Contrarian approach: it works up to a point

Contrarian approach: it works up to a point

There’s nothing quite as alluring as forbidden fruit. Kids love breaking the rules. Adults, too, seem to enjoy bucking warnings and taboos, albeit subconsciously.

Did you know that the often macabre health warnings on cigarette packs may actually make smokers want to light up?

Global branding expert Martin Lindstrom’s latest book Buyology—Truth and Lies About Why We Buy reveals that anti-smoking commercials, however creative, can have the reverse effect on the consumer’s subconscious mind.

This $7 million (Rs34.16 crore) experiment is deemed the world’s largest ever neuro-marketing study and analysed cigarette brands such as Marlboro and Camel. Lindstrom said he had often wondered why the number of smokers went up every year despite everyone knowing about the harmful effects of smoking, and though tobacco ads are banned nearly everywhere.

The issue of reverse effect rakes up many questions. I wonder whether all those don’t smoke, don’t drink and drive, and don’t speed public service ads that have helped ad agencies win creative awards just actually increase the reckless behaviour they seek to curb?

And do those “don’t try this stunt" warnings that we see in various bike, auto, cola ads subconsciously inspire a few more to take the leap?

Most ironic of all, will the recent din surrounding the “No smoking in public spaces" campaign actually result in more puffs? Most ad men assure me that such fears are baseless, as testified by the results of some notable campaigns.

Santosh Desai, managing director and CEO, Future Brands Ltd, says a contrarian approach in branding can work more in sectors such as alcohol and tobacco, where a risk element is involved.

Smoking can become more attractive when associated with playing with fire. In fact, there used to be a cult brand called Death. However, the mere stimulation or the desire to buy need not necessarily lead to purchase, says Desai.

Creative directors such as Agnello Dias, who recently started his own agency TapRoot India, say a contrarian viewpoint can draw attention to a brand.

After that, it’s a level playing field and product quality is the decider, says Dias.

For example, energy drink Red Bull could draw attention as it is banned in certain places for being something that increases adrenalin and testosterone levels, adds Dias—but after that, it is product quality that matters.

While he finds Lindstrom’s revelations interesting, Dias adds that cigarettes, alcohol and drugs are anyway addictive substances and that’s what has taken them to a level where they warrant warning messages. Smoking reached epidemic proportions before there were no-smoking messages, he says.

There are many other less obvious ways to being unexpectedly different or contrary to the prevailing approach in advertising than saying “don’t".

A brand can laugh at itself, as Volkswagen did in its “lemon ads". Or it can say it’s for the less than perfect; Dove is hence endorsed by real women (and not models) in ads.

It can also say it’s second best—as Avis Hertz proudly said in its ads. Exclusivity is a good contrarian approach, too, says Desai, citing how brands such as Google use the “by invitation only" route.

A good contrarian approach backed with a great product can create an icon. Dias talks about brands such as Harley Davidson bikes, Marlboro cigarettes and the Swiss Army Knife, which own the symbolism and iconography of being extraordinarily different.

We would all love to travel the way a Harley Davidson owner does in ads, driving from place to place without a care. We can’t all be Marlboro cowboys, though we could identify with him.

To use all the blades on a Swiss Army Knife, you’d have to be marooned on an island—but you still want to own it, says Dias.

Challenger brands can especially become part of a counterculture or creative anarchy. Especially when a brand wants to be seen as an alternative or as different.

Josy Paul, chairman and national creative director, BBDO India, talks about Innocence, a US fresh juice brand promoted through handwritten ads.

And The Independent newspaper in the UK ran a series of “Don’t do this…" ads so that readers could do the opposite and establish their independence, says Paul.

Reverse psychology is, however, a high-risk game and can backfire.

Marion Arathoon is Mint’s advertising editor. Your comments are welcome at