All Articles Food Edgy ads walk a fine line – and sometimes cross it

Edgy ads walk a fine line – and sometimes cross it

3 min read


The most effective restaurant ad campaigns are often the ones that illustrate that the eatery truly understands its target audience without worrying all that much about people who aren’t likely to dine there, no matter how much the company spends to woo them.

Sometimes that means getting edgy — some of the most effective campaigns are those that walk a fine line between offending some consumers and hitting a bull’s eye with the target market. Take Quiznos, which had a ball for years with spots that included men raised by wolves, creepy singing rodents and a guy getting his sandwich back from his dog and then eating it off the floor. The commercials turned off a segment of the population, but more often than not, it hit the spot with the chain’s target audience of sandwich-loving men ages 18-to-34. The chain detoured for a while last decade with a new agency that created a food-focused campaign that was relatively comedy-free, but the edge didn’t go away altogether.

Ads that walk the fine line between attracting core fans and risking repulsion from others often come with an added perk: The most outrageous among them win a ton of free media buzz — a lesson Quiznos learned early and used to its advantage.

Other more recent campaigns illustrate additional ways it can pay to take risks, including Domino’s self-critical look at its old recipe to introduce its new recipe, which helped significantly boost pizza sales, and Taco Bell’s recent ad blitz aimed at presenting the facts after being sued over ingredients in its meat.

But sometimes campaigns go too far and leave you wondering just what they were thinking, such as the controversial billboards by the northern Indiana Hacienda restaurant company that were pulled less than two weeks after they went up. The boards referenced the 1978 Jonestown massacre with the line, “We’re like a cult with better Kool-Aid,” accompanied by a picture of a mixed drink and the phrase “To die for!”

To their credit, restaurant executives moved swiftly to apologize after an outraged e-mail from an area resident who was shocked by the message. They also explained to the South Bend Tribune how the campaign evolved from the theme of belonging. It was likened to the way people in clubs and on teams may come to feel like they’re part of a cult and start to adopt the same styles and food and drink habits.

“You start playing with headlines,” sales and marketing VP Jeff Leslie told the paper. “And that’s how we ended up with the outdoor board. But we are not getting the reaction we expected. It went the wrong direction, hit a nerve, and we have come to realize we should not have done this billboard. We lose the core message.”

Does your restaurant get edgy with advertising? Where’s the line between buzzworthy and bad taste? Tell us about it in the comments.