One of the worst words in marketing: “Huh?”

by John Furgurson on February 7, 2008

I am not a stupid person. I can connect the dots pretty well when it comes to concepts, ideas and images used in commercials or print ads. In fact, I bet I’m a lot better at it than the typical Superbowl fan.

And yet, as I watch commercials or read print ads, I  often find myself scratching my head saying “HUH?” What was the meaning of that?

What were they really trying to say?

What are they thinking?

That doesn’t make sense. Why should I care?

Here’s a good example from Sunday’s superbowl telecast… The Godfather spot for the new Audi R8. [youtube=]

Normally I wouldn’t waste my breath critiquing the commercials that debut during the game, but this one really got me because it’s a brand I adore. I’ve owned three different Audis now, and I love ‘em. Especially this time of year when the roads are slushy by day and icy by night.

But I digress. We’re talking about advertising that makes you go huh, not sports cars that make you go wow.

Some credit to Venables Bell & Partners of San Francisco for breaking away from the usual automotive cliches.  The spot in question is a take-off on the most famous scene from The Godfather, circa 1975. The slow-paced set-up gets your attention right away. And I’ve heard that Godfather fans recognize it immediately… dramatic music with an exterior shot of a gigantic Italian mansion.

Cut to a creepy old guy asleep in bed. He wakes up, pulls the sheets back and reveals, horror of all horrors, the front end of an unrecognizable car. His screaming is really, quite disturbing. Then, finally, they cut to a shot of the R8 zooming out of the driveway.

The tag says, “old luxury just got put on notice.”


I had to watch this spot three more times before I could identify the front end of the car as a Rolls. And the old man is covered in oil instead of blood. Talk about over the top.

In the advertising business that technique is called borrowed interest. Usually it’s reserved for me-too products in categories with low involvement and little inherent interest. Like non-aspirin pain relievers or feminine hygiene products. You have “borrow” interest from something that people will relate to.

But that’s definitely not the case here. Have you seen the R8??? It’s the coolest, meanest looking new car in years. Who needs to borrow an old movie scene to advertise such a great product? Couldn’t the creative team find any inspiration in the R8 itself?

And why, may I ask, is Audi positioning the R8 against an old Rolls Royce? The R8’s a sports car more comparable to a Lamborgini than a Rolls. Not exactly apples-to-apples.

I doubt I’m the only person who’s confused by Audi’s approach. And that’s my point…  why sacrifice clarity for an elaborate spin-off that leaves people feeling completely clueless? Nobody’s going to spend time figuring out the message like I did.

Besides, if I worked for Audi I’d want people talking about the car, not the commercial.

It seems like the R8 spot was conceived with no clearly defined message in mind. Like they said, “hey, let’s spend four million dollars and introduce the R8 at the Superbowl this year. Wouldn’t that be cool.”

Nobody took the time to figure out the strategic intent of the spot before the creative team sat down. In other words, Audi didn’t know what they wanted to say besides “introducing the new R8.”

Was it really their intent to scare Rolls Royce and Mercedes? I can’t imagine. Maybe someone thought the car was a little over the top, so they did a commercial to match. Who knows?

Chances are, you don’t have 5 million dollars earmarked for one, single commercial. But if you did, wouldn’t you want to avoid confusing people?  Wouldn’t you want the best ROI you could possibly get?  If so, then make sure your marketing messages have these three things covered: Relevance. Credibility. Differentiation.

There are thousands of ways you could tell your brand’s story, but the trick is to make your message relevant to the specific group of people you’re targeting at that particular time and place. Is the Godfather really relevant to football fans who’d seriously consider an Audi R8? Will that movie reference resonate more than the car itself?

That’s the trouble with borrowed interest. Super low relevance.

The second thing is credibility. Consumers these days are highly skeptical of any commercial pitch, and a claim that leaves them scratching their head will never pass the credibility test. Confusion’s never credible.

Finally, good old-fashioned differentiation.  I have to admit, the four-second shot of the R8 at the end of the Godfather spot is enough to differentiate it from any other car on the road. All the rest of it’s just Superbowl egomarketing nonsense.

Before you place your next ad, be sure to do the “Huh” test. Listen carefully to the feedback and if a lot of people come away saying “Huh, I didn’t get it,” then you need to rethink the ad. There are plenty of great, creative ideas that won’t leave people utterly confused.

But do your ad agency a favor and get that feedback early in the process.  Before you film anything and blow the production budget. And trust your instincts… if it feels confusing to you, it’s almost guaranteed to be confusing to people who aren’t as familiar with your product or service.

And while you’re at it, also do the “Duh” test. You don’t want that reaction either. It’s never a good idea to make your target audience feel like idiots.

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