Satire is quite possibly one of the most effective sources of social critique; revealing and challenging (sometimes unspoken) societal values and behaviors, power structures, and other wide-ranging societal issues. The use of satire is definitely not new; it can be found in ancient Egyptian and Greek civilizations as well as in the antecedents to our modern society. Artists and writers have typically been the primary purveyors of modern satire, and we expect cheeky sarcasm from comedians (e.g., Steven Colbert) and television shows (e.g., South Park). That said, there are other arenas that we are a bit taken a back when we see similar sentiment emerging, such as in the marketing strategies of established and startup businesses alike.
One brand that has leveraged satire in its advertising and marketing efforts is Cards Against Humanity, the grassroots-funded, politically incorrect company behind the popular card game. The internet has been buzzing about the brand’s Black Friday sale, in which it decided to protest one of America’s most celebrated unofficial holidays in an unconventional way. Rather than push to sell as many card games as possible, they opted to sell none at all. Instead, they posted the following message: “To help you experience the ultimate savings on Cards Against Humanity this Black Friday, we’ve removed the game from our store, making it impossible to purchase.” In the game’s place, the company offered . . . bullshit. Yes, “literal feces, from an actual bull.” Customers bought it. Cards Against Humanity sold 30,000 boxes of shit for $6 a pop.
This hugely successful 2014 Black Friday comes on the heels of Cards Against Humanity’s 2013 Black Friday campaign where they increased the price of the game $5, from $25 to $30. Sales spiked. Not only did the last two Black Friday “sales” bring in increased revenue (around $180,000 for bullshit alone!), the exposure gained in both traditional and social media is priceless for the brand. Furthermore, it solidifies Cards’ brand as nontraditional, far from mainstream, and “a card game for horrible people . . . as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.” While this message may not appeal to everyone, it clearly resonates with a wide audience, and one that’s eager to buy into the movement.
While Cards’ approach to satirical marketing takes the cake, we can find some other examples of instances in which other brands have used sarcasm and intentionally gone against the mainstream to advertise, standout, and/or simply take a stand. For example, a San Francisco area restaurant owner, tired of dealing with Yelp.com’s consistent advertising inquires, “blackmailing” and review manipulation, decided to become “the worst restaurant there is in the Bay Area” this fall. To accomplish this feat, Botto Bistro encouraged its customers to leave one-star reviews in exchange for 25% off of a pizza. According to the owner, this may have been the best business move he’s made in years. The restaurant has not only seeing increased business, but better, has built a loyal customer base that consistently spends more. Sounds pretty successful for a one-star restaurant.
Another brand that has leveraged satire is Chipotle Mexican Grill – a privately owned, Denver-based restaurant chain with restaurants across the US and now in Canada, France, UK, and Germany. For over 10 years, Chipotle has committed to sourcing organic produce, naturally raised meats, and dairy free from added hormones all from “family farms.” For critics, the fact that Chipotle advertises and promotes this, yet still relies on conventional sources when needed, is problematic and hypocritical. However, given the structural restraints (in particular, the lack of scalability in sourcing organic, local, and other non-conventional food), Chipotle’s commitment to supporting these practices should still be acknowledged. To bring light to traditional corporate agriculture and livestock raising practices, and, of course promote their brand, the restaurant chain released a 4-part satirical series on Hulu.com called “Farmed and Dangerous” in early 2014. The show became second highest rated show on Hulu, and while its direct influence on revenue is difficult to quantify, the company’s revenue and stock prices continue to rise.
Each of these companies —Cards Against Humanity, Botto Bistro, and Chipotle Mexican Grill—have leveraged satire in a way that positively resonates with their target audiences. The three organizations take a comedic approach to protesting some aspect of mainstream society: our holiday shopping behavior, the perceived unfairness and control of large businesses, or the way our food is produced. While satire is risky, as it could alienate potential customers, the risk may be worth the payoff for smaller, uniquely branded companies looking to get the most bang for their marketing buck. Showcasing the brand’s unique personality and beliefs allows an opportunity to connect with their customer base, who hopefully appreciates the brand’s stance. Larger mainstream companies, even those that specialize in comedy-based advertising (e.g. Geico, Volkswagen, and Bud Light, to name a few), have historically avoided the use of snarky satire, as this attempt at a connection can feel inauthentic. The key to maintaining authenticity is to hone in on something that your audience likely feels strongly about, take a stance on it, and engrain that stance as a visible brand value that your audience can get behind as well. If you’re able to effectively deliver the message through humor, even better.