Jan. 31, 2014 at 7:24 AM ET
Super Bowl ads are getting weird. Doritos "Finger Cleaner." Audi's "Doberhuaha," a Chihuahua with the oversized head of Doberman. Because nothing covers up the odious like Axe, a funny body spray ad that echoes Vietnam War atrocities.
Blame the internet. The pressure to make a big game commercial that goes viral is pushing advertisers into the realm of the uncomfortable.
With ads this year running $134,000 a second, it's no longer enough for a commercial to make a splash during the game and maybe filter its way to water cooler chitchat. It's got to rack up millions of hits online before it even airs, and get replayed for months and years to come.
"If there is, in fact, a recent weirdening (sic) trend in Super Bowl advertising, the Internet is probably somewhat to blame," said Matt Ian, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York's Executive Creative Director. "Just having a compelling film doesn't necessarily mean your spot will perform well online. It has to have 'Internet-ness' - an 'X' factor that makes an ad shareable or 'sticky' - beyond what makes an ad perform well on TV."
So advertisers are currying the Internet's favor, using disturbing imagery and themes designed to bait the Internet's appetite for the fringe.
And if weird is hot, it's because that's what "the kids" online are into. "Advertising has always looked towards where young people are freely communicating and how they're doing it and co-opting it," said Chris Bruss, VP of branded entertainment for comedy video site "Funny or Die."
"Whether it's Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit, let's go in there and leverage that demographic to try to sell," he said, "or to come across as more authentic, as someone delivering a message in their voice."
Clearly, that voice loves weird stuff.
The best example is "Finger Cleaner," a finalist in the Doritos long running crowdsourced "Crash the Superbowl" contest. A man sticks his Doritos-covered finger through a hole in the wall and another guy sucks the cheesy powder off his digit.
Meanwhile, Axe tempts controversy and targets teen boys with an ad that shows what appear to be acts of war that turn into expressions of love. The vignettes include a Kim Jong Un look-a-like ordering his army to make his girlfriend a valentine, and one that recalls Vietnam, with a M-14 wielding soldier rushing a woman in an Asian rice paddy, only to drop his gun and embrace her.
As advertisers know, spots like these push our buttons, said neuroscientist Dr. Carl Marci, cofounder of Innerscope Research, which attaches biometric feedback equipment to viewers to measure their response to commercials. There's a spike in the readout. The heart rate elevates. The skin becomes more electrically conductive.
"Something that's new or surprising or titillating will turn this system on," said Marci, altering the brain to information that might be relevant. "That tells us that whatever the stimulus is we should commit some of our precious brain resources to it."
That tiny bit of cranial territory is what Super Bowl advertisers are spending millions colonizing, with our feelings as their Trojan Horse.
"To get cut-through, advertisers need to make a strong connection with viewers and stand out from the crowd. The best way to do this is to hit an emotional trigger hard," said Devra Prywes, VP of Marketing at Unruly, a global video technology firm which tracks Super Bowl ads.
"What the heck" is one of those emotions, judging by the imagery showing up in some ads this year. Audi's features a "Doberhuahua," a Chihuahua with the head of a Doberman. Another ad this year opens with a shot of a man holding a baby with whom he's switched heads.
At other points, it almost seems like the ads are deliberately trying to have moments they hope will become the next animated GIF or "LOLCATS" text-overlaid pass around. Wouldn't the slow-clapping ranger and bear in the Carmax ad look great as animated loop in a Reddit comments section congratulating another user for their clever riposte? What if taking off your shirt and shouting "There were singing vegetables! And chickens!" like Terry Crews in the Toyota and Muppets ad became the next YouTube challenge? Becoming an internet meme is the new "Where's the beef," the advertising catchphrase as cultural reference. In situ, though, working for it can look a little off. But that's worth it if it gets customers to give you free advertising.
"The concept of something “memeable” has been around for a long term- just in different form: mnemonics, jingles, and hooks," said the Mother New York advertising agency. "It was hard to tell before if a jingle was stuck in someone's head before Twitter. Now if they can’t get it out of their head, they’ll Tweet it."
"Raunchy weird" is a subcategory of weird that advertisers are trying to mine this year, to mixed effect. A woman nearly licks yogurt off John Stamos's pants. A yellow M&M twerks like Miley Cyrus on Robin Thicke at the MTV video music awards. In another case of sexualized candy, a Butterfingers preview ad featured a couple, "Cheese" and "Crackers" emerging from couple's therapy session ecstatically fondling a giant salami. After it began to pick up eyebrow-raising attention, the candy maker took the teaser down and uploaded a tamer clip instead.
Even for the Internet, it seemed the ad was too hot.
"They have ratcheted up the level of shock, the level of awe," said Robert Passikoff, founder of marketing firm Brand Keys, "because they need to be able to have some kind of interaction going on digitally."
The issue is one partly of context. Super Bowl ads aren't just competing with each other. They have to survive and stand out when they go up online against more audacious content with less to lose.
"While funny can spread, weird is what truly goes viral," said Steve Cronk, founding partner at the Aberro Creative Agency.
But it might not be long before weird is on the wane, another fad to be co-opted and discarded by advertisers like New Wave music or flash mobs.
"The current style of Old Spice "Tim and Eric" is working," said Funny or Die's Bruss, referring to an ad that broke a few weeks ago that had hysterical mothers stalking their sons and slithering on their backs. "Once everyone is doing that it's no longer unexpected. The smarter advertisers will figure out what's next."
Freaky-deaky doesn't always win. As seen in the teases and previews already out there, a number of the ads this year tap feel-good themes. And the most-shared clip from the 2013 Super Bowl was a heartstring-tugging Budweiser commercial about a Clydesdale horse reunited with his trainer.
Of all the triggers, love is the strongest, and the hardest to hit right.