Outrageousness and the WTF Factor

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I consider myself a conscientious Web surfer. I use Firefox, I leave the popup blocker on, I’ve used the AdBlocker extension before, and I’ve never in my life punched a single monkey. It’s not like I haven’t wanted to, though. That taunting smile of his just screams “punch me,” and the fact that your mouse cursor turns into a boxing glove when you hover over the banner ad doesn’t help either. I don’t know what the monkey’s selling, and I don’t really care. A mug like that just deserves to get socked.

My point is, that even someone like me, who’s probably only clicked on about five ads in his entire lifetime, can feel the call-to-action generated by something outrageous. Just like sex, outrageousness is something that advertisers have known about since the beginning of time. Outrageousness in static mediums like TV and print can affect what a person thinks. Anything outrageous generates a question in the person’s mind that bears answering. Anything funny or anything that causes people to gawk opens the door of the mind by throwing a person’s perceptions off-guard.

Why else would Sprite run a TV ad featuring a yellow and a green sumo wrestler smashing a nerdy-looking guy between their stomachs? When I crack open a can of Sprite, I certainly do not want to be sumo-wrestled—especially not by any weirdoes in colorful body paint. But when outrageousness is used in a static medium, it makes a user think, ‘WTF is this?’ and they actually take the time to think and figure it out. Meanwhile, the process of thinking about the ad makes them think about the brand also.

But while outrageous static ads can control people’s thoughts, outrageous interactive ads can actually control people’s actions. Even though I know I’ll probably get hammered with spyware and popups, there’s something inside of me that still feels the pull of the monkey, and the immediacy of interactive means that a user can act on those WTF feelings within the ad itself. The message doesn’t have to stick in their head, only manifesting itself when they go to the store and see a bottle of Sprite sitting in the refrigerator. The viewer can click, mouseover, type into, or navigate their way to answer the WTF question.

It’s kind of ironic that the only outrageous thing to come out of banner ads (even rich media ones) since 1993 seems to be the monkey and monkey-like ads. Any ad viewer can only stand a certain number of monkeys punched, ducks shot, or Bin Ladens slapped before it gets old and the WTF question goes away. Where outrageousness really shines is in viral campaigns like the ones Microsoft has used for Halo 2 and the Xbox 360. The agency they used, 4orty2wo Entertainment, put up mysterious websites with numbers on them counting down to mysterious dates. Eventually, news of the sites flew around gamer destinations like rumors at a women’s prayer meeting, and had every fanboy from here to Asia asking, WTF?

Just to point out the power of WTF, in the month of June, Web users stumbled across a site called eon8.com that contained mysterious imagery and numbers counting down to July 1st, 2006. Once eon8 hit digg.com, rumors started flying that the site could be counting down to anything from the release of Halo 3 to an international terrorist event. Users poked and prodded the site, analyzed some of the coded messages it contained and even hit it with hacking tools. And when the clock struck July 1st, the creator of the site revealed that it was all just a hoax. He wanted to see what people’s reaction to such a mysterious site would be. And with the antics of all those people asking themselves ‘WTF’, he wasn’t disappointed.

? and the Mysterians aside, never underestimate the power of a question mark. Outrageous in an interactive environment can be extremely potent. Use with caution. But by all means, please use. I’m sick of monkeys.

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