August 29, 2014 Kevin Erb

When is it good to be bad?

shamwowRecently, a local TV commercial for a regional mall in Missouri gained national popularity and widespread awareness. Not because this particular commercial was good, however, but because the commercial was bad. Really, really bad.

So bad, in fact, that it had the more skeptical (or cynical, if you must cast aspersions) among us thinking that it just maybe the commercial was made bad on purpose, as a way of generating extra publicity. Which isn’t as outrageous as it may seem, spending money to make something bad on purpose. At some point several years ago, brands figured out that creating purposely putrid content on behalf of their products or services could actually work in their favor, and this “terrible-on-purpose” phenomenon has only grown as the Internet has become more and more pervasive in our media-consumption routines.

The list of wildly successful examples of “terrible on purpose” marketing by brands is a long and well-known one – think Blendtec, Snuggies and Shamwow – but it’s important to remember that this path fraught with peril. Because just like investing in bitcoin or hunting for Sasquatch, developing a terrible-on-purpose marketing campaign brings with it the potential for great rewards – but also significant risk.

So before you set out making the next overnight-sensation YouTube video, let’s look a bit more closely at the risks and rewards involved with developing terrible-on-purpose marketing content.


  • It’s off-brand. If you’ve never really associated humor or edgy marketing with your brand before, is this the best or most appropriate place to start? If your brand is generally conservative or straightforward, jumping headfirst into this type of content marketing may be a bridge too far, both for you and your core audience.
  • It’s so bad, it’s really, really bad. There’s a fine – but very definite – line between something that’s so bad it’s good and something that so bad it’s just really, really bad. You can’t even define the difference, but you certainly know it when you see it. And you don’t want to be on the wrong side of that line.
  • Your audience spots your game from a mile away. Trying too hard to make it bad – being completely over-the-top and gratuitous with your approach – is equally dangerous. It can quickly and completely turn your audience off. It makes you look like your chasing whatever it is the cool kids are doing. And, just like the risk listed above, there’s a fine line between just the right amount of bad and trying too hard to make it bad. Not necessarily a line you can define, but one you’ll know has been crossed when you see it.
  • The potential reach doesn’t match your reality. Have a real sense of just how much impact this can have on your brand and your bottom line. It’s great that the terrible commercial for the mall in Missouri has more than 2 million views on YouTube. But how many of those 2 million viewers are going to get in their and drive or hop on a plane and travel to Missouri to shop at that particular mall? It’s a brick-and-mortar business with a defined, limited geographic scope, which in turn limits the scope of potential impact this newfound fame can actually have on its bottom line. Blendtech, on the other hand, sells its blenders directly through its website, meaning anyone who’s watched their terrible videos is a potential customer, regardless of geographic location.


  • You get a lot for a little. No budget for a high-quality production? No problem! This is one time when a lack of production value can help you. Terrible-on-purpose should look terrible, after all.
  • People think you’re funny. A sense of humor is one of the strongest and most potent brand attributes consumers can hold of you. It helps you be perceived as human, accessible and relatable.
  • You strengthen your brand. You can look really smart by being really dumb. The ability to laugh at oneself, not take oneself too seriously and have a bit of fun all cause consumers to see your brand as more sophisticated and advanced.
  • Boom goes the bottom line. How many people got Snuggies as gag gifts for Christmas the first year those commercials hit the airwaves? For those products and services positioned the right way, terrible-on-purpose marketing creates a movement among consumers they want to be a part of, even if it means wearing in a blanket with sleeves ironically.

So tread carefully – and consult a professional – before taking on the “terrible on purpose” phenomenon for your brand. There may seem to be a lot of home runs, but strike outs are plentiful, too, and painful.