Under the Influence

This major company brags about being second best. Here's why.

As a rule, no company ever wants to point a neon sign at its flaws. In the world of advertising, everything's always coming up roses. But there are a few brave advertisers out there who know that there can be incredible power in a negative.

As a rule, no company ever wants to say something negative about itself in its marketing. In the world of advertising, everything's always coming up roses. But there are a few brave advertisers out there who know that there can be incredible power in a negative.

From the Digital Box Set: This week, we look at brands that aren’t afraid to celebrate their weaknesses. As a rule, no company ever wants to point a neon sign at its flaws. But there are a few brave advertisers out there who know there can be incredible power in a negative. Like a brand that advertises the fact that its product tastes awful, or another that boasts being second best. This is an archived episode that aired originally on May 3, 2018.

It tastes awful and it works

Peter Byrne was a Canadian ad writer who understood the power of a negative.

He could write powerful, emotional advertising. Peter's secret sauce was his use of searing honesty.

In 1986, he pitched a radical advertising idea to one of his clients. That client was Buckley's Cough Mixture.

It tastes awful...and it pays. (Buckley's)
Peter wanted to base an entire campaign around how bad Buckley's cough syrup tasted.

65-year old CEO Frank Buckley was in the meeting that day. His father had started the company back in 1919. Frank knew his product tasted bad. But the company had never advertised the fact the cough syrup tasted awful.

In 1986, Buckley's was 9th or 10th in the cough suppressant category, toiling near the bottom of the pile. It needed a bold advertising idea.

The new slogan Peter presented was: "It tastes awful. And it works."

Frank Buckley approved that radical idea that day.

Peter Byrne was very smart – he knew a negative message needed a positive messenger. So he persuaded the charming Frank Buckley to be the spokesperson.

Peter started writing amusingly honest ads that focused on the negative.

One of the first print ads showed a bottle of Buckley's with the headline: "People swear by it. And at it."

Another showed Frank Buckley smiling with the headline: "I'm dedicated to ensuring every new batch of Buckley's tastes as bad as the last."

Yet another showed people making painful faces as they swallowed a spoonful of Buckley's.

Frank appeared in television commercials, too:

By focusing on how bad the cough medicine tasted, Buckley's became the #1 selling cough syrup in Canada by 1992.

As a matter of fact, the "bad taste" strategy was so powerful – so bold and honest and therefore so unique – that Buckley's dominated the category without having to spend as much as their competitors.

Rivals Benylin and Robitussin each spent close to $2 million on advertising in 1996, while Buckley's maintained the #1 position by only spending $500,000.

A big part of that success was Frank Buckley himself. He had a warm, genuine personality that connected with people. They understood the underlying message - if a product tasted that bad, it could only survive if it worked.

As Frank himself said in one commercial: The bad news is Buckley's tastes bad. The good news is you won't have to take it for long.

Frank Buckley lived until he was 94.

"It tastes awful and it works" was a success story that proved negativity can sometimes be the best medicine.

We try harder

In 1962, Hertz was outspending Avis 5 to 1 in its advertising. So the new President of Avis called Bill Bernbach, the Creative Director of Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising and told him the rental company needed to get five times the impact for their ad dollars.

Considered the fathers of rental cars.
Bernbach said his agency could do that – but – Avis needed to know something. First, Bernbach said "We don't take any crap from our clients. We don't allow clients to push us around and tell us what to do. Second, you run every ad we write where we tell you to run it. Third, you don't change even so much as a comma in our work."

Whoa. I can't imagine an advertising agency today having that much courage.

But the Avis president had an interesting reaction: He said they wanted Bernbach's agency even more after that. He felt that anyone who talked that way had confidence. And Avis needed confidence more than anything.

So the president and Bill Bernbach shook hands. And DDB got to work.

The agency eventually came back with a campaign that said Avis was second best, but they tried harder.

No advertiser in history had ever proudly announced they were number two before. They wrote ads that said things like, "Rent from Avis. The lines at our counter are shorter." And "Number 2's of the world – arise!" On top of all that, the ads didn't show any cars.

It was an ingenious strategy, because the underlying message was that the number one car rental company – Hertz - was too big to care. Too smug to deliver good customer service.

A negative becomes a positive. (Avis)
But before the campaign launched, it was put into research to see how people would react to it.

The results were not good. 50% of the people hated the idea.

That's when Bill Bernbach asked – what about the other 50%? The researcher said, well, they liked the campaign. "Well, they're the ones we want," said Bernbach. We're running the campaign."

The public loved Avis's underdog message immediately.

How powerful was the "We try harder" strategy? Previous to that campaign, Avis had lost money for 15 straight years.

In the very first year of "We try harder," Avis made a profit. In the second year, profit jumped 150%. In the third year, it doubled again.

By the way, when the advertising industry saw the "We're number two" campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach, they considered it a "page one error." Most ad agencies considered the idea shocking and disastrous. Some actually called it un-American.

Until, that is, Avis started stealing big chunks of market share from Hertz. As a matter of fact, Hertz was in such a tizzy over the Avis campaign, it fired its advertising agency.

By focusing on the negative of being number two in the rental car category, Avis drove right into the black.

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Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)