yeah, it’s just like a time and place kind of thing.

AK: Yeah. One ad that sticks out to me as far as, you know, totally wacky old spice, like some of the commercials that they did.

You know, I grew up, my dad used Old Spice, so he’d have the bottle on his bureau and he would put an exorbitant amount of old spice on his face.

RD: Is that even where it goes?

AK: For any occasion. No, it was he was the… it was as aftershave. He would splash it on. He would splash on a lot. When I say a lot, it’s a bigger quantity than you could possibly imagine. Yeah, it’s a little like moisturizer.

So I grew up, that’s like the old man cologne. That’s the old man stuff that you put on your face. The bottle looked old school. It was on my dad’s bureau. I’m like, that’s not for me.

So when you think about it in the future, now this commercial comes out where things are exploding. It’s more like a Tim & Eric style with like quick cuts and like ridiculous stuff is happening that makes no sense.

I don’t even remember what the tagline is, but I just remember watching it and being like, “Oh wow, that’s so different.” And now they pivoted to younger people so their brand doesn’t die.

So I thought that was really interesting, and pivoted it from like my dad’s cologne to something that the younger generation, it’s deodorant at the end of the day. It’s like, it’s gonna make you smell better than the other deodorant. I mean, they’ve kind of maxed out the silly stuff.

RD: Yeah, the ceiling’s not so high

AK: Yeah, exactly.

CS: I feel like Old Spice was a real pioneer of “what the f***” ads, it was really popular. I think the pinnacle for me was, do you guys remember the Mountain Dew Super Bowl “Puppy Monkey Baby” ad?

Just horrible CGI, and it was just saying, “Puppy monkey baby, puppy monkey baby.” And then Mountain Dew in the end. It was like, “This has nothing to do with the product.”

CP: This is just a stick in people’s head.

CS: Totally, yeah.

RD: I think, I mean, the Super Bowl ad in some ways is this, you know, I think you talk about that a lot, right?

There’s so many people who are willing to take those bigger risks on those awareness plays, and I think that sometimes it’s funny, you know, I’m gonna talk about the sort of the opposite side of this real quick. There are a lot of ads that you see the creative come across, and you have to give the feedback of, “Woof, this is gonna get lost.”

AK: Yeah.

RD: This is, it is a busy digital space. But on a billboard? You might drive by a lot of billboards.

And I remember seeing this billboard that once it was an attorney laying down on a bed of Rose Petals, and it said, “I would slip and fall for you.” And it was around Valentine’s Day. And I still remember that!

CP: I think that guy is all over town too.

RD: Yeah, he does a lot of advertising.

CS: Like that guy puts his face on a Red Sox player and he’s like “The best closer.”

CP: An astonishing, like, miscellany of that dude everywhere.

RD: Yeah, yeah. And I think my point is I think understanding the context where your ad is gonna be seen is so important.

“Hey, this is gonna be shown at the Super Bowl.”

You can use with a totally different mentality than you would with a billboard, which is gotta be so different than it is with, you know, a programmatic display ad.

Yeah, just the context is so important and I think people sometimes think, “Oh, I just wrote this ad and I’m seeing it, you know, alone in a square reviewing it on a deck.” And it’s like, that’s not the context. You need to be aware of what this all looks like to you.

AK: Yeah, it’s interesting with the Super Bowl too. The equivalent is, like, some expensive block in New York City where somebody has their flagship store that’s probably hemorrhaging money.

RD: Yeah.

AK: Because everybody has to bring out their best creative. And they’re also competing against the other ads. It’s such a unique ecosystem.

CS: Yeah, totally. Especially when you’re a company that is at full saturation and you’re not really trying to get people to take immediate actions with an ad. You just want brain space, you know what I mean?

So billboard or like a Super Bowl ad is really just about like, “Can I make this person think about my brand for five seconds today?” That will have been successful.

I think to your point, Roland, there’s like a, there’s a context of an ad of like, I see a billboard with a really clever headline that’s really good by itself. It makes me think about this thing.

But I’ve seen that same execution where it’s a billboard with a great line from a company, but there’s like seven of them in a row right on the same road. Yeah, it’s like, I think context and frequency are like really important when you’re thinking about creative lines and executions.

