How often can you tell that your product is good? “Now better” long ago became “Now even better”, because otherwise you would suggest that it was really just meh before. Describing flavors is a bit like smelling colors. So, as early as the 1970s, brands were turning to branding and lifestyle videos: the first was pretty much Coca-Cola’s 1971 “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing“. But singing cheerfully and showing lifestyles for a few decades gets old too, because at a certain point you no longer stand out. In order to achieve that, some providers have resorted to the Realm of Bizarre. Here’s my top 5 of, shall we say, “Memorable Videos” in that area.
- Christmas According to Robert Dyas: “We’re Robert Dyas and we’re gay. And straight. And bi.” (2015)
In 2015, British DIY retailer Robert Dyas released a memorable Christmas commercial. It was so astonishingly clumsy that it became a classic. In 2019, PinkNews reported: “That bizarre gay ad is back and we can officially confirm that the Christmas season has begun. Four years ago, the way the world celebrated Christmas changed on a fateful day when Robert Dyas presented their December ad to the British public.”
The hardware salesman had an idea. A groundbreaking concept, a fresh take on advertising that even Don Draper hadn’t thought of; one that would resonate with viewers for years to come. In the tinsel-decorated shop, staff and customers share their hobbies, their sexuality and how they love nothing more than to shop and work in the store.
Mariah Carey may be the Queen of Christmas in the US, but for those on this side of the pond, it won’t be Christmas until Robert Dyas reappears on Twitter timelines.
See for yourself.
- National Organization for Marriage – Gathering Storm (US, 2009)
In 2009, the National Organization for Marriage (US) launched a $1.5 million ad campaign targeting five states where “gay marriage” was being debated using the video titled “Gathering Storm.” NOM removed the video from all their platforms a long time ago—probably ashamed and at least because it didn’t have the desired effect—but I’ve been able to find it somewhere.
In the ad, against a backdrop of clouds and lightning, a series of actors speak about the ways in which “gay marriage” activism has affected religious freedom and parental rights. The actors in the ad (many were Mormon activists) cite the following poignant cases:
- A California doctor forced to choose between her faith and her job;
- A member of a New Jersey church who is punished by the state for opposing same-sex marriage;
- A Massachusetts parent who can’t stop the state from teaching her kids that same-sex marriage should be allowed.
The video was so overly ridiculous and out of date (even at that time) that parodies wrote themselves. There were dozens of them: the funniest is perhaps “A Gaythering Storm” by the Funny or Die team, which features some famous actors such as Alicia Silverstone, Lance Bass, George Takei and Jane Lynch.
- Humanic – Sperm Bank (Austria, 2004)
AfterEllen: “If this commercial reflects reality, sperm banks in Austria are much more interesting than in the US.” The video resembles the foreplay to a porn movie.
The lesbians in this commercial look like they stopped on the way home from a nightclub to make impulse purchases late at night for semen instead of ice cream. Scarcely dressed and caressing each other non-stop, the two women scroll through the computer profiles of the sperm donors from which they can choose. They find any candidate unsuitable, despite their achievements and wealth.
What exactly are these women looking for? Apparently, a man who can hook them up with a pair of designer heels: they choose the profile of a dopey Humanic salesman and celebrate their choice by kissing, laughing and showing off their shoes – from Humanic, of course. The whole thing looks more like a lost Sex & the City episode than building a lesbian family (you know, the one where Carrie and Samantha pretend to be a couple so they can get a discount on shoes).
It’s silly and superficial, but it does show a lesbian couple who are affectionate and fashionable rather than stereotypical and “masculine”, so bonus points for Humanic.
- Twix – Bite Size Halloween: The New Nanny (Mars, 2021)
This video is not quite a commercial but is part of Hulu’s Bite Size Halloween collection of short films. This collection was created by 18 young queer filmmakers from different backgrounds, produced by 20th Digital Studio. Twix, Skittles and Snickers sponsored some ads, which aired in October on the Freeform, FX and FXX channels.
“Something ominous is headed this way. A magical friend arrives at The New Nanny.”
The video featuring a boy in a dress set social media on fire. For some reason, most commentators were talking about a “transgender” child, showing that things can be confusing. Maybe he just likes a princess dress, just like the guy in the Zeeman commercial a few years ago.
“These people are ruining everything,” conservative author and Senate candidate JD Vance tweeted in response to the video. “‘Crossdressing, Satanism, Twix!’ is a great marketing talk,” added journalist Kyle Hooten. Others pointed to the confusing context surrounding the inclusive message, such as the fact that the child is being looked after by an unannounced witch.
All meant to be funny, although the witch makes a bully disappear in a way that makes you wonder… (“Will he come back?” “Yeah,… Probably”).
Some liberal critics on social media have dismissed the “outrage” at the Twix ad, seeing nothing wrong with the message, or a witch and a little boy in a princess dress to sell candy. “If you’re so emotionally vulnerable that this video ‘ruins’ Twix or Halloween for you, you have bigger problems,” wrote one Twitter user.
- MAC Cosmetics – Heatherette (with Amanda Lepore, directed by David LaChapelle, 2000)
The Bizarre Grand Prize goes to the video that David LaChapelle made with Amanda Lepore for cosmetics brand MAC. This was well before the breakthrough of social media as a marketing platform: the video was made for in-store use.
Amanda Lepore is an iconic transgender American model, singer, performance artist and club diva who has become a caricature of herself over the years (a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Jessica Rabbit, but in a distorting mirror). She appeared in advertisements for numerous companies. Lepore is seen as a regular subject and muse in the work of photographer David LaChapelle, who is known as a big supporter of camp. His style has been described as “hyperreal and cunningly subversive” and as “kitsch pop surrealism”. He was once called the Fellini of photography.
This clip was advertised as “the most expensive body in the world, in arguably the most glorious video in the world”. Lachapelle directs Lepore as the showcase for MAC makeup’s collaboration with New York-based club brand Heatherette, in a six-minute darkly humorous video clip. In it she, proud as she is of her new, largely self-created body (which at one point also made her decide to go out completely naked in the New York scene) goes completely wild – and full frontal. She can no longer smile friendly, or the plastic will crack. This is the short version, which is just a little less maniacal.
Shot in the year of the new millennium, the video “plays on themes from the Hitchcock and the Stepford Wives, centering on Amanda as the perfect vision of iconic femininity, with a gloriously maniacal twist. As it should be, the commercial celebrates and undermines the obsession with capitalism, with beauty, with perfection that a brand like MAC may be known for. It’s a sight to behold, which is guaranteed to make some viewers uncomfortable. While it’s an ad for a pink lipstick, it’s actually so much more.” That’s what MAC’s publication said at the launch of the video.
Lepore and LaChapelle had already collaborated on the also pretty weird video for Armani Jeans in 1994 (starring a very young and naked Ryan Phillippe in one of his very first roles), and she appeared in other commercials for MAC as well. Also very curious was the Halloween advertisement she made for (“cruelty-free + vegan”!) fashion brand Slick It Up. So you can say that Amanda and Bizarre go hand in hand.
Creating bizarre content can make your productions go down in history. But the more bizarre they are, the less people they will appeal to – and that’s not the point of advertising, is it? Unless you aim at a very specific target group and want to overwhelm them with striking visuals.
Alfred Verhoeven is a marketer and is in the final phase of his PhD research Marketing the Rainbow.