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When Ads Go Strange: Boost Mobile Gambles on Gross


The cell phone company goes to gag-inducing lengths to illustrate its uniqueness.

What do you do if you have very little money for ads and need to reach a mass audience? You do what Boost Mobile has been doing for the last two years with its UNwrong'D campaign: shock and disgust people into never forgetting you.


Not to worry, there's an explanation for the waist-length armpit hair.

A little more than two years ago Boost Mobile, a part of Sprint Nextel (S), realized that it had to change its business strategy or drown in the sea of wireless companies that have already oversaturated the market. Research showed that people were frustrated with their wireless providers and all of the hidden fees and taxes that often appear on their monthly wireless bills. Boost decided to shift its focus to unlimited monthly plans and needed an ad campaign that would express just how different it is from its competitors. "We weren't being strange for the sake of being strange," said Caralene Robinson, Boost Mobile's Director of Brand and Marketing Communication.

"We did a lot of research and found that our market was really bigger than the young people that we were reaching," she adds. "So we made a strategic decision to broaden our target audience. We are a relatively small company and we don't have the dollars that an AT&T (T) or a Verizon (VZ) has; we needed the ads to do a lot of the work for us."

Boost Mobile hired ad firm 180LA to create a full multimedia campaign based on the tagline, "You think that's wrong?" The campaign includes several television spots including the bike-riding girl with dramatically long armpit hair blowing in her boyfriend's face. Another ad features a coroner eating a burrito after dropping it into a cadaver -- both are highly provocative, as well as gag-inducing.

Remember the pig who "liked a nice ham"?

"The visual imagery is meant to provoke a visceral response," said William Gelner, Executive Creative Director at 180LA.

In a statement to the press when the campaign launched Boost said: "When prepaid wireless providers add in activation fees, overage charges and extra costs for services like voicemail and roaming, consumers grumble and accept it. They're wronged. They feel it. And they want a change. Starting today, Boost Mobile is taking a stand against the abuses suffered by wireless customers."

The campaign includes the phrase UNwrong'D, which evolved from an earlier campaign that used the word UNLMTD to describe the phone contracts. Much like the television spots, the made-up word has evoked a wealth of feedback from consumers who are disgusted by Boost's misuse of the English language -- but no one fails to recognize the brand. One blogger called Boