When Clever Becomes ‘Too Clever’

Advertising is a game where clever people try to charm the money right out of your pockets. In an age when the coveted Super Bowl spots cost $3 million dollars a minute, it’s become a game of producing the smartest and most creative way to grab the consumer’s attention. Every day agencies and business’ are working to “think outside the box” and out-think the other guy. But when does clever become ‘too clever’?

As a student of marketing myself, and someone who has a photographic memory (OK, mostly photographic… except in cases of remembering to do stuff around my house), I like to catalog unique marketing campaigns. A couple comes to mind.

It’s easy to remember the good ones. GEICO comes to mind. In 1999 GEICO wasn’t on anyone’s radar and they had an insignificant market share in the auto insurance industry. They had been around for since 1936, but then had no brand recognition. They went to work and had a number of incredibly successful campaigns, most notably the ‘GEICO Gecko’ and the ‘GEICO Cavemen’. The latter even went on to spawn a short-lived television Sitcom. You know your campaign has made it when they’re making sitcoms about it. But flash forward 10 years and GEICO has become one of the largest auto insurers in the world. They were clever and now, chances are, when you think insurance you’ll likely think GEICO.

Another clever campaign, one that probably worked too well, happened in San Francisco in 1999. Martha Sanchez, owner of Casa Sanchez restaurant had a stroke of genius. Sanchez offered a free lunch for life for anyone willing to get a tattoo of their restaurant logo… Jimmy to Corn Man (a kid in a sombrero next to a giant ear of corn doubling as a rocket ship.) Truth be told, she didn’t think that anyone would actually take them up on it. Was she ever wrong. At last count, no less than 40 people had gotten the tattoo… and had come in for their winnings. The promotion worked, the restaurant gained local and national attention. It was brilliant. But then it came time to pay as the newly tattooed patrons began coming in each and every day looking for their free lunches. Martha welcomed the attention but shunned the cost. One day she sat down and did the diligence. She figured out that if every customer who had accepted the gauntlet came in for a free lunch every day for the next 50 years, it would cost them nearly $5.8 million!!! Did it work? I’d say so. But perhaps it worked too well.

But then there’s the case of Pacific Airlines and the promotion that crashed them for good. According to the book “The Misfortune 500” by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo in 1967 Pacific Airlines decided to get really creative and outside of the box with their marketing promotion. They decided to hire Stan Freberg to design their marketing campaign. His idea? Instead of hide the fact that people are afraid to fly, welcome it with open arms. The campaign featured a full paged ad in the New York Times in April of 1967 that stated;

Hey there! You with the sweat in your palms. It’s about time an airline faced up to something: Most people are scared witless of flying. Deep down inside, every time that big plane lifts off that runway, you wonder if this is it, right? You want to know something, fella? So does the pilot deep down inside.

But it didn’t stop there. Flight attendants handed out rabbits’ feet and the book “The Power of Positive Thinking” and were armed with instructions to scream “We made it!!!” with each touchdown. What happened shortly thereafter was a surprise to no one. Executives resigned, business tanked and so too did Pacific Airlines.

The lesson here? Sometimes clever can be too clever. Sometimes you can really grab the bull by the horns. But sometimes… what the hell do you do with it when you have it?


Bubba is the Quality Logo Products mascot. He may have started out as "just a stress ball," but he's come a long way since the company's launch in 2003. Bubba has been immortalized in numerous vector artwork designs for internal and external promotions, and you can see him change outfits on the Quality Logo Products homepage whenever a holiday rolls around. Oh, and he thinks pants are for the birds. You can connect with Bubba on

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