Whimsy Is Serious Business: Tips for Effective Absurdist Marketing
Here’s a joke: what do Dracula, an obnoxious camel, a frustrated caveman, and a talking gecko have to do with car insurance?
Don’t get the joke? That’s cool; my sense of humor is weird. And so is Geico’s marketing strategy. They’re pioneers of what I call absurdist marketing — a strategy that completely separates what a company’s product has to offer from the message they send their potential consumers. Instead, they focus primarily on stunning their audience to sell their product.
Absurdist marketing isn’t really about what your company can offer your audience; it’s about how long your name stays in their mind afterwards.
I love absurdist marketing like I love Beyoncé (which is a lot), but it’s a risky strategy to incorporate into a marketing plan. You need to have some gumption to subvert content marketing norms and blaze off on your own path.
So what’s a good absurdist marketing strategy look like?
Absurdist Marketing: How It Works
If you’ve watched TV at any point in the last ten years, you’re familiar with Geico. They’re the insurance company well-known for their talking gecko advertisements. And their “so easy a caveman could do it” advertisements. And their “talking pig” advertisements. And their “happier than…” advertisements. (In my opinion, though, nothing tops the talking camel commercial they released this winter.)
Not sure if you noticed, but none of these narrators and storylines have anything to do with car insurance. So why use them in their advertising?
For Geico, a successful marketing strategy is one that focuses strongly on market saturation. Their product, car insurance, is a universal need. When everyone knows they need (or already have) the product you offer, you don’t have to work so hard to sell them on its merits. Instead, you need to focus on making sure everyone knows your name.
In Geico’s case, absurdist marketing is effective because their product thrives on brand recognition. Sure, you could do research on which car insurance companies offer the best rates, but isn’t it’s easier to let the memorable ones pop into your head and go from there?
Old Spice has also found success in this strategy. The buying cycle for body wash may differ greatly from that of insurance (less apathy or “grandfathering,” and a significantly shorter time period between purchases), but in a heavily saturated market, they, too, understand the power of using silly surprise and delight to create a memorable impression. Enter The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.
Since then, Old Spice has released a number of funny commercials, like this weird one about sentient hair pieces. And a weird one about boys who will clearly develop Oedipal complexes. And a weird one about an angry bodybuilder shouting about…shaving, I guess?
Employing absurdist marketing requires a willingness to allow quirky, unexpected creative to take center stage. Scary, right? After all, long-held marketing wisdom dictates that a strong strategy focuses on the customer’s purchasing power, and a strategy that doesn’t mention your product’s merits or benefits doesn’t make sense in that context.
So, when should you go absurdist? And when should you stick with the straight and narrow of traditional content marketing?
Whimsy Is Serious Business
The goal of content marketing is to tell the story of who you are, what you have to offer, and why your audience should care about it. Narrative, voice, and tone all work to communicate your unique selling proposition. It’s all about gaining credibility and authority.
Absurdity, on the other hand, creates outrageous juxtapositions that cast new light on something common or unsexy —such as insurance or body wash. The goal is to get as many people talking as possible. In this way, it’s far less targeted — and far less quantifiably and reliably effective — than content marketing.
But as arbitrary as absurdist marketing may seem to customers, behind the curtain it’s pretty complex. It requires tapping into different demographics, cultures, philosophies, and humorous quirks, and dissecting that information to get to the core of what drives people to engage with something. Then, marketers must work to create new and unexpected ways of flipping how people engage with and think about those things.
All that said, you’re better off going with your gut.
You can’t always be certain your strategy will work, but you can control the quality and quantity of the content you create — and how fast you publish it. Overanalyzing and testing only overcomplicates things. People are hungry for fun, new ways to look at life. Get your ideas out, and then adjust performance based on your real-time results.
Remember: content is king, but you’re the king of your content.
Tips for effective absurdist marketing:
- Your idea has to apply to a product or service that people already want.
- It requires serious client buy-in. Regardless of how high-concept your idea is, you must be able to give a simple explanation of what it is and how it will work.
- It has to come from an authentic place. If something feels like it’s disingenuous or trying too hard, it will seem more cheesy than artful.
- Absurdity is, by nature, unpredictable. Don’t overthink it. Just be sure you’re ready for anything when you deploy or publish. Have a loose response strategy in place that allows you to adjust your efforts as people react.
- It’s not mainstream. Not everyone will “get it.” But it will certainly get them talking.