In Defense of Bad Ideas

How Brainstorming the Worst Ideas Can Lead to the Best Creative

In marketing, clients are always looking for “Big Ideas.” There’s a new product to launch…we need a big idea. Our campaign needs cultural noise… what’s the big idea? We need an overarching campaign theme…give us a big idea!

Well, let me make an argument for my favorite kind of idea…The Bad Idea. I believe that “Bad Ideas” have the ability to launch great marketing creative. Of all the brainstorming tactics I’ve used over the years, one of the most rewarding and fun has been to ask, “What the WORST way we can sell this thing?”

As a brainstorming kick-starter, I suggest you do the following; Take any product, service or brand and head off to the Upside Down World. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst way to sell this?”

Brainstorm the most dangerous, unattractive, sinister, grotesque, and offensive creative ideas. See what bubbles to the surface of your mind. What’s the commercial? The tagline? The social campaign? The key visual? The message? Write it all down. Then, look at your monster.

Many times, you’ll be inspired by what you find inside those horrible, bad, oh-so-very offensive ideas.

Your Brain Is Felix Ungar

Ideas come from your brain, but there’s a problem with that. Your brain’s overworked. You think YOU had a busy day? Your brain’s exhausted!

Think of all the decisions your brain had to make today. Think of all the emotions it had to balance, the insecure thoughts it had to think up, the guilt it had to spoon feed your fragile psyche. Even when you took a rest and binge-watched that show on Netflix, your brain was still working.

Let’s face it — your brain is always on the clock. Thus, it’s a nervous wreck. That’s why your brain’s instinct is to always play it safe. Like Felix Ungar from The Odd Couple, it loves familiarity, security and drink coasters.

When you brainstorm, your brain’s first instinct is to go where it’s already been before, where everyone has been before. Your brain will think of ideas that won’t get you, the agency or the client in trouble. Safe ideas. But, we all know safe ideas don’t make great creative.

Your job is to become one with your Oscar Madison and challenge your brain. Drive your brain to a dangerous part of town, put on wigs and go bar hopping in prom gowns. Let your brain run naked through the quad. Get weird. Force it to have sexy, silly, crazy fun.

Trying to come up with the worst way to sell something removes all the rules for you and your brain. There’s no client, no legal team, no industry standards and no consequences. It’s an exercise.

Bad Thinking Leads to Smart Questions

There’s a Dudley Moore movie from the 80’s called Crazy People. I’ll give you the elevator pitch. An Ad Man has a nervous breakdown, enters a mental institution and starts an ad agency where the inmates come up with concepts and copy. The twist is…they tell the truth about products…and hilarity ensues. The crazies come up with tag lines like…

Quaker Oats. Is this cereal good? Who knows? But at least the box is cute.

Jaguar. For men who’d like hand jobs from beautiful women they hardly know.

United. Most of Our Passengers Get There Alive

Now, these are terrible campaign ideas for brands. But tell me, if you saw those ads wouldn’t you show someone else right away? There’s something refreshing in the nature of the conversation…or am I crazy?

I’m not saying we should be pushing the perceived negatives of brands, (although for United it might be a perception improvement.) I’m saying that if you start talking about your product in a different way, you’ll change your perspective.

When you approach marketing creative in a crazy way, it forces you to re-evaluate the product.

You’ll re-evaluate what everyone on the brand assumed to be the main messaging points. It might make you ask if there are bigger benefits to the consumer. Your team’s paradigm might change completely.

It might blow your mind dude!

Is the best part of this car the elegant design, or the fact it looks like it’s made for Soccer Moms? Is this movie smart, or stupid, mindless fun? Is this nutritional bar delicious, or does it make me poop a lot?

Side Note: Now more than ever, people appreciate when we talk with words that are plain, direct and honest. People are dying to hear the straight scoop in our hyper-calculated, PC world. “Marketing speak” with safe language means nothing and doesn’t connect with consumers.

You’ll be shocked at how frank, irreverent and disruptive the messaging within bad ideas can be. I’m not saying that the messaging will be usable, but it will provide food for thought.

