Long Live the Creative Torture Test

At the moment my favourite TV commercials are for Febreze.  They’re the ones where blindfolded subjects are led into rooms full of disgusting objects that have been odour neutralized with Febreze and are asked to describe the smell.  I bust a gut every time someone nestles their face into sink full of greasy dishes or a filthy throw cushion and declares that is smells like the beach!

So why do I think this campaign is so brilliant?  It’s not just because it’s funny, which it clearly is.  It’s because it’s a fantastic demonstration of the product benefit done in such an engaging way.  And sadly, it’s something that we don’t see much of anymore.

In marketing lingo we call this type of ad the torture test.  You’re never really going to use Febreze as an alternative to taking rotting garbage out of your house, or as a means to avoid ever having to wash your son’s sweat socks, but these extreme rooms of stink are meant to demonstrate that there really isn’t anything in your home that is too stinky for Febreze to de-stink-ify.

In the annals of advertising history there have been a few great ads following this model.  Anyone with a formal education in marketing will likely have studied the Acapulco cliff diver ad for Timex as part of  Advertising 101.  “It takes a licking, and keeps on ticking.”

Does anyone remember the American Tourister commercial from the 1970’s where a gorilla abuses the crap out of a suitcase?  Airline baggage handlers aren’t really a bunch of savage apes but the ad clearly demonstrated that American Tourister luggage could handle the toss and smash that can only be expected when you have a workforce earning minimum wage spending eight hour shifts in a dank terminal unloading the luggage of rich vacationers.  If there’s one miss in this ad, it’s the branding.  When I originally searched for it, I searched Samsonite.  Oooops!

Luggage is one thing, but what about a fragile computer?  Toshiba illustrated the durability of their Notebook computer a number of years ago with a great ad featuring a hapless businessman who mistakenly checked it with his baggage.  “I checked my Notebook?!”  At one point we see him using the in flight oxygen mask to keep from passing out.  “I checked…. my Notebook.”  Who hasn’t experienced second thoughts about checking something fragile in their baggage?  I clearly recall the warm rush of relief I felt many years ago, opening my suitcase and finding the bottle of red wine I had packed in haste on a trip home from Germany still intact, amongst my favourite clothes.  Similarly, the Toshiba guy gushes when he retrieves his computer from the luggage belt and it powers up without incident.  “It’s alive!”

Done well, the torture test is an advertising device like no other.  But the key is to infuse it with real drama and genuine human emotion that makes it impossible for the viewer not to watch it through to the end.  And perhaps that’s the tricky part.