Trend Tracking


Subversion Tactics

Content Specialist

“Can you hear me now?” is an all-timer of a tagline. It ranks up there with the greats, like “Just do it” and “Think different.” Hearing it immediately brings to mind a campaign, a product and, most importantly, how that product outdoes its competitors. It’s a rhetorical question, a statement of differentiation, of preeminence. It positioned Verizon as the country’s undisputed leader in cellular coverage in the early 21st century.

That’s what made it so startling when former Verizon spokesman Paul Marcarelli—he of the thick-framed glasses and workman’s jacket and incessant wandering—appeared in a Sprint advertisement last fall, playing, well, the “Can you hear me now?” guy, but talking about how Sprint was the better wireless option for saving money. To some, it was a heel turn. To others, a brilliant coup in a great advertising battle. Whatever you want to call it, it was Sprint engaging in one of advertising’s most notorious marketing strategies—subversion tactics.

It’s easy to go after a rival brand. It’s also easy to look bad doing so. Subversion tactics posits that if you’re going to take shots at fellow brands, you better do so in a clever, entertaining, informative way—one that lets consumers see how serious you are about providing a superior product or service. It’s making a point while making a joke while winking at the audience. It’s hard to pull off well, but when it works, it’s memorable.

Last summer, at Palma Airport in Mallorca, Spain, in a one-day event, Samsonite offered free luggage wrapping to all travelers with what they referred to as “inferior suitcases”—anything but a Samsonite. There was one major caveat, however: the wrapping explicitly read “I wish I had a Samsonite.” The stunt called attention to Samsonite’s claim that their luggage is every bit as durable as safe-wrapped luggage.


Sometimes, brave brands will set the sights on themselves. See how the speaker brand Sonos used subversion tactics by making itself the target when, last October, in London, the company put on a “speaker amnesty,” in which customers could exchange their used speakers for brand new Sonos wireless ones. The brand took shots at the unreliability and poor sound quality offered by so many of its (and, yes, its competitors’) older products. It pointed to issues such as spotty Bluetooth connections and the annoying need for a docking station. Fans lined up as early as 5 am to take part in the event.


Obviously, you can’t pull off these kinds of stunts without the acumen to back you up. Audiences today are more skeptical than ever before, and have all the information they need to make sure that the wool isn’t being pulled over their eyes. But with great risk comes great reward. So subvert the paradigm just a little bit, and people will talk about it. Who knows, maybe you’ll even stumble into your own famous tagline.

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