You there. Yes, I’m talking to you – the creative with an eye for disruptive advertising. You want to take a leaf out of Fleabag’s book and speak directly to your audience, right?
In fairness, this whole ‘breaking the fourth wall’ bit doesn’t seem to work so well in print… After all, I’m kind of already talking to you one-on-one. But in other media – film, TV, ads, it’s a pretty effective way of grabbing attention, shaking people out of their passive viewing. Sometimes, they literally do sit up and take notice.
That can be the challenge with any advertising. All too often it can become background. Consumers, particularly younger audiences, have become adept at tuning out background noise. That doesn’t mean advertising isn’t effective for this audience, just that it has to work hard to stand out, to be that message or method.
Breaking the fourth wall is one such method. Stepping out of convention is always noticeable but when it’s done with elan and a bit of a reputation for throwing out the rule book, it’s powerful indeed.
Take blockbuster film Deadpool. Not your everyday superhero – polite, considerate, not a fan of collateral damage – Deadpool takes a wrecking ball to the genre. Profanity and the unalloyed joy in sticking it to the man are the order of the day. You just know that when it comes time to promote the next instalment, a trailer and some press junket footage just isn’t going to cut it.
So who better to promote the movie than Deadpool himself? 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment worked with agencies Mindshare and Think Jam to create a YouTube campaign where Deadpool spoke directly to the audience. Not in a “oh, that ad spoke to me” kind of a way. In a fourth wall-breaking, 'Hey you, yes you’ kind of a way.
Deadpool took control of the whole ad process. He was there, staring out of the video at you, just daring you to skip. That skippable pre-roll identified where the viewer was on their journey and, if they went on to watch the whole trailer, Deadpool would pop back and thank them for their time, rewarding the viewer with an exclusive deleted scene. And if they skipped? Well, to borrow from another anti-hero – he’d be back.
By throwing convention to the wind (Deadpool followed customers across YouTube, encouraging them to watch the ad or see the film) the campaign delivered on its massively ambitious target, which was to deliver the highest-ever combined physical and digital conversion for an action title of its type. There was an increase of 198% in organic title searches after viewing sequences on YouTube and an in-stream sequence delivered an uplift in engagement of 60.22% - compared to the industry benchmark of 25%.
Taking a less-trodden path, a more subversive approach, works for more than just leather-clad superheroes, and is a tactic that can be extended beyond digital. Seemingly innocuous health-drink brand, Oatly, stirred the hornet’s nest when the oat-based, dairy alternative ran ads stating: “It’s like milk but made for humans”.
The company did not believe its messaging was controversial but a lawsuit from Sweden’s dairy lobby would suggest otherwise. Similarly, independent brewery Brewdog set about subverting the ad genre by plastering online and out-of-home with white screens and the word ‘Advert’ or ‘Advert on a bus’ splashed across them.
Does that mean that we’re about to witness a race of subversion as every creative tries to outdo the next with just how daring they can be? I doubt it. These campaigns were examples of brands being innovative in order to drive effectiveness - good quality ads with great craft combined with the right technology.
There are many, many brands for whom playing by the rules and making good quality ads with well-crafted creative and a thoroughly researched and honed message will absolutely deliver above and beyond expectations. Not for nothing has the Ronseal catchphrase ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ survived so long to the point where it has entered common parlance.
But, for certain brands and a certain audience, notably younger but not necessarily exclusively so, creatives should take time to play and push beyond what’s expected. If Deadpool is teaching us anything, it’s that you can tell a story of far greater relevance with an expanded narrative outside of what is traditionally deployed. The age-old method of sequential storytelling (now with a sprinkle of technology that reads and allows for adaptation based on user behaviour) is more relevant than ever.
Billy Corbyn is creative director of EMEA at Unskippable Labs, Google.