Can a brand show its users as unhappy people in advertising?

I had written about a brand that generously swore and was generally abrasive on Twitter, back in 2018.

That brand continues to be exactly the way it was and it’s a total riot!

It is so unusual to see a brand stay on that kind of character on Twitter while every other brand is desperately trying to please everyone. 🙂

Can a brand not try to please everyone via mainstream advertising? Or, in other words, given that mainstream advertising (on mainline media – TV, print, etc.) has far less leeway than social media, can a brand be dour and actually show unhappy people?

An ice cream brand actually does!

The low-calorie ice cream brand Halo Top was launched in 2011 and had massive success via digital marketing and influencer marketing.

See: How Halo Top Is Conquering the Ice Cream Biz — Without Ads (AdAge).

In 2017, the brand topped the US market, challenging the likes of Häagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s!

But it was also in 2017 that the brand attempted the first advertising campaign.

The first campaign was actually reasonably conventional, using humor, but with generous dollops of satire. The ad, by the agency Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners (RTO-P), framed the ice cream as something that annoys the devil, enough to stomp into heaven and deliver a cease and desist notice to the angel there! Reason? Decadent, sinfully indulgent ice cream is the devil’s tool to entice people and good angels are not supposed to use such a tool (but they do, using Halo Top, of course)!

It’s not too dramatically different, but probably sensing that, what they did next (once again, in late 2017) was truly envelope-pushing!

They roped in the agency Lord Danger and actually asked the agency to ‘make something weird for the internet’! The result was an utterly bizarre online film where everything was bleak – the lead was a very old woman, and her captors (robots) tell her that everyone she loves is dead! And the robots force-feed her ice cream even as she throws it away in annoyance.

Halo Top did not distribute the online film conventionally, through its own YouTube/online channels. Instead, they got the creative director from Lord Danger, Mike Diva, who worked on the ad film, to share it. He did, and it was a staggering success, reaching a million+ views and a slew of awards.

The brand also placed the ad film to play before the horror film IT that was released that year. A bleak, unhappy, dystopian ad film for a product like ice cream that is usually sold using happy imagery… and shown before a horror film! Imagine that!

That tone was continued in the brand’s next campaign, in 2019, which became its first TV campaign! Another agency change (the 3rd, in 2 years!) – 72andSunny.

The agency created a series of ads that were darkly humorous! The narrative actually sold the ice cream to adults who are having a pretty rough time in life and offered the brand as an indulgence that they could forget their miseries with! The series was terribly bleak, with the actual users of the ice cream looking annoyed, sullen, and generally sad! Happy, innocent-looking children are in the ads too, but they are not given any ice cream.

‘Adults are not okay’, mortgage (“it’s like waterboarding; only, you do it to yourself”), “Stanley has a bad decade”, and “You know what your mommy did today? Actual work, at a job she can’t stand”… are some of the people who do get Halo Top ice creams, and the kids in the ad get no ice cream at all!

Then there’s the cheerful jingle in the end that’s quite an earworm and is quite a contrast to the sad people in the ad, musically (lyrically, it’s a perfect fit!): “Ice cream for adults! ‘Cos adults need a lot of ice cream!”

As if the brand had enough of the dourness, in 2020, it launched a new campaign thought: “Stop shoulding yourself”.

The ad had a plus-sized model (Maria Jimenez Pacifico) unapologetically dancing in her underwear, eating Halo Top ice cream as the on-screen text showcases the many things she may be thinking in her head as something that she should be doing (should lose weight, should work out more, should eat more salads, should skip dessert) because of the conditioning by the society.

This was, once again, by a new agency – Deloitte Digital!

But this ad film backfired – it had, before the brand took it down from YouTube (though it remains on the brand’s Facebook page!), 18 million+ views but six times more dislikes than likes! In its interest to ask people to indulge in guilt-free ice cream bingeing, they targeted people who are already the butt of jokes. “This spot is for anyone who feels those pressures of what they should be doing versus what they actually are doing, whether that be around career, social life, wellness and beyond”, offered Shilpa Gadhok, Halo Top’s brand manager at that time.

It was odd, though – a critically acclaimed ad, but with tons of negative comments on YouTube.

As if to tone down what they aimed to do, but stay on the same ‘Stop shoulding yourself’ theme, the brand has launched the 2021 campaign with the same agency. And they seemed to have literally ‘toned down’ the ‘size’ of the models in the ad this time. The vibe remains the same: ‘be unapologetically you and indulge’.

The 2020 and 2021 campaigns are perhaps the first time Halo Top is showing people being happy and enjoying its ice creams! 🙂

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