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7 ad campaigns that used reverse psychology

7 ad campaigns that used reverse psychology Chloe Della Costa

Rosser Reeves, the accomplished advertising executive credited with coining the term "unique selling proposition," once said, "The people who read and remember your advertising may buy less of your product than people who are not aware of your advertising at all. Your advertising, in other words, may, literally, be driving away customers." With this reality in mind, some brands have cheekily taken to using anti-marketing sentiments to their advantage. Newcastle routinely makes fun of its own advertising, even boldly describing its own Facebook page as "Your place to complain about our ads."

When marketing thinkers talk about "the death of traditional advertising," they may not only mean the shift to digital, but a much larger transformation to alternative methods of genuinely reaching the consumer. According to Indrajit Sinha and Thomas Foscht, authors of "Reverse Psychology Marketing: The Death of Traditional Marketing and the Rise of the New 'Pull' Game," reverse psychology marketing, pull marketing, and anti-marketing may not be familiar buzzwords yet, but there is a global change happening in terms of defining the most effective ways to communicate with consumers and increase sales. To accomplish these goals amid overwhelming noise in the digital world, it often takes the most daring ideas.

For London department store Selfridges, that daring idea was to actually remove branding. The No Noise project of 2013 centered around the re-launch of the store's Silence Room, first created by founder Harry Gordon Selfridge in 1909, to allow customers to "take a moment to pause and switch off." This inspired move drew in customers by offering them a place to shop that was intentionally devoid of advertising. Of course, the brand behind many products remained recognizable, since a shell of its logo often remained present. Regardless, minimal advertising is beginning to draw in modern customers as well. Though not yet as popular in Europe and the U.S., the Japanese are already calling it "zen advertising."

In terms of alternative marketing, capitalizing on psychological principles is certainly not new territory. Leveraging reverse psychology can be a controversial choice, and certainly a risky one, but even church billboards  have seen success with this simple tactic. Reverse psychology can be loosely defined as a method of getting someone to do what you want by pretending not to want it or by pretending to want something else. This is largely tied in with reactance theory, the idea that people who feel their sense of control is being taken away from them will grab it back by not doing what they are asked.

Blogger Jens-Petter Berget writes, "The reason why reverse psychology in marketing works is that it generates curiosity." For this reason, it is not a technique that can be drawn upon frequently and still remain effective, as it will quickly lose its magic. However, once in a while, there are special moments when an ad's message of forbiddance succeeds in not only coyly tricking a consumer, but doing so in a way that isn't off-putting, but even a source of amusement for the consumer.

Here are seven examples of advertisements that leveraged reverse psychology.

Little Caesars

Little Caesars' "Do Not Call" campaign by Barton F. Graf 9000 tempts customers by forbidding them to call and order pizza. Of course, this only plants a seed of curiosity about the reason. The long series of warnings against calling to order from Little Caesars or visiting ForbiddenPizzaWebsite.com culminate in your house being haunted by ghosts. Maybe something more creative or brand-relevant would have been a better choice, but it's fairly cute, and if customers are hanging around until the end, that's a lot of time in front of Little Caesars' messaging.

The Troy Public Library

In a sneaky and anonymous move, Leo Burnett Detroit launched a fake political campaign to save Troy, Michigan's public library. The city faced aggressive campaigning against the small tax increase needed to keep the library open, so the agency decided to turn things around by creating a fake group that posted its message widely on social media: "Vote To Close Troy Library On Aug.2 - Book Burning Party On Aug. 5." After sufficient outrage ensured, the agency finally dropped the hoax and revealed the true message behind the campaign: "A Vote Against The Library Is Like A Vote To Burn Books." In six weeks and with a budget of only $3,500, Leo Burnett helped turn out 324 percent more voters than expected, with an overwhelming majority voting to keep the library open.


In 2011, Patagonia drew attention when it ran a full-page ad in The New York Times on Black Friday, declaring "Don't Buy This Jacket." The ad calls on consumers to rethink consumerist behaviors and instead make purchases only when necessary and with sustainability in mind. The brand's move toward transparency helped consumers see Patagonia as an environmentally responsible choice, given the consumer actually needs a jacket.

Get Covered Illinois

To encourage young people to sign up for health insurance, Get Covered Illinois used reverse psychology, as well as a little dark humor, to show what really comes with the choice to live without coverage. The fictitious "Luck Health Plan" involves no annoying paperwork, but also no doctors, prescriptions, or benefits of any kind. The slogan? "You'll be OK. Probably."

The Oakwood School

At the height of the recession, fundraising for private schools wasn't at the top of most people's to-do lists. But with the help of numerous celebrities, "Don't Give," a tongue-in-cheek ad for The Oakwood School, showed why donating should remain a priority. "The purpose was to communicate to our constituents a vital but easily misunderstood message: that in these challenging times, giving is more important than ever," said James Astman, Oakwood's head of school, "in the short run to support financial aid and in the long run to build our endowment."

The Miami Hurricanes

The Miami Hurricanes football team knew it had an attendance problem, so instead of pushing overpriced season ticket packages on its fans, it unveiled "Two-Game Mini-Plans." The full ad featured in South Florida newspapers read "Go to fewer games" in large bold letters. This attention-grabbing move helped the team poke fun at its relatively low popularity while still celebrating its fan base and offering a practical deal to encourage a larger audience.


Lady Gaga

One day after the release of her single, "Applause," Lady Gaga appeared in a promotion, declaring "Lady Gaga is no longer relevant." Seemingly attempting to beat critics to the punch, Gaga's video says "Ever since 'Born This Way,' she's a flop," and even instructs fans not to buy her single or her new album. "Give her no A-P-P-L-A-U-S-E. DON'T dance to the song at all," the video's text states, seemingly daring fans to just try to stop loving her music.

Chloe Della Costa is a contributing writer for iMedia Connection.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Business technology concept" image via Shutterstock.


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