The corporate gamble behind annoying TV adverts

Watch and spend.


The current television advertising campaign for the Nationwide building society has been widely derided as incredibly irritating. Negative reactions to the adverts, which feature a pair of singing sisters called Flo and Joan, have been widespread on social media. There has been plenty of scorn, and shockingly, even death threats.

It is easy to see why, for many, the adverts are annoying. They can come across as smug, basic and too twee to be warmed to. The overly long songs grate. Even worse, the open ended skits have no coherent story linking them together, just a common air of prim pithiness.

Whether this makes these good or bad advertisements however, is up for debate.

On the one hand, these commercials have clearly managed to get under people’s skin. The main obstacle for advertisers is generating awareness. Drawing attention to a brand is difficult because people are skilled at filtering out advertising messages. They ignore media noise, creating what Naomi Klein describes as “headspace” – some respite from surroundings dominated by marketing.

A good advert momentarily gets into our headspace though, through sensory appeals, such as a startling visual or a sensuous voice.

Sex, of course, is also a classic go-to for marketers. Research shows that if you throw in a bit of nudity or innuendo, viewer attention increases greatly. It’s no wonder that sellers of everything from lingerie to kitchen appliances have adopted this tactic.

Yet without resorting to anything risqué, the Nationwide adverts force their way into your headspace, whether you want them to or not. Each commercial is carefully crafted to maximise this. Untypically bad songs and austere visuals stand out on television, a medium where we are more used to slick production values.

Viewers’ senses are triggered by this discordance. We don’t expect to see something this bad, and we respond. Every angry tweet is confirmation of a reaction being triggered, which no doubt has Nationwide’s campaign team laughing all the way to the bank (sorry, building society). This is a highly successful advert in terms of generating short-term attention for the brand.

Yet beyond grabbing attention, a great advert lingers in our headspace. It moves from the sensory to the cognitive – getting us to think and feel. The Christmas adverts by John Lewis are a classic example of advertisers successfully tugging at emotions, but also leaving viewers wondering exactly what they are feeling and why. This gives the advert life beyond brief screen time.

The Flo and Joan campaign also does this. But the apparent backlash suggests many viewers are not thinking or feeling positive things. They feel irritated. They want it to stop.

Authenticity then comes into doubt. Are the adverts really bad, or are they ironic, maybe even sarcastic? Do the performers experience any of the problems they complain about? Is it a joke, and is the joke on us?

This is bad news for Nationwide. Advertisers want to trigger positive emotions and thoughts, to then be transferred to the brand. The current Dropbox campaign, for example, successfully harnesses a sense of creative energy, and associates this with an unexpected and unlikely product – cloud computer storage.

Presumably no brand wants to be associated with irritation. Yet the financial services industry has a track record of annoying adverts. This is because their products and services are low involvement – the target customer demographic (new and younger customers) don’t particularly care about who provides their financial services, or gives them a loan.

Banking on awareness

This younger target market are only really interested in price and convenience. The back story of Flo and Joan as successful, popular comedians and social media celebrities cuts little ice.

Nor do we get particularly strong feelings for financial services. Banks and building society brands are fairly unexciting. Their offerings are largely the same. So it is difficult for these businesses to create emotional links with customers. In a sector where the public just don’t care, corporate brands are trying to get us to feel something – anything.

Nationwide seems to simply be hoping to stand out by any means necessary. They are banking on recruiting new customers as a result of the attention generated by Flo and Joan. Next time you think about setting up an ISA, you might just remember their songs before you think of one of their rivals.

Nor does it really matter if these new customers become irritated with the brand, because the finance sector relies on apathy. Once signed up, a customer is likely to remain with a financial provider, no matter how aggravating their advertising.

So there is more to Flo and Joan than social media commentators give them credit for. Contrary to what viewers might be thinking as they hastily switch channels, they represent meticulously planned and well executed advertising.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.