Who’s That Ad?

I took a short trip across Canada last week, flying from Montreal to Winnipeg. I noted a few billboards along the way. En route to the airport, I saw a piglet wrapped in a baby’s blanket looming high over the expressway. The message: “Look, he has your nose.” At my final destination, I discovered another such notice. This time, the piglet was covered in dirt, and the tag line read, “Buy Soap.”

Images of baby pigs aren’t frequently employed in ad campaigns. What piqued my curiosity was neither ad mentioned the advertiser nor the product the message was intended to promote.

A few days later, I was searching for recipes on Epicurious. I came across an ad that brought my thoughts back to those billboards. It was a rich media ad with the introductory text, “This Fall Set Your Clocks Back.” Once again, the ad didn’t mention the advertiser. I wondered about the motivation behind the strategy. Were these advertisers relying on consumers’ curiosity to ensure their identities would be revealed? Or were the ads precursors to more traditional campaigns that would provide all the answers?

I did a little research, which led to Canadian wireless telecommunications company Telus. Their billboards are part of a new promotional campaign for camera phones. The piglets demonstrate situations that might call for the phones.

According to Telus, the ads were teasers preceding the November 3 launch of a cross-media campaign. Though the ads were vague to the extreme, those familiar with the company’s past campaigns may indeed have recognized the use of “spokescritters” and the signature Telus white background. The objective was to have new ads “piggyback” on former campaigns, relying on the consumer’s ability to recall past creative themes to make the connection.

Teaser campaigns and subtle promotions are nothing new, just think of the Microsoft Xbox campaign preceding its 2001 holiday launch or the later AT&T mLife Super Bowl spots. The concept is meant to generate excitement through exclusivity and secrecy. It largely relies on far less edgy ads in the surrounding environment to secure the desired attention.

Enticing as they may be, many such campaigns fail miserably, waste budgets, and damage brands. Online, it’s trickier still to make teasers work.

Unlike billboard ads, online teasers ruin the surprise by providing consumers with instant access to company material via the company Web site. The goal may be to seduce as many clicks as possible, but there’s danger of a negative backlash (remember flashing error messages and punch-the-monkey ads?). If the product isn’t relevant to the audience or site on which it appears, no amount of creative genius will conjure up great results.

If you must use teasers online, success lies in media buying.

Remember that mysterious ad on Epicurious? It was from Colonial Williamsburg (a living history museum) to entice consumers with beautiful grounds and the “splendors of fall.” The ad anchored onto the right of the page for a split second, barely long enough for the viewer to read the more detailed text, let alone click to the site.

I don’t know if this approach was successful for the museum. I can’t imagine consumers with cooking on the brain would be happy to be lured to a seemingly unrelated site. Granted, audience demographics may be in line with the organization’s target. Epicurious visitors may, at the right moment, be interested in the offer. If that’s the case, Colonial Williamsburg might have been better off disclosing its identity and objective up front. There’s a fine line between an online teaser and user deception. That line is often inadvertently crossed.

I’ll keep an eye out for part two of Telus’ campaign. I’m especially curious as to whether the piglets will venture online. They certainly won’t arrive as teasers.

If you have experience with teaser ads firsthand or have thoughts on how the technique translates online, be sure to email me.

Related reading