Does Irritating Your Customers Work?


One of the most annoying series of commercials is for HeadOn, an analgesic which one rubs on one’s forehead to (supposedly) cure headaches. Does HeadOn work? I have no idea, but it seems doubtful. Their commercials must work very well, though, because they have multiplied like mushrooms in a dark basement. Not only has the apparent frequency of HeadOn commercials increased, but similar ads have been launched for spinoff products like ActiveOn. What distinguishes the HeadOn commercials is their repetitious yelling at the viewer. “Apply directly to the forehead! Apply directly to the forehead!” While I find it interesting that these annoying commercials have apparently achieved a modicum of success in gaining market share for HeadOn, their latest round of ads is even more interesting. These ads actually acknowledge how irritating the HeadOn commercials are by having an actor say, “I hate your ads, but love your product.” Naturally, these ads include their fair share of droning repetition, too. This raises the question, is it really a good idea to irritate potential customers with your ads?

I have to conclude that in the short term these ads must be effective. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t keep seeing them or the ads for new spinoff products. Like the “screamer” ads for mattresses and cheap furniture (in which an announcer quite literally screams at the viewers about this week’s sale), these HeadOn commercials are apparently effective in breaking through the clutter of commercials that viewers can (mentally) tune out. While any active viewer with a convenient mute or fast forward button will silence these annoying ads quickly, most won’t.

I also think that irritating ads could pose a longer-term danger to the brands that use them. At the cognitive level, I find myself repelled by an advertiser bold enough to acknowledge that their ads are annoying me, and then continue to assault me with the objectionable elements in the same ad. Even if my head felt like it had been split by a cleaver I wouldn’t spend a dime for HeadOn. (I’d like to see a neuromarketing study of the HeadOn ads that showed which areas of the brain lit up. I’d bet on pain centers.)

The real danger, though, doesn’t really involve conscious processing by the viewers. Rather, I anticipate a sort of Pavlovian conditioning to develop. If viewers begin to associate the brand or packaging with the negative emotion of a loud and annoying interruption of their entertainment, eventually the brand will suffer. Companies like Coca Cola and Anheuser-Busch know something about building long-term brands, and most of their ads are suffused with positive emotions. Then again, they have the budget and time to think long-term.

Bloggers, unsurprisingly, aren’t usually big HeadOn fans. BizSolutionsPlus, in Truth in Advertising Crashes Head On, takes issue with the fact that there’s no evidence the product even does what it’s supposed to. Waldoland also takes issue with the ads that acknowledge how annoying they are, stating simply, “What balls!” The Expecting Executive provides a great illustration of my prediction about the long-term brand impact of the HeadOn ads:

I saw your product on the shelf. Out of curiosity, I picked it up. At the moment my hand touched the Head On packaging, I had a flashback moment (just like the ones in the movies). All at once I heard the LOUD, and OBNOXIOUS “Head On, apply directly to the forehead” chant that I have come to LOATHE!!! As if my hand was on fire, I immediately dropped your product and gathered up my trusty (and commercial quiet) Dayquil and Nyquil products…

Who’s right? Time will tell…

  1. Nancy E. Hudgins says

    I can’t imagine that these ads work. In the store, I don’t remember the name, but if I saw the package and it reminded me of the commercials, I would cringe rather than buy. Maybe the ad execs have two year olds, who believe that any attention is better than no attention at all!
    Best TV ad I’ve seen in a long time is the FedEx ad about the lemming. Humor works!

  2. Paulus says

    A rather sad prospect if this is the only way advertisers think they will be able to cut through the noise.

    One ad-agency used to say … “Truth well told”. Whoever produced these ads … “Truth … o well, loud anyway”.

    Basil Fawlty’s excellent communications skills in dealing with Manual come to mind. Great show, but will never stay at the hotel, for sure.

  3. Mike Reeves-McMillan says

    One of our local radio stations has a similar annoying ad for a firm of plumbers which plays just before the weather report – “sung” by someone who sounds like a plumber who couldn’t carry a tune in a toolbox. I have sworn never, ever to use them, it annoys me so much.
    The other thing that amazes me in this connection is the popularity of the “For Dummies” and “Complete Idiot’s Guide” books. How is it that insulting your customers is a good marketing strategy?

  4. Roger Dooley says

    Mike, I think the phenomenal success of the Dummies books is that the buyer doesn’t consider himself/herself a dummy, but assumes that if the book is written for dummies then it should be easy to comprehend. In some cases, a baffled reader may identify with the moniker, e.g., “I’m smart, but when it comes to wines, I’m a real dummy. This book sounds perfect!”

    Nancy, unfortunately the ads DO work, at least in the short run. For every person (like you or me) who refuses to buy the product no matter what, there must be several others who are still willing to make the purchase.


  5. Tammy Lenski says

    I’ve pondered these ads as well, because they seem to work enough for them to continue to invest, yet so completely turn me off I’d never buy the product.

    I’m wondering if they’re going for up-front sales volume and don’t care that the ads turn off some folks and may turn off all folks in the long run. I’ve seen some independent research suggesting the product’s useless, too.

    But if they can crank up sales before people get too annoyed by the ad and before word gets out about the product’s failure, then maybe there’s a business model that’ll work for them over the short-term.

    In the meantime, my hand’s poised on my remote’s mute button!

  6. Sandra Kiume says

    They seem to work by being viral. There’s a slew of parody ads, which seems to be a sign something’s caught on.

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