Americans Love Bad Ideas

Come on! We just elected a reality game show host to the highest office in the land. If I told you that America would do that 10 years ago, would you have thought that was an idea that people would get behind?

Your own preconceived notions might be incorrectly judging what’s a good idea or bad idea.

How many time have you been watching a TV commercial or news piece and said, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever seen!”

Cheese inside of pizza crust? A blanket that you wear as a poncho? Cage fighting for humans? An app where you search for Japanese cartoons in your neighborhood? The man bun?

Those are all examples of bizarre ideas that someone thought of and turned into popular products. (Except for the man bun, that’s just a bad idea.)

I believe part of the reason people love these products is directly related to their bizarre nature. Americans love oddities. We love outsiders, and weirdoes because that’s the way we all feel inside.

Now, we all have crazy ideas, but we usually don’t say them out loud. We’re too afraid that we’ll look foolish to others. We don’t entertain them. We worry that spending time on bad ideas is equal to wasting time.

I encourage you to stop and consider the crazy for a moment.

When you have a strong reaction to a bad idea, stop and entertain it for a moment. If an idea elicits a strong, emotional or uncomfortable reaction, there’s something about it that’s strong.

Now, the idea may be unusable. It might be something you’d never show to the client. But, there’s an element within that idea that can be expanded and exploited within the creative.

A Bad Example

There are probably thousands of examples of marketing creative born from bad ideas. Allow me to provide a personal example.

I developed a creative campaign for a popular kids game called, Hedbanz. The target for the game was kids 7-plus. The game has a classic “20 questions” format. Players wear a card on their head and guess what the card says on it. The game’s big emotional benefit is that it makes people laugh. It’s silly and fun.

My creative team decided to try and come up with the worst version of the commercial. Because of the name “HEDbanz,” I thought of a severed head. What can I say? I’m a weirdo. The idea was that throughout the spot, a dead severed head talked to the viewers. My first reaction was the head would disgust and frighten children. The name of the product would be associated with something horrific. We all had a great laugh about how ridiculous the idea was.

But, then we thought about it some more. What would kids REALLY think of that idea?

When I was nine years old, I loved the weirdest stuff. Garbage Pail Kids, Wacky Packs, Pee Wee Herman. The weirder, the better. So, why wouldn’t kids love seeing and hearing about a game from a weird head with no body?

Also, the commercial would cut through the noise. A commercial with a talking head and no body…that’s disruptive. How fun would it be to see a typical board game commercial, but there’s a talking head on the coffee table? It would be hilarious. Which led us right into our top messaging point, the game is hilarious and it’s going to make you laugh.

Boom! We had our creative pitch and the client loved the idea.

Obviously, we took out all the gross parts. No blood or gore. We included all the messaging we would have in a typical spot. The twist was instead of a voice over, “Ted The Head” delivered the message.

We even created a silly prank video that ran on YouTube as pre-roll. In the video, we surprised people in a toy store with our SpokesHead just sitting on a shelf. The video ended up being one of the highest scoring video ads for the client ever.

Was it high art? No, but it was fun, different and it served the messaging and marketing goals. The campaign was a success.

Bad Ideas Work

Let’s be clear, I’m not telling you to produce and deliver bad creative. That idea is stupid.

My point is this: There’s a difference between stupid ideas and bad ideas.

Bad Ideas can release you from what’s safe and ineffective. You can twist and reshape Bad Ideas into something powerful. Bad Ideas can find an audience and connect with people in surprising ways.

At the very least, thinking of bad ideas will launch your next brainstorm session into places that nobody can anticipate. It will be a fun respite from always having to do the right thing…searching for the perfect and safe idea.

So, let’s hear it for BAD IDEAS.

Give me your crazy, weird, demented, disgusting, offensive and bizarre ideas yearning to be free. Let them find a home in your next brainstorm.

As I’ve said many times…some of my worst ideas were my best times.

What are some of your favorite worst ideas?


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