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How Newcastle calls ‘bollocks’ on the advertising industry

More than two decades ago, when the Energizer Bunny first drummed its way onto TV screens, it kept going and going right into the middle of other commercials.

In order to create the image of a long-lasting battery, the brand created ads that started out looking as if they were promoting something else. They would often run after a regular Energizer ad. In the middle of commercials for fake brands such as Très Café coffee, Nasatene nasal spray, and Château Marmoset wine, the bunny would thump onto the screen, interrupting the action – the idea being that it was still going, even though its commercial had ended.

But the ads weren't just about communicating a message of extreme endurance, or mocking Duracell's ads that showed toys powered by its batteries outlasting other brands. The spots were also a shot at advertising in general. The fake ads were designed to spoof the kind of commercials people hate. Think of the contrived scene in which friends rave to each other about a product, or the pretentious tone of ads for luxury goods. The bet was that by making fun of advertising, Energizer could find a more receptive audience.

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The bunny "interrupts, disrupts, and derides the kind of advertising people would zap anyway," Dick Sitting, senior vice-president for Energizer's ad agency, Chiat/Day/Mojo, told New York magazine in 1991, explaining the commercials' popularity. "The bunny becomes the hero for shutting the ads up."

The rise of digital media means that advertisers now have the chance to reach us at every second of every day. But it is also a time when people value frankness, the kind of tone they use when talking to their friends on social media. Partly because of that, the strategy is alive and well. And it can pay off for brands that do it right.

The strategy is now helping Newcastle Brown Ale to make itself heard on a shoestring.

While the British beer is now owned by a big company, Heineken NV, it is a small brand with a small budget. About one year ago, the marketing team took stock: Its TV commercials were not making an impact. While the "No Bollocks" campaign that started three years ago received positive feedback for mocking over-the-top promises of good times, bad Photoshopping and egregious flag-waving in other advertising, they did not have the money to make a difference in TV.

So the brand moved 100 per cent of its budget into digital, where it has seen results.

Before the Super Bowl, when companies were spending roughly $4-million (U.S.) to air 30-second TV commercials, Newcastle produced a series of videos admitting it couldn't afford to join the fun. Instead, it talked about the ad it would have made – implicitly mocking the over-the-top Big Game ads that air in the U.S. – featuring "battle apes," robots and actress Anna Kendrick wearing only body paint.

It released teaser trailers, videos of real focus groups reacting to its premise and a video with a crude storyboard version of its ad, as well as videos with Ms. Kendrick and former NFLer Keyshawn Johnson complaining about Newcastle backing out for lack of funds.

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The humour boosted Newcastle to a "trending topic" on Facebook, ahead of the Super Bowl itself, for two days. The campaign earned roughly 600 instances of coverage in the media, helping to stoke views of the videos, which spiked to more than 10 million in two weeks. The company estimates that in total, its media exposure amounted to more than one billion "impressions," the number of times people would have seen the coverage.

"We felt that people were kind of tired of marketing that treated them like idiots," said Scott Bell, creative director at Newcastle's ad agency, Droga5.

The latest campaign makes fun of crowdsourcing. Miller Lite, for example, asked U.S. consumers to send in photos of their summer, and produced an ad with a selection of those images. Newcastle asked people to send in the kind of "mediocre" photos that overpopulate Facebook, and promised to retouch them poorly to insert its product into the shot.

"If you're going to be on the Internet, you have to give it what it wants. The Internet doesn't want advertising," said Quinn Kilbury, brand director for Newcastle and a former marketer at Pepsi, where he worked on big-budget Super Bowl advertising. "We're not competing with Budweiser or craft beer, we're competing with Justin Bieber and cute kittens."

For the Super Bowl campaign, half the viewers came to the video without prompting, a much higher ratio than many ads attract. (A truly "viral" brand video does not exist. Most companies have to pay for at least some of those views, by buying a spot in preroll before other videos on YouTube and elsewhere, paying companies that can help increase view counts by promoting the video across the Web, or other advertising pushing people to it.)

The brand has seen results. Among its target customers, ages 21 to 39, its trial – people surveyed who have tried the beer – has jumped from 60 per cent to 72 per cent since December. During high-profile campaigns, it sees sales rise.

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"Ads that make fun of ads acknowledge the truth that most advertising out there is awful," said Angus Tucker, partner and executive creative director at Toronto ad agency John St. "It's a very, very quick way of connecting to consumers over a shared hate. "

John St. knows that well. Since 2011, it has created an annual video mocking the advertising industry. It started with a spoof of the overwrought case studies that agencies send in to award shows boasting about their supposedly astounding, transformational work. John St. used the same tone to talk about producing a child's birthday party. This year, it mocked advertisers that use mean-spirited pranks to get their message across.

Making fun of advertising can be good for advertisers – and it's also been good for the agency. Clients come to meetings wanting to talk about the videos. Mr. Tucker once got a call from an executive at Coca-Cola asking if they could show a video at a board meeting. They have been invited to pitch for advertising work because the videos got them noticed, including outside of Canada.

"Nobody is forced to watch it any more, so you have to make something people want to watch and send to their friends," Mr. Tucker said.

Making fun of ads is a good way to do that. "People are sick to death of bad advertising."

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Campaign: "No Bollocks" (Summer 2013 version)

What they're mocking: Lies in advertising

Ads are all about making real life look better. So Newcastle did the opposite to throw other advertisers' claims into stark relief. It made fun of companies that get underpaid interns to do their photo retouching.

It promised "great times guaranteed, unless you're having a crap time, then we can't guarantee much at all."

And in response to all those overly-precious craft beers, it admitted that "handcrafting was a nightmare, so now we handcraft the same delicious beer with huge, giant machines."

Campaign: "Ad Aid"

What they're mocking: User-generated content

Brands are asking consumers to help them make their ads more than ever. Whether it's sending in photos, coming up with new chip flavours, or sharing their stories, contributions from real people are popular with advertisers. They lend brands an air of authenticity and they provide cheap content.

For example, in the U.S. this summer, Miller Lite launched a campaign asking fans to send in their photos of summer, and picked a selection out of 180,000 to use in its ad.

This month, Newcastle spoofed the trend by asking people to submit "boring," photos to make ads, "because we totally blew our marketing budget by paying celebrities to pretend to drink our beer." It promised to then (badly) Photoshop those ads to include images of their beer.

Campaign: Independence Eve "If We Won"

What they're mocking: The exploitative patriotism of Fourth of July ads

Tired of all the flag-waving in advertising every summer, Newcastle decided to create a new holiday, on July 3rd, inviting Americans to raise the British ale and "toast to the country that nearly ran yours."

The videos featured British celebrities Stephen Merchant and Elizabeth Hurley talking about how much better America would be if Britain had won the Revolutionary War; no Prohibition and better curse words are among the rationale.

Some Americans who didn't get the joke wrote angry comments to the brand expressing their displeasure.

Campaign: "If We Made It"

What they're mocking: The over-the-top concepts and obscene amounts of money spent for Super Bowl advertising

With ad time during the U.S. broadcast of the Super Bowl demanding up to $4-million, Newcastle was priced out of the game. So the company made online videos showing the "real crazy expensive," "mega huge" ad it would have made. It featured all the clichés of big game commercials, such as celebrity cameos, excessive sexuality, adorable animals, and on-screen Twitter hashtags.

The campaign even included behind-the-scenes videos featuring actress Anna Kendrick and former NFL-er Keyshawn Johnson complaining about the campaign being cancelled for lack of funds.

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