Over a decade ago, the German company K-fee was charged with selling energy drinks, at a time when Red Bull was dominating the category with an emphasis on thrill-seeking and high-energy activities, like the type those who enjoy their product might engage in.
K-fee took their advertising in a different direction, producing ads of gorgeous landscapes that are suddenly interrupted by actors dressed as zombies or ghouls coming into the frame with a hideous sound-effect - a jump scare, long before they became stock-in-trade.
What followed was white text on a black background, in German.
“You’ve never felt so awake.”
K-fee’s take on energy drink advertising tapped into the universal fear response, stronger than the individualized interest in sports that Red Bull had staked their claim on.
And a whole generation grew up terrified by that one video they saw on eBaum’s World.
Far more recently, Warner Bros. landed in some hot water with the internet thanks to an advertisement from their The Conjuring spin-off film The Nun. The ad, which only ran on YouTube, was an un-skippable jump scare, a five-second clip of the titular character jumping towards the viewer from the darkness accompanied by a piercing scream.
The ad was eventually pulled from the platform due to violating their policy on ads that are “likely to shock or scare” or contain violent content.
If advertising is meant to push the envelope, why would an ad that uses the same parlour trick - not even a particularly good one - as an ad from the early 2000s draw ire?
One of the most overlooked pieces of the puzzle is the context in which an ad will be viewed.
In seeing K-fee’s commercial in its entirety even once, its runtime means you can take steps to mitigate its effectiveness. You can mute the television or change the channel. One could even argue that the need for increased awareness of the advertisement - to know to take action to avoid a specific outcome - only solidifies its effectiveness.
Online, people like to believe that they have control of their browsing experience, and that they won’t be exposed to anything they don’t wish to see. YouTube’s advertising system is predicated on disrupting that experience, and the ad for The Nun (which, considering their policies, shouldn’t have been on the platform in the first place) cannot be subverted.
The jump scare is going to happen whether the viewer likes it or not, and generally people don’t like being scared when they don’t expect it.
Making the big scare a predictable annoyance is going to quickly render it ineffective.
A lot of the best horror campaigns on the internet have been based on the unexpected, but they’ve made sense in context - like when Lionsgate superimposed the villains from You’re Next onto other movie posters, creating the illusion that they were reflected in the screen from behind the viewer.
Nothing is viewed in a vacuum, and much as we’d like to focus on coming up with great ideas and being clever, the fact remains that where and how people see advertising can be just as important to its success as what those advertisements say.
At the very least, we may wish to not aim to scare our audience after every video they watch.