RD: I think that one of the things that is so easy to lose and I think is important now is, you know, sometimes I think…

There’s this ad, and it’s more like a PR piece: the founder of Method Soap was interviewed, like ten years ago (I still remember this so clearly) and it basically says, “Oh yeah, you know, we ran this ad where you put a daisy into Method Surface Cleaner and the purpose was like, you could grow a flower in our cleaner. It’s so clean. You do that in a lot of the cleaners under your sink, everything dies.Like they’re just murder machines.”

And he said, “So, so we ran this, we were, we were, we were excited about this, this ad campaign in Clorox sued us for using the daisy and we just couldn’t believe it.” Like, the audacity, right? These folks coming in and saying, “You can’t use a daisy in your ad.”

And I remember in that moment, you know, I was, whatever, in my early 20s and I was like, “Wow, screw Clorox, man! That’s awesome.”

AK: I think the best billboard I’ve ever seen, I was in Sarasota driving around with my whole family and like, not much to do there (I won’t bag on Sarasota right now. So I don’t get a hate mail.)

But there’s just this attorney, this personal injury attorney, all over town with his face. You guys can Google this. The billboard just says, “Who dat? Jodat.” Jodat, again and again, it’s just “Who Dat, Jodat.”

CP: You still remember that?

AK; That’s the entire ad. I even talked about my kids sometimes.

CP: We’re like, see? It worked.

AK: I was randomly saying, “Hey kids, who Dat?” And they go, “Jodat.” …and I’m still talking about it right now, while broadcasting this!

And you see his face, I recommend everybody to search for “Who Dat, Jodat.” It’s everywhere.

RD: I thought the guy’s name was going to be “Joe” and it was like, “Who dat is something going to be them saints?” type thing. But no! The person’s name is J-O-D-A-T. Who that, who that, Joe Dat?

CP: Is this a lot of his name, “Dat?”

RD: No, it’s Jodat! It can be like, “Richard Jodat” or something like that.

AK; So, anyway, I’m going to throw that. There’s also a new one, my house on the Pike, it’s just a personal injury lawyer. Again.

They come up with… they’re on the cutting edge of marketing.

CS: They really are.

AK: They’re, they’re willing to do absolutely anything, even fake an injury, but they’re fine. But this guy, what I loved about it, he somehow got the number. I believe it was just 617 -777-7777.

So, so I’m like, you know what? Like, if I need a personal injury, I just have to do a more normal number.

CP: Just a mash a number.

AK: Yeah, just keep hitting 7 and your area code a couple of times. So I was very impressed by how he acquired that.

CP: I’d say one exception to that rule is when I was in college, I was interning at a personal injury firm and I was, I think I was an English major and they’re advertising, like, pissed me off so much because all of their business cards said, “Tell them, ‘you mean business.’”

So I’m like, you’re telling them they mean business? Tell them you mean business! That was like, “guys, this is a grammar nightmare.”

AK: It’s just business. Injuries, not required.

CP: Tell them you mean business.

CS: I feel like personal injury lawyers is such a particular kind of ad that meshes with this concept of like creative advertising, because like… We’ve worked with similar kinds of businesses where the goal of the ad or the campaign was not a click or a website, it was like “add us to your phone book on your phone.”


I mean, I think there’s like opportunity, especially in the wild, like a physical ad to get someone to do something outside of the digital, like, clicks and stuff that just a creative line might be way more effective at like just capturing attention, getting you to do something out, totally out of the order, like pull your phone out and add a number to your phonebook.

How can you do that on social? There’s no like easy link to that.

CP: Their commitment to advertising is so sincere that my desk at that job was in a fake courtroom that was just for commercials. They would tell clients that use it to practice, like, but not like they just shot commercials in there. I was sitting at like, what on those little like bailiff areas, just like on a laptop in this fake courtroom.

CS: That’s incredible.

AK: So I think we’ve determined that personal injury is the top of the food chain when it comes to advertisement. They’re on the cutting edge.

RD: Clearly.

CS: Maybe you want to look to like a single really clever or maybe not so clever, but attention grabbing line, they are like a market to look to. Because they’re certainly not afraid to go down some very weird roads just to get attention.

RD: Yeah. I think that one thing that’s really funny about this too is if you think about personal injury, a lot of the exciting personal injury lawyers are local. It’s not the national folks who are doing the dangerous stuff. And I think there is something to be said in general about local ads being the most fun because they have the fewest rounds of revision and they’re a few revision.

AK: Rounds of revision? What’s that?

RD: And there are fewer people to say that “this is a bad idea. We shouldn’t do this.” And that like, you know, that sometimes means you do something really fun and new. You know, I think a lot of corporate gigs they’re like “we’re going to take something fun and we’re going to crush it.”

