Hip, quirky, vague advertising works. It works in marketing, as Visa Canada’s recently launched “smallenfreuden” advertising campaign seems to be working; it also works in recruiting—as it once did very personally, in seducing me into applying for and accepting a plum corporate job with 400-to-8 odds (2% chance) of being selected. (More about that below.)

If you aren’t Canadian, you may not be familiar with “smallenfreuden”. A recently created now-viral marketing catchphrase, it is a humorous Germanized fusion of “small” and “freuden” (“freude” meaning “joy”) created for Visa Canada. Defined by Visa as “using your Visa card for the small purchases you’d make anyway”, it is the  buzzword for a marketing campaign to get consumers to think—and buy—small, as well as big (despite the nuisance service costs small purchases impose on merchants).

The “smallenfreuden” campaign embodies a kind of phased, quirky, teaser advertising strategy, based on an initially incomprehensible ad, followed up with clearer ads and doled-out details, that gets results—in this case by comic mangling and blending of ideas to dangle a playfully absurd, initially incomprehensible marketing hook.

Visa followed up its phase-1 mysteriously bizarre, humorous and vague “smallenfreuden” launch video with more-to-the-point videos showcasing applied smallenfreudening.

Engaging as the “smallenfreuden” ads are, they are no match for the one that hooked me into applying for (and eventually getting) that coveted “plum” job I mentioned above.

Virginal Player or Sackbut Specialist?

Just before exiting grad school and my philosophy Ph.D. program, I saw a recruiting ad—the most brilliant, mesmerizing and enticing job posting that, to this day, I have ever seen.

That quarter-page ad, published in a campus newspaper, was so good that I was immediately and completely intrigued by and sold on the job, despite the total absence of any hint in the ad as to what the job actually was. Not a clue. Nothing.

Even in the subsequent on-campus interview, no job details were offered. Only after I showed up for a very long standardized logical/visual pattern-recognition test and second interview was the job explained to me.

What was the utterly compelling pitch? Well, with a little research, I’ve dug up the ad. Here’s a sample, excerpted from the original ad, titled “VIRGINAL PLAYER (or sackbut specialist)”, on the right (verbatim, including e.e. cummings-ish ban on capitalization and original non-punctuation):

(Note: No, this is not an ad for a massage parlor.)

“…if you are a virginal player or sackbut specialist, a lover of beckett or balzac, a freudian cartesian keynesian…if you are turned on by spenser or toynbee sausages or sauerkraut einstein eistenstein skinner or shaw…”

If that hadn’t grabbed my attention, this did:

“you may think we are putting you on that it’s out of the paradiso into the inferno that we will pour you into pin stripes and pack you into a suburban box for your nightly death or that we will hedge you in with corporate controls management theory rubber plants of daily dogma well you may get a plant but forget the rest…”

Like some kind of an irresistible oncoming juggernaut, it relentlessly plowed on in that vein. My curiosity about this ad and the job was already boundless, yet growing: I even looked up “sackbut” (a medieval wind instrument). “Virginal player” proved to be a much less exciting concept than I had imagined—but without diminishing the overall excitement the ad created.

Imagine: a 10-inch ad, seamlessly crammed with these kinds of teasers, yet without an iota of specific information about the job—just brilliant teaser after brilliant teaser.

The ad, posted by Manulife insurance, in Toronto, read exactly like cafe-poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”—a hip, deep, passionate, wry, hyper-intellectual, counter-culture manifesto (minus Ginsberg’s X-rated raunch). Perfect!—since I like book jackets so much more than suit jackets. Unlike conventionally vague job postings, which are almost always and rightly regarded as suspicious, the Manulife ad was well-honed, poetically explicit and vivid.

Like the “smallenfreuden” campaign, Manulife’s hiring campaign adopted three key tactics of what I’ll call “QV recruitment”—quirky-vague recruitment and enticement:

1.  Make the initial ad bizarre, vague, even evasive, yet replete with engaging mysterious, borderline-zany details that will work as hooks. By using playful content to set up a serious transaction, this tactic can be disarming, yet engaging.

2.  Phase in more informative (as opposed to emotionally appealing) content in follow-up ads and interactions with the target audience. Having locked on and hooked the target emotionally with the initial QV (quirky-vague) ad, a key brain barrier will have been breached, setting the stage for the eventual more nuts-and-bolts cognitively-oriented pitch (which is exactly what happened to me at Manulife).

3.  Blend unthreatening elements with strange ones, in the way the “smallenfreuden” and Manulife initial pitches did. “Small” is both as a word and a trait, absolutely unthreatening; “freuden” as a corruption of German is unsettling at some level, as foreign languages can be for those who don’t speak them.

Manulife dangled the prospect of an unthreatening, unsuffocating and creative work environment, bundled with surreal images, wild associations and obscure terminology.

Indeed, the Manulife recruitment ad and entire recruitment sequencing were masterful exemplars of these tactics.  What was the job that was so obliquely alluded to for so long? Why were they looking for Freudian Cartesians (which I am), sackbut specialist (which I still am not) and suit-hating (which I have always been) iconoclasts?

The reason and the truth were somewhat less exciting: They wanted programmer-analyst trainees—highly intellectual, analytical, creative challenge-hungry raw recruits they could shape and train from scratch.

This meant iconoclasts, think-outside-the-box trainees with an aptitude for very logically and rigidly structured, flow-charted, pattern-oriented tasks, who were also unconventional enough to generate novel solutions to emerging challenges, without the constraints of conventional training.

(One of the others hired had a master’s degree in pure math from Cambridge, an obviously well-developed taste for the abstract and formal sciences, and like me, zero background in computers and programming).

Given those priorities, it is less surprising that Manulife would have used such QV advertising to recruit analysts.

Keeping things vague until much later may have reflected corporate headquarters’ concerns that letting the cat out of the bag too soon would have precipitated our bagging the job as too mundane and corporate (since, after all, Manulife is an insurance company, an icon in an industry hardly known for any fascination with the unpredictable, uncontrolled, unshaven or otherwise unconventional).

By using QV advertising, both Visa Canada and Manulife successfully walked a marketing/recruitment tightrope. They balanced the need to entice us into something that, in the end, is likely to be pretty mundane, against the need to make it look offbeat and exotic, without scaring us off in the process for either of two diametrically opposite reasons—i.e., for being too weird or not weird enough.

What Can Visa and Manulife Teach Us about QV Advertising?

This: Generalizing from their successes, it may be smart for every HR department and marketing campaign to consider using a multi-phase QV advertising and recruitment model.

Despite whatever risks it involves, e.g., lost message, weird image, appearance of devious evasiveness or anti-climax (when the facts eventually emerge), there is one thing it can guarantee.

Even if it doesn’t work, it will be a lot of fun for everybody—for a while.


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