If you want your advertising to stand out, you have to be willing to go somewhere different. Plenty of companies did just that this year, jumping on trends like the metaverse and NFTs to promote their products. Others ventured into unconventional PSAs, or co-opted imagery from hit TV shows for door-to-door guerilla marketing. Some of these efforts worked, while a few decidedly did not.
Here are six of the oddest ad campaigns and public relations stunts of 2021.
1. Relief's Squid Game competitor
In October, Miamians and New Yorkers might have found one of 10,000 business cards in the style of those seen on Netflix's Squid Game. In the show, the brown cards with a circle, triangle, and square are an invitation to indebted South Koreans to play deadly games for lots of money. The ones scattered around New York and Miami were promoting Relief, an app that helps users reduce credit card debt.
The Miami-based startup did not partner with Netflix for the stunt, nor did it explicitly mention Squid Game on the card. But the design is instantly recognizable to even casual viewers of the gory hit series. Tucked under windshield wipers and into doorframes, the backside of the business cards made the connection clear: "There's a better way to get out of debt."
2. Burger King's "Keep It Real" NFTs
To promote the removal of 120 artificial ingredients from the fast-food giant's menu, Burger King in September introduced its "Keep It Real Meals" campaign. The limited-time combo meals, each named for a celebrity, came with a QR code that customers could scan to redeem collectible NFTs--non-fungible tokens--representing ownership of digital assets that can be traded or auctioned over blockchain networks. In partnership with NFT e-marketplace Sweet, Burger King gave away six million of the digital tokens across 28 designs featuring the Nelly, Anitta, and LilHuddy.
Burger King isn't the only food business experimenting with NFTs. Taco Bell did a similar promotion in March after adding potatoes to its menu, as did Pizza Hut Canada. Coca-Cola also joined the token bandwagon, auctioning off NFT "loot boxes" in late June to celebrate International Friendship Day.
3. Chipotle x Roblox
Chipotle has offered discount burritos to Halloween customers for over two decades with the annual "Boorito" promotion. This year the fast-casual chain tried something different: it partnered with the online multiplayer game Roblox and invited the public to "experience Boorito in the metaverse for the first time."
For three days, the first 30,000 Roblox users to visit a virtual Chipotle restaurant and talk to the virtual cashier got a coupon for a free burrito--so long as they wore a virtual costume, of course, such as "Guacenstein" or "Chip Bag Ghost." The site crashed one day into the promotion, but Roblox insisted the outage was unrelated.
4. Samuel Adams Vaccine PSA
This year's coronavirus vaccine rollout has made use of mascots, influencer partnerships, and corporate endorsements to persuade unvaccinated Americans to get their shots. In April, Boston Beer Company's flagship brand Samuel Adams stepped up to do its part with a 30-second spot titled "Your Cousin From Boston Gets Vaccinated."
In the short PSA, a Boston man revels in his "I Got Vaccinated" pin and enjoys drinking Samuel Adams beer indoors with friends. Then he wakes up from the dream sequence on the floor of the vaccination clinic, having dropped his pants and fainted at the sight of a needle. As the logos roll he breezily reassures people waiting in line for their vaccinations that there's nothing to worry about, under the tagline "Don't Miss Your Shot."
5. The 850-Pound Edible
To celebrate National Chocolate Brownie Day this December, Massachusetts-based cannabis company MariMed unveiled an improbably large, record-setting, 850-pound marijuana brownie. The three foot-by-three foot brownie shattered the record previously held by Something Sweet Bake Shop's 234-pound, pot-free contender.
The stunt kicked off MariMed's new line of "Bubby's Baked" edibles, and used up three pounds of salt, 212 pounds of butter, more than 1,300 eggs, and 20,000 milligrams of THC. (A standard dose is 10 milligrams, by the way.) A spokesperson told the AP the brownie will ultimately be sold to a medical marijuana patient in Middleborough, though the purchase price is still up for consideration.
6. Voltswagen of America
Contrary to P. T. Barnum's classic line, not all press is good press.
In preparation for the release of Volkswagen's new line of ID.4 electric cars, the company "accidentally" published a press release March 29 announcing it would change the name of its U.S. subsidiary to Voltswagen of America. VW officials confirmed the leak on Twitter and emailed the news directly to reporters. After the announcement was picked up by major media outlets, VW came clean that the name change was an elaborate (and premature) April Fools' joke.
For many consumers, the false report was an inadvertent reminder of how the German automaker lied for years about its diesel fuel efficiency and cheated on emissions tests. Before coming clean about "Voltswagen," VW called the name change a "public declaration of the company's future-forward investment in e-mobility." The announcement sent its stock price up as much as 12 percent, triggering an SEC investigation into whether the company's bizarre prank violated securities laws.