Spoofing Around: Should Brands Go Negative?

Chipotle is not McDonald’s. Nor is it Burger King, Wendy’s, or Subway. Founded 20 years ago and with less than 1,000 worldwide franchises, Chipotle is still the new kid on the block compared to other fast food giants.

The Scarecrow,” Chipotle’s new hit short film, attempts to establish the brand as an advocate for ethical and sustainable food practices while in the same breath entertaining consumers. Set to a Fiona Apple cover of “Pure Imagination,” the film tells the story of a scarecrow trapped in a dystopia of “100% beef-ish” food who perseveres by opening a competing food stand and only cooking with fresh ingredients. With nearly 7 million views in four weeks, it’s been a smash hit. Content Strategist’s own Joe Lazauskas praised the short film “not only for its emotional resonance but also for how it integrates with the rest of Chipotle’s marketing efforts.”

One week after Chipotle debuted “The Scarecrow,” Funny or Die released “Honest Scarecrow,” a spoof that uses new, satirical lyrics to criticize Chipotle’s marketing efforts:

Come with us and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination

with an ad made for you by a giant corporation.

We’ll begin; drop you in to a great high-budget animation

What you’ll see will be pure manipulation.

And so on…

The spoof has attracted 290,000 views in three weeks — a modest hit, without a doubt. But now imagine if Taco Bell or another fast-food chain released the spoof instead of Funny or Die. Would it work? Would it win over consumers and turn them off from Chipotle, or would it just make the spoofer look like a mean-hearted competitor?

“For Chipotle, ‘The Scarecrow’ has generated a groundswell of social chatter,” said Matthew Witt, Executive Vice President and Director of Digital Integration at Tris3ct. “Amidst that zeitgeist, there is bound to be criticism. Satire is a powerful style of communication and storytelling, but it is also quite polarizing. It can be quite effective in advertising, but only if that action is organic to the nature of the brand.”

Spoofing gives brands an opportunity to stand out among competitors, much like politicians who rely on negative campaign ads (which viewers find more memorable than positive or neutral ads). Brands with the most impactful spoofs manage to discredit rivals while promoting their own products. Microsoft, for example, has lampooned Apple and Samsung in recent commercials while still staying focused on their own product, the Nokia Lumia. And from 2006 to 2009, Apple experienced great success with their own spoof campaign, the “Mac vs. PC” series, featuring Justin Long as the affable Mac and John Hodgman as the stiff, oblivious PC.

Of course, attacking a competitor can also backfire. Two weeks ago, Microsoft quickly pulled a YouTube ad mocking Apple and the iPhone 5C after perceived barbs about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who died in 2011, sparked a backlash. In addition to crass cheap shots, Microsoft never explicitly mentioned its own brand or products in the video. A 2006 study by Journal of Advertising found that brands with overly aggressive ads were perceived to be manipulative. Consumers responded with more positivity when comparisons were “moderately intense” or indirect.

Old Spice offers a more benign approach to spoofing with their eccentric ads that parody stereotypical soap commercials without ridiculing specific brands. General parodies may not create as much initial controversy as a targeted spoof, but with enough originality, like a man who pulls a bar of soap out of a watermelon, they can still be incredibly successful and create an incredible amount of buzz.

Witt also cites a 2010 Kotex ad, which pokes fun at typical tampon commercial traits like airy music, meaningless camera cuts, and racially ambiguous models, as a recent example of a smart generalized parody. “They bravely satirize themselves, making fun of the cliches that have long plagued the feminine hygiene category,” he said. “They didn’t go after competitors in a direct way, but distinguished themselves by focusing on their own work.”

Regardless of what a brand sells – whether burritos, smartphones, or soap – those who take down their competitors with humor and sharp analysis may wind up ahead of the pack. And in a viral landscape, standing out is often be more valuable than standing down.

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Image by Wizdata/Shutterstock

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