Advertising Lessons from OK Go

This is the new video from OK Go.

What does this have to do with advertising? Plenty.

In this post, I talk about how you need to have something surprising in your portfolio. These guys are always working to surprise.

In this post, I talk about the virtues of being a control freak when it comes to producing great work. You couldn’t pull off a video like this without being a control freak. Or putting one in charge.

And in this article, AdAge points out that they’re not just a band. They’ve become a brand. And probably a stronger one than some traditional companies.


Cool = Surprises

We all want to make cool ads, right? Cool digital stuff. Cool TV stuff. Cool print, packaging, and even letterhead and table tents (if they’re cool enough). Cool goes viral, gets talked about, gets rewarded. Cool will be the difference between a book that gets hired and one that gets sent back.

But what does cool mean? How do you create cool?

For me, cool = surprises.

When you see something you weren’t expecting, something you hadn’t anticipated, that’s pretty cool.

When the mundane suddenly becomes fresh and interesting, that’s pretty cool.

When something you’ve seen a million times before (say a marching band or a Rube Goldberg machine) is presented in such a way you think Why didn’t I think of that?, that’s pretty cool.

You’ve probably seen these three videos from OK Go. Just like you’ve probably seen their latest video All Is Not Lost.

But go ahead and watch them again. And notice how many things you find genuinely surprising. It’s those surprise that make these videos cool.

How we’re going to kill the viral video

First off, I need to get this off my chest. Stop saying “We’re going to make a viral video.” I hear creatives, students and clients say that all the time. You create an Internet video. If you do it right, and if you’re lucky, and if you seed it and do all the legwork, it might go viral. But don’t say you’re going to create a viral video. It’s like saying “We’re going to create a word-of-mouth phenomenon.”

We’re in an interesting time right now, because with the economic crunch and the shifting media landscape, clients are more and more willing to take chances with Internet videos (partly because it’s not that much of a financial risk–it’s really cheap). And they’re also willing to put material on the Internet that they wouldn’t be willing to run on TV. Stuff that’s edgier. This is probably due to the antiquated belief that the Internet audience is a completely separate animal, younger and edgier. But I think we’ll see that distinction disappear soon. If it’s not fit for a brand to air on TV, why would they air it online? They’re not a different brand with a different voice just because they’re online.

Which brings me to my main point. Every brand, regardless of whether they’re connecting with customers online or on TV, is trying to sell something, yes, but also trying to build relationships. Which is why it baffles me to see the number of “fake stunt” videos that marketers are doing and students are proposing in their books. It’s one thing to create cool content, whether it’s blantantly branded or not at all. Levi’s created this cool “Backflip Into Jeans” video.

No harm there. Do we need to know it’s from Levi’s? It’s a cool video either way. But then there are the popcorn + cell phone videos.

These were created by a bluetooth headset company to take advantage of the buzz in the media about the possible link between cancer and cellphone use. It’s a completely rigged stunt used to drum up fear. Or, as they used to say, it’s a lie. We’re going to get customers by lying to people. Brilliant. Here’s a more in-depth story at

The worst part of it all is that the company’s website got tons of hits and their sales went up (I’m not mentioning the company name because the last thing they deserve is more press). For students, there are two things to take away from this. The first is that this kind of stuff has been done before. The Blair Witch Project and Sega’s Beta-7 campaigns pioneered the fake background story years ago. Done=bad for book. But secondly, it’s crappy marketing. Not because it’s immoral (which should be reason enough), but because you’re duping customers. I didn’t know that headset company before the hype around these videos. Now I know them and I hate them. I can’t think of a worse way to start a relationship (well, maybe killing customers, but the cigarette companies already did that, so don’t put that idea in your book either).