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Don’t Make Content People Hate. They’ll Hate It.

lucas uses venmo ad screenshot

A little while back I wrote about trying to create marketing that people truly enjoy, so that rather than being annoyed by it, people look forward to seeing your next ad, blog, or white paper. That’s hard, but it’s the best-case scenario.

What you definitely want to avoid, though, is an ad that people will outright hate. I know, I know, “all publicity is good publicity.” I’m not so sure about that, and I’ll give you a couple of reasons why.

1. Your brand shouldn’t be based on getting attention by being terrible.

One of my favorite books about marketing is “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This” by Luke Sullivan, who’s worked in the field for decades. The title – and presumably, the idea for the book – come from an old Charmin ad Sullivan particularly hated growing up. The ads weren’t failures, but for years people associated that brand with irritating ads.


If you’re okay with irritating people into buying your product, then that’s okay, I guess. But the landscape today is very different from the landscape of the 70s or 80s. We all have remote controls, and are more than willing to use them in anger. If an ad is annoying, it gets muted. The channel gets changed. You get ignored. At this point, frankly, with widespread use of DVRs and other devices that allow recording, pausing, and fast-forwarding of television, you’re lucky if a TV ad gets seen at all.

And the philosophy of avoiding ads at all costs pervades our consumption culture now. Radio stations go to commercial and you change the channel. An ad pops up in a magazine, and you flip past it immediately. Emails get deleted if they don’t catch your attention instantly. Banner ads get overlooked, or adblocked. And that’s all because of the irritating, annoying, hateful ones. If your business is lucky enough to get through that gauntlet of avoidance, it had better be good – or you will have really made someone mad

2. If you’re not a major corporation, this is your first impression.

And guess what? It’s awful. You only have one shot to make a first impression and if you blow it, that can affect potential customers’ opinions of your business for a long time.

Take Venmo, for example. The first time I ever heard of the tech company (which has developed a money-exchange app) was in this Fast Company interview with the subject of a widely derided New York City subway ad campaign. Nobody who sees the ads seemed to have any idea what the heck they’re advertising. Fast Company said “The ads have created more confusion than awareness” – and even worse, people hate them. They get vandalized (okay, most subway ads do, but these seem to get the treatment more than most) and social media is full of complaints and vitriol. Poor Lucas. Nobody seems to like him, but it’s not his fault.

The campaign has gotten attention, but mostly exasperated and annoyed attention. For people who don’t already use the Venmo app, is this really a good way to get attention? To creep them out and confuse them? Probably not. And now, forever, when those people hear the name of the company or see its logo, they’ll think of that exasperation and confusion – not of a good product or service.

Everything you do can’t be the greatest thing in the world. Every commercial can’t be Apple’s “1984,” or the Volkswagen print series from the 70s. But when you’re deciding between going for great and being terrible for attention, make the right choice. Aim for the stars, because even if you miss, at least people won’t hate you.

Thomas Wachtel Team Photo at Element Three

Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.