The hottest holiday commercials this season have ditched the heartwarming, home-for-the-holidays scenes to strike a dramatically different chord.
Advertising executives have instead chosen sly humor over sentiment, as major marketers including American Honda Motor Co., Netflix and K-Mart are betting that tongue-in-cheek sells.
Perhaps for good reason: U.S. consumers are tired of sugarcoated Christmas commercials, according to a recent online survey of more than 2,000 consumers.
"We were surprised that a majority of Americans said they like to see Scrooge-like themes, or the naughtier side of things, in holiday ads," said Becky Jones, vice president of marketing and research at Viamedia, the Kentucky-based cable advertising sales firm that conducted the study.
K-Mart rolled out this season's most controversial commercial. In a spot called "Jingle Balls," K-Mart's "bell choir" features six male models, in holiday-themed Joe Boxer shorts, thrusting their hips to the well-known holiday tune.
"You would not expect an ad like this from K-Mart," said Ed Russell, an advertising professor at Syracuse University. "In the past, K-Mart hasn't had much personality. But this represents a huge move for them, and has made K-Mart a more interesting place to shop."
Some K-Mart shoppers complained, calling the commercial inappropriate. Others, however, applauded the audacity of the ad.
Competitor J.C. Penney sent K-Mart a Twitter message that said: "We noticed you could use some pants. So here's a 15% off coupon."
For marketers, advertisements that go viral like "Jingle Balls" can be a gift that keeps on giving.
Brands increasingly are striving to break through the cluttered marketplace to get attention for their products. Advertisers say the best way to get the attention of consumers, distracted by a flood of messages, is to create an element of surprise or intrigue.
"You have to reward the viewer, who in reality doesn't really want to hear from you," one ad executive said.
That's what prompted ad agency RPA of Santa Monica to enlist 1990s crooner Michael Bolton to charge up commercials for Honda's "Happy Honda Days" year-end sales event.
In the ads, shot in Santa Ana and Puente Hills, Bolton suddenly appears on Honda car lots to sing in his trademark style as potential car buyers mill around.
"People expect to be surprised and amazed," said Jason Sperling, RPA's executive creative director. "We picked Michael Bolton because we knew he would help us create ads that were irreverent, a little tongue-in-cheek and fun. And he took advantage of the cheesiness."
Susie Rossick, a Honda senior manager, said the marketing team was inspired by a Bolton video from two years ago that has been watched on YouTube more than 117 million times. In the spoof, Bolton sings about his pretend devotion to Capt. Jack Sparrow, the character played by Johnny Depp in the Walt Disney Co. "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise.
As a tie-in to the Honda TV commercials, Bolton spent a day last month recording musical greeting cards, personalized for fans who sent messages on Twitter, using the hashtag #XOXOBolton.
"You can't just rely on television anymore," Rossick said. "We needed something that would really break through the clutter. And Michael, who still has such an amazing voice, had fun with it."
This fall, video service Netflix hired Deutsch LA, which is based near Playa Vista, to handle its advertising. The firm created a holiday-themed commercial to encourage new customers to sign up for the service in advance of the holidays — a big time for family movie watching.
"Red ribbons always seem to be the holiday theme, and ads that are served up sugary sweet," said Pete Favat, the recently hired chief creative officer at Deutsch LA. "But we wanted to make a film that was heartfelt and an appreciation of all the things that can go wrong when families come together. We wanted to create something that was closer to reality."
The Netflix commercial, called "Tree Topper," unfolds as an eerie narrative told by a porcelain tree topper bought decades ago at a hardware store. The ad was shot near Chicago.
Lorraine Bracco, who played the psychiatrist in "The Sopranos," voices the world-weary tree topper who watches as rambunctious kids nearly destroy the house, and an aunt, baking yams, lights it on fire.
"The family historian as a tree topper was a charming way to introduce a family coming together for the holidays," said Jennifer Johnson, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota. "The way it was shot, with that vintage filter, gave it a 1970s basement look. The ad felt like it belongs in a family scrapbook."
That was entirely intentional. "We said, 'Let's use a little bit of the family dysfunction and the chaos to serve as the antagonist of the film,'" Favat said. "If you do 'edge' around the holidays, it is going to stand out."
Last week, as an encore to its "Jingle Balls," K-Mart trotted out a Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol"-inspired message called "Ship My Trousers," which features 19th century characters shopping at K-Mart.
The commercial was a sequel to K-Mart's hugely popular spot from earlier this year, "Ship My Pants," which promoted the retailer's free shipping policy. In its first two weeks, K-Mart's "Ship My Trousers" commercial — created by the Chicago agency Draftfcb — has notched nearly 3 million online views.
"We are using humor to be disruptive — and engaging," said Jamie Stein, a K-Mart representative. "Relevancy is important, and people are talking about us."