5 subversive ads which recently caught my attention

Back in April, I wrote about the importance of subtle storytelling in a noisy always-on world of endless social media. People are tired of having products thrown in their faces. You’ve gotta calm it down, reel it in, and make people part of the promotion, not the target of it.

Some agencies turn campaigns into hunts, which fans go crazy for, trying to dig up clues about what’s being teased. Other marketers will take the more sombre route of heartstring-tugging ads worthy of Oscar nominations. Sometimes, it all comes down to memes.

Here are five of my favourite subversive ad campaigns which have swept across the Internet recently, and captivated my attention along the way.

Eminem goes pharmaceutical for new album

Sorry to start lengthy, but, there’s a lot to this one. A lot of sleuthing, and a lot of tiny details which make this one heck of a clever campaign. It all started with this graphic:

The backwards ‘E’ in the name ‘Revival’ mirrors the reversed glyph of Eminem’s logo. ‘Seize the moment’ is a reference to Em’s song Sing For The Moment. Go to the Revival website and there’s a (very convincing) video in which the actors say things like “it’s easy to lose yourself,” “I won’t miss my one shot,” and “fever, sweats, chills, and sweaty palms” — all references to Eminem’s iconic track Lose Yourself.

It goes deeper. The fake ‘Revival’ drug is credited to a fake manufacturer, ‘Popsomp Industries’ — back when Em was promoting his album Relapse, he launched a website for the fictional rehabilitation clinic Popsomp Hills (‘pop some pills’, if you say it quickly). Oh, and if you call the number on the ad (1-833-2GET-REV), the hold music is I Need A Doctor.

Shady Records music manager Paul Rosenberg posted an Instagram shot of Yelawolf’s new CD, which would seem pretty unrelated until you cast your eyes to the background — there’s a gigantic banner ad for the fictional Revival ad on the side of a building.


There are loads of other Eminem references throughout the website, plus social media posts from myriad Shady associates fuelling the campaign’s fire, but you get the idea.

November 21st is the theorized date for Em’s new album drop. Will it be called Revival? Let’s wait and see.

This Reddit thread and the video below from Genius will give you a wider insight into how Eminem is subversively promoting his ninth studio album.

Netflix turns the world of advertising upside-down

It feels like Netflix has unlimited money, given how hard they’ve been pushing the second season of Stranger Things. Perhaps the second-coolest thing they did was have Spotify transform into the ‘Upside Down’ when you scrub through songs from the soundtrack on Spotify:

The actual coolest thing they did, though, was merging the Stranger Things universe with reality via a series of billboards for Hawkins Power and Light, the industrial firm which plays a pivotal role in the sci-fi show.

Call the number on the billboard, and it seems like a fairly bog-standard automated system with recorded responses, menu directions, and chill hold music. Then you start hearing ominous crackling sounds, and increasingly sinister quotes from Dr. Owens, a character see in the show.


At one point, he warns of vegetation in Hawkins being damaged by a new electrical grid. Then he says: “We don’t just power homes, we power dreams.” Hmmm...

At the end of the call, there’s an opportunity to leave your address. Several people have tried doing just that, and a few days later they received Hawkins Power and Light merch.

A round of applause for the Netflix marketing team. Listen to a recording of the call below:

Finger-lickin’ following

This one’s much smaller in scale, but it reminded me of when fast food chain Wendy’s gave a guy free chicken nuggets for a year after he got 18 million retweets, so it deserves a mention.

KFC’s secret recipe is renowned for comprising 11 herbs and spices, right? Well, recently, KFC’s Twitter account unfollowed everyone except these 11 users:


Yeah. Six dudes named Herb, and the five members of Spice Girls. Genius.

Naturally, someone noticed, and as I’m writing this post, his tweet has been retweeted a solid 300,000+ times. He’s currently trying to wangle some free food from KFC, and people have been loving the banter between him and the fast food giant.

IKEA is just a part of life

If an agency can make preroll ads on YouTube go viral, keep them.

IKEA recently commissioned Åkestam Holst to create a series of pre-video commercials which literally just show people doing everyday things, while awkwardly glancing at the camera and encouraging you to skip the ad, as if you’re imposing on their privacy and should have better things to do.

One of them features a teenager doing dishes:


Another ad features a group of friends arm wrestling:

As each of the ads play, text appears (set in Verdana, not Futura) highlighting IKEA furnishings that appear in frame. Åkestam Holst have reported that the average viewer has spent three minutes watching these preroll promotions, which is an astronomically longer time than the average YouTube surfer. They’re just so boringly captivating.

It’s also a genius continuation of IKEA’s ‘Where Life Happens’ campaign, which, as the name suggests, casts IKEA products as background characters in familiar, mundane narratives.

Volkswagen explores generational disconnect

I like to end things on a relatable, depressing note, so that brings us to Volkswagen Denmark’s six-minute ‘Generations’ ad. It centres on an ageing father and his son taking a trip in a VW to connect after misunderstanding one another for a lifetime. It’s fast becoming heralded as a cornerstone of the rising trend in campaigns which are more like short films than commercials.

‘Generations’ takes the risk of framing the product as a part of life, through the good times and the bad. The ad is a refreshing break from kaleidoscopes of cars driving around to dubstep. It’s a similar approach to IKEA’s ‘Where Life Happens’ campaign. And it pays off massively.