The Dadaism movement began as a response to the horrors of World War I. By the end of the war, the world was overcome with the horrible images coming from the front lines. Artists of varying kinds came together in Switzerland and decided the way to respond to this kind of abject realism was to turn to the absurd, and thus, Dadaism was born. While Dadaism began over a century ago, it remains a relevant part of contemporary culture, particularly in advertising.
When it comes to Dadaism, the absurd is key. In fact, the name itself is absurd, a word meaning “hobbyhorse” that was chosen at random from a dictionary. The idea was that acting absurdly or crazily was no crazier than the senseless war that had just been fought, and in fact, it often helped push audiences into an emotional reaction after being emotionally deadened by the war.
When used in advertising, marketing professionals typically start out a commercial with absurdity. It draws the viewer because it’s so strange and out of place, which catches the viewer’s attention. It can be something as simple as a dog bouncing on a pogo stick. It’s silly enough to catch the viewer’s attention, who wants to know why the dog is bouncing around a pogo stick. By the end of the commercial, the best advertisements take that absurdity and turn it into something familiar, keeping it from feeling too crazy for the viewer. In the example of the dog on a pogo stick, a smart advertisement might use copy like “Your dog may not be able to bounce on a pogo stick, but he still loves to play. Get him his new favorite toy, the amazing bouncing ball…” It pulls it back to something the viewer can relate to, having a high-energy dog around the house who loves to play.
Another of the key components of Dadaism is humor. After coming out of a brutal war, the artists behind this movement wanted to leave all of that horror behind. So, the absurdity is supposed to be funny. It often seems silly because it is silly, intentionally so. That’s what makes it work so well in advertising, in fact. The silliness of the absurd catches the viewer’s attention. In turn, it makes them laugh, leaving them with positive feelings associated with the product.
To better understand this type of humor, think of movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. These movies employ the type of absurd humor the Dadaists were known for. For more recent examples, look to the Millennials. One could argue that Millennials actually excel at this type of humor, creating short videos and vlogs based in absurdity that often go viral. Examples include videos like “Charlie the Unicorn” or the Two Llamas in Hats series. Some have even dubbed this movement “neo-Dadaism” as a nod to the past. However, Dadaism doesn’t just appeal to the younger generations. It has a cross-generational appeal, likely due to the fact that it doesn’t strong-arm the viewer–it invites them in. Viewers don’t see it as persuasion so much as a shared joke.
Dadaism in advertising doesn’t just work in commercials. It’s also effective in print media and billboards. When a viewer sees something absurd on a billboard, such as a giant rubber ducky, they’re going to do a double take. When they take that second look, they have time to imprint the company’s information. This technique also works in print. If the viewer is flipping through a magazine and they seem something a little wild in an ad, they’re going to stop and take a look. This type of advertising works especially well with 3D approaches on billboards, such as showing a giant wrecking ball smashing through a person’s forehead as an advertisement for headache medication.
Dadaism may not seem like it’s relevant over a century after it was created, but this type of humor and absurdity continues to be appealing. Advertisers use it to make their viewers chuckle a bit, take a second look, and then connect to the product on a more emotional level. Because of its appeal across multiple generations, it makes sense for this to be a continuing trend.