AK: You get to make a persona, you’re not making a gecko for Geico. But you’re making some like total tool into some sort of superhero.

CP; Yeah, I think the flip side of that is one of big brand tries to go too local? Like I was on the T and I saw an ad for company that makes scrubs. Huge like national if not global company.

And it was you can tell is a very like specifically targeted Boston ad because it said like, “Wcked

smaht scrubs.” And I was like… it just made me like made my skin itch. Like do they think we’re going to see I’d be like, “Oh my god. Like from Goodwill Hunting! Take all of my money!”

CS: I’m so glad you brought that up. I just saw on I-95 a beer company billboard for a major national brand and they clearly had their like “New England” local version of the ad. And you see that all the time of like “For the best __Patriots__ fans in the country!”

But this was like for… it was for beer, for like Red Sox-oriented beer ad said, “For the wickedest fans in baseball!”

AK: Oh no.

CS: I was like, “that’s not how we use wicked!” But that makes me… that stands out to me, when it’s a little bit wrong, so much harder.

RD: Yeah, it’s the uncanny valley of copyright!

CS: Totally! I think if you’re going to have a local campaign you got to really have like a like a native speaker.

CP: Yeah, like consult somebody.

AK: It’s not too hard, just grab anybody off the street. “Yeah, dude, is this sound alright?” Go to Dorchester somewhere and just walk into a Dunkin’ and be like, “I got some lines to run by you for 20 bucks here.”

RD: Yeah, it’s the Chevy Nova, right? Like they tried to send the Chevy Nova in Mexico. You guys know the story?

CP: No

RD: This is a great one, I love this one. Chevy Nova sales plummet in Mexico and Chevy’s like, “what’s the problem?”

And Nova is “no va,” it means “it doesn’t go” in Spanish.

The Chevy Nova did not sell well. So just do a little bit of extra research if you’re trying to sell something.

CS: So I think the biggest takeaway is like, we are all for my really clever line, a really great one-off creative idea being kind of the leading piece of a great ad campaign.

But there’s parts of it you can’t ignore, right? You got to think about the strategy, what you’re trying to give people to do, how it fits into the broader perspective.

So when you guys go into a creative or a pitch or something and you have a great line, how do you think about that?

CP: Well, we’ve had this before where you have just one nugget… and it doesn’t really necessarily translate to a huge campaign, but trying to make it into a bigger campaign is… that’s like the whole job.

You’re trying to, especially with content creative, it’s like, all I have is this one thing. But I have to then make a whole deck out of it or I have to convince them that it’s a whole slew of ads.

AK: I think that’s where spec work comes in, and I think that’s a polarizing topic amongst agencies. Like when do you do spec work and when you not?

I think with the right opportunity, if you have more of a grandiose idea, you have to be prepared to spend some resources and money to be able to really bring the idea to life in a way that not only shows the client what the idea actually is and how it makes them feel, but how it fits into different executions across the entire marketing funnel.

If you really want to push a big idea like that, you have to really go for it and shoot the moon.

CS: Totally.

RD: Yeah, you got to be… I mean, I think it’s funny, I was just thinking about this yesterday. It’s a funny thing in business: we don’t, I think business culture, there’s like a lot of weird like macho bullshit that happens in American business culture. But there is very little reward for like bravery.

Actually like having guts frequently is not well rewarded and I think that like what you’re saying people need to do requires guts. It requires them to stand up and say, “no, no, I think I know this is a little bit weird, or I know this is a little different,” but you know, go back to legal or go to the executives and say, “we really want this.”

But do people really want to put their name on the line for a campaign? I think that a lot of the time it’s a problem and incentives actually, I think within the industry that people aren’t willing, you can get fired for a bad campaign like Bud Light, heads rolled, right?

CP: But the Bud Knight’s coming for you.

RD: But then think about how many great Budweiser campaigns have gone out there. Andrew and I still say “Wassup!” to each other from time to time!

AK: Yes, yes I do.

RD: Twenty years ago! But you know, all I’m saying is people get fired for missing. I don’t know how many people really get that huge promotion because they crushed one ad.

And I’m just saying like, I don’t know the cost benefit sometimes of taking big risks and being brave pays off. I think that’s why you see some really lackluster creative out of corporate America.

AK: Yeah, I think it also depends on what’s the ethos of your agency. If you’re a hundred percent creative shop, I think you have creatives that really, usually, want to push the envelope. It’s usually executives that are maybe watering down the idea to get it approved by the client or saying, “oh, that’s too much.” I think, you know, that’s definitely part of it.

So the risk is more for, I think, the business—then the creatives will be like, “let’s take this as far as we can” in a lot of cases because…

CS: Even more incentive to do that if they’re going to water it down! If you know it’s going to be walked back, yeah, even more of “shoot for the moon.”

And I will say as a creative person, like, there’s no better feeling than coming up with a line and having it succeed, like having a good campaign built on a line. It’s like, I want that right in my veins every single day, it feels awesome.

CP: Or going into a pitch—it feels like going to class when you actually did your homework. Like when you go into a pitch, you know, you’re like, I actually believe this is good.

AK: Caleb always does his homework.

RD: He does.

CP: Ehh! But like, whenever we… we’re not strictly an ad agency, but whenever we’ve had to pitch an idea that sort of requires a little creative juice, and like, when you have something that you’re like, “this is half big, but I did it, whatever, we’ll see how it goes” versus when you go in thinking like, “I love this idea that I thought of, like, in the shower or on a walk and I can’t wait to share it with them.”

CS: Yeah.

CP: And then they actually respond well to it versus like…

RD: It’s a great feeling.

CS: Even if they say like, “we can’t use this, but we love the thinking.” That’s a great feeling.

CP: “Love the energy.”

CS: Yeah, totally.

RD: You know, like my fears and concerns about people shutting down ideas, I’m not going to say it’s exclusively an in-house problem, but it is a big reason why bringing in an agency makes sense. It’s because, like, our incentives: if you were working in house right now, our incentives in an agency, they’re just different.

If you’re, if we pitch you something, you hate it, we get fired: our life goes on. You know, you can, you can blame us, right? And you don’t have to have your name on the line.

I do think that there’s a reason why having, you know, big brand ideas and these creative concepts get pitched from an outside vendor when you’re in-house makes it on a set.

CS: Totally. And there’s a value to bring someone in who’s not as entrenched in, you know, preconceived notions and thinking too.

RD: A lot of inside baseball ads out there that you read and you go, I don’t know what you’re trying to say. I’m sure someone read this, you know, 15 times, like, oh, this is really clever, but everybody who doesn’t work there doesn’t get it.

CP: I think I said he was one. It’s some like workplace management app. And I saw it, like a bunch of MBTA trains were just wrapped in it and it said, “Save one day each week.”

And I don’t know what they do. I’ll probably never know what they do. And I think it’s a perfect example of like, I think facts and figures that are kind of fleeting.

Like, if you can tell stories and symbols, I think they’re better. Like if you can show me a person achieving this result, I don’t even really need to know what you do, but that’s going to resonate more. Telling me I can save one day every week. There’s a lot, I don’t even know if that’s something I want.

And also, like, with what, on what, how?

CS: Yeah.

CP: So, just like that one line, I was like, it stuck with me, but I’m never going to bother looking this thing up because it just don’t care.

CS: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, so I think overall, don’t be afraid to shoot for the stars, but look at so lost in the sauce that nobody knows what you’re talking about. Yeah.

AK: Look at what your goal is and make sure you have a cohesive strategy around it. If it’s to get eyeballs and to get buzz going, yeah, be a little bit more outside the box. If you have a product that’s already has large market share and it’s doing well and you want to really push a new service or just make sure business is healthy, get specific about how you can help people.

You know, because you don’t have to create that buzz so you can be a little bit more tactical in the approach. You know, you see all those weird ads from like these medical conglomerates, they’re like “Making Change.” And then it all, you know, you know, you’re not going to have to say that you’re a question guy.

CS: Yeah, exactly.

CP: Let’s make a drinking game,I saw ‘revolutionized’ again!”

AK: “Powering tomorrow.”

RD: Yeah, everybody’s “empowered.” If everyone was half as empowered as all these ads say, the world would be perfect.

CS: Yeah. Yeah. All right, I think that’s a good place to leave it!

RD: I love it.

CS: Thanks for listening to the Heartbeat Podcast.

AK And everybody look up “Who Dat? Jodat.” It’ll be worth it.

CS: Yes, if there’s one takeaway, it’s that.

Awesome. Thanks for listening to the Digital Impulse Heartbeat Podcast. Feel free to subscribe and follow us on social for more. Later, guys.

AK: Thanks, everyone.

RD: Thank you.

CP: Bye-bye.

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