HeadOn: An Annoying Ad that Works

Discussion
Oct 12, 2007

By Tom Ryan

Described as repetitive, amateurish and intentionally obnoxious, the commercials for HeadOn also apparently work. Sales for the homeopathic migraine headache remedy catapulted 234 percent from 2005 to 2006 and are rising more two-fold so far this year.

View on YouTube…

The 15-second spot shows a woman rubbing what appears to be a glue stick across her forehead. A bright yellow arrow points to the application area, and an announcer hypnotically repeats three times: “HeadOn. Apply directly to the forehead.” The announcer then says it’s a non-prescription product available at retail stores. The ad provides no more details about what HeadOn actually does.

Since their June 2006 launch, the spots have become a pop culture phenomenon. Advertising Age called HeadOn the most “cheesy” commercial to capture the public’s imagination since the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” from LifeCall. On “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno has spoofed the commercial three times (i.e., “Big Mac: Apply directly to your ass.”), and “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” have also referenced it. Numerous parodies are scattered across YouTube.

“Part of the charm is that it is so crude,” Dina Mayzlin, assistant professor of marketing at Yale School of Management, told USA Today last year. “The ad stands out in its repetitiveness. It’s intriguing and breaks through the clutter.”

Dan Charron, VP-sales and marketing at Miralus Healthcare, the marketer of HeadOn, recently told AdAge the commercials, which are done in-house, are intentionally repetitive and amateurish.

“We’re just trying to build a brand by getting people to remember it,” said Mr. Charron

In coming up with the campaign, Mr. Charron tested some commercials typical of health and beauty campaigns, such as an actor holding the product up and discussing its benefits. Again and again, however, the repetitive campaign had much better recall with focus groups than standard ads.

“Our No. 1 priority is recall,” said Mr. Charron.

HeadOn also purposely tested the ads against mainstream commercials rather than just other headache remedies.

“Odds are, 99 percent of the time, our ad won’t be next to a headache remedy anyway but a car ad or electronics ad or food ad,” he said.

Sales of HeadOn reached $6.5 million last year excluding Wal-Mart, according to Information Resources Inc. Although ad agencies are calling, HeadOn plans to continue to create the ads in-house for fear of losing its unique approach.

“If a focus group tells us something is not going to work, we discard it. There’s no conflict of interest this way,” Mr. Charron told AdAge. “We don’t care about winning creative awards.”

Discussion Questions: Why do you think the HeadOn commercials are so effective? Can many other brands apply similar techniques? What lessons can be learned from HeadOn on how brands can break through the ad clutter?

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19 Comments on "HeadOn: An Annoying Ad that Works"


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Lisa Bradner
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Lisa Bradner
13 years 9 months ago

We all know the clapper, the chia pet and the ginsu knives as well. DRTV has lived for years on the knowledge that cheesy and memorable drives sales–it’s not going to build a brand that extends to other categories but it sells stuff–something brand marketers should keep in mind when they develop soft ad campaigns that fail to ask for the order because it’s “not in keeping with the brand.”

Mark Lilien
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

$6.5 million sales might not be very impressive compared to the media spending. What does the national ad campaign cost? Is HeadOn profitable? If all annoying ads were removed from TV, would the programs have to be 10% longer or would we be watching 100% more public service announcements?

Dick Seesel
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Cheesy and annoying, for sure…and who knows whether the stuff actually works? But it does follow a couple of primitive rules of Advertising 101: First, repeat your brand name as often as possible in a 30-second spot (or in this case, 15 seconds). Next, show the packaging. Finally, demonstrate the benefits.

Contrast this with the latest batch of Hyundai spots, part of their “Think About It” campaign. Blink, and you’ll miss the Hyundai logo placed obscurely at the bottom of the screen. Blink twice and you may not realize you’re watching a car commercial.

The Hyundai ad is likely to win advertising awards, the HeadOn spot definitely not. But it’s hard to argue that the HeadOn ads have met their primary goals, to drive sales and awareness.

Anne Howe
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

The ad is certainly memorable, but any break-through the clutter ad format has a limited life cycle. The magic formula here is that the company is testing and listening to its target consumers. Building a brand is tricky, but if they continue to test new and interesting creative ideas, the consumers will guide them, regardless of how unsophisticated the spots are. I hope they continue to test often and broaden the base of the testing to match the growing base of users, and non-users. Personally I think they have overused The Weather Channel already. Mix up the media strategy little bit!

David Biernbaum
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

HeadOn’s ads are among the most successful of all times because the message is so simple and effectively annoying. They have even made fun of their own commercials on newer ones, and that is pretty smart. However, I strongly discourage the imitators and wannabes that are thinking about doing the same types of ads. You will NOT experience the same degree of success because the HeadOn ads were first to market, and once the concept becomes imitated, the impact will lose its effectiveness for everyone except for HeadOn. By the way, HeadOn was the perfect name to define the product, and for this annoying ad concept. However, ActiveOn, and the other names they came up with, are not nearly as defining.

Warren Thayer
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

It works for the reasons outlined by several folk in the lead-in here. It’s direct, the benefit is clear, and it’s different. With so many big-budget ads, you may recall the ad but not remember the product or the benefit. I think (and sincerely hope) it’s a one-hit wonder. One of these campaigns, I can take. But if everyone starts using it, TiVo is going to get more popular than ever.

Ryan Mathews
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Because Americans are so slavishly devoted to both media and mediocrity! Because Americans are so slavishly devoted to both media and mediocrity! Because Americans are so slavishly devoted to both media and mediocrity! Because Americans are so slavishly devoted to both media and mediocrity!

Ben Ball
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Love the ads or hate them, Mr. Charron makes a great point in testing the commercials in context with car ads, etc. But I’m not so sure about having a sole focus on recall. As a creative director who once worked on one of my businesses used to say “I can go on stage and drop my pants and get awareness and recall–but what have I persuaded you to do?”

Janet Dorenkott
Guest
Janet Dorenkott
13 years 9 months ago

It’s an annoying commercial. That said, people remember it. The obvious “low budget” aspect to it stands out among the high end ads. I think viewers appreciate the simplicity. Our company has done the same thing in the past and we have gotten compliments and complaints. Either way, the ads were noticed and it helped build awareness. They were also fun and affordable to put together. I do agree with David that you have to be careful how and when you run ads like that. The effectiveness would not be there is everyone started doing it.

Joel Warady
Guest
Joel Warady
13 years 9 months ago

The VP of Sales and Marketing said it best. “We don’t care about winning creative awards.” If more marketing people understood that at the end of the day, their worth is measured in the percentage of sales increase, they would worry less about creativity, and more about creating sales. When people ask is an ad a great ad, they really want to know if the ad is working. If sales are increasing, the ad is working.

Too simplistic? Not for HeadOn.

Ted Hurlbut
Guest
Ted Hurlbut
13 years 9 months ago

For an ad like this to be effective, the product has to be as simple and straight forward as the ad itself. HeadOn accomplishes that. But for all of the revenue generated by this single item, the ad is self-limiting to that item. If that’s the objective, fine, but if the objective is to build brand cache to support a range of items and categories, a more sophisticated campaign is necessary.

Eliott Olson
Guest
Eliott Olson
13 years 9 months ago

When commercials start and the TV volume also increases and the audience surfs over the whole three minutes is the point where recall is usually lost. The HeadOn commercial is like a loud flatulence in a quiet crowd. Most people are disgusted but they remember the moment.

George Ator
Guest
George Ator
13 years 9 months ago

The headache ad is mindful of another headache remedy that was also annoying to some, but very effective. Remember Anacin? The ads changed and became softer. It is no longer the giant it once was.

Advertisers must remember that people buy benefits, brand is secondary. Cute ads used to make our account executives giggle and pat themselves on the back in my ad agency, but did they didn’t sell our client’s product as well as the simple straight forward benefits ads.

Frequency is critical to enhance memorability. HeadOn has the right approach for this product, but it is not a brand maker. Our research showed that product name had to be mentioned a minimum of 8 times in a 30 second spot to be effective.

Douglas Knuth
Guest
Douglas Knuth
13 years 9 months ago

Sorry Mr. Charron, no direct correlation has ever been proven between ad recall and sales increases. However, it does appear annoyance leads to higher sales. Go figure.

David Farnam
Guest
David Farnam
13 years 9 months ago

One of the panelists commented about the ads being too one-product focused and would need to be more sophisticated to build a brand.

When you think of strong brands like Bayer you think aspirin. Band-Aid and bandages which is such a strong brand it practically defines the category, similar to Kleenex tissues which has had to sue to protect their brand from being open season.

I would venture to guess that no one has ever heard of Miralus Healthcare, but we all know HeadOn. And to think they pulled it off without the aid of high-powered ad agency? Kudos to them.

We are in the midst of the YouTube generation where parity is king and HeadOn capitalized on that whether they realized it at the time or not.

Brands are built one product at a time and I’d say they are off to a great start.

Carissa Luch
Guest
Carissa Luch
13 years 9 months ago

Clearly the ad works because it is attention grabbing–but it also provides relief for something that is in many cases debilitating. Does anyone who has written suffer from migraines? Do you know how bad the side effects for many of the medications for migraines can be? Give me something that I can remember, that I think might work without side effects–and I’ll be trying it too!

Kai Clarke
Guest
13 years 9 months ago

Repetition, memorability and inviting the audience to try something new is a great solution for advertising success. Too many good ads are great to watch but lack in true business impact. It is great to see one that maximizes on its impact and memorability as well as cuts through the noise to become an effective sender of the product’s message. More ads need to pay attention to their ability to deliver (i.e. how do they impact sales versus their costs), and for how long. When ads like these deliver, they deliver with a home run! Watch and learn!

Gregory Belkin
Guest
Gregory Belkin
13 years 9 months ago

I think the audience has it…repetition and recognition. Not sure how many of you are from the New England area, but this add in some ways reminds me of 1-800-54-GIANT. The jingle and recognition are unbelievable, as are the commercials of “average” people humming the tune, promoting the brand as a New England staple of culture.

Congrats to the HeadOn folks. Like the add says, I hate the commercials, but I love the strategy.

Laura Davis-Taylor
Guest
Laura Davis-Taylor
13 years 9 months ago

Well, there’s certainly something to be said here about making a message revoltingly simple and “quick to get.” As we’re seeing more and more in-store digital messages being measured as “glance media” as well, this makes me wonder if TV is moving that way too. After all, a viewer is going to get the message for an ad like this even if they’re skipping through it on a TiVo!

I’d hate to see this spark a copycat trend but there are certainly some interesting insights to be had by today’s agency creative teams. After being in advertising for 15 years, I’m sure my creative friend wouldn’t like that comment. But, at the end of the day, ads (and branding) have one goal: sales. It’s our job as marketers to figure out how to get there and creative excellence should not be the primary driver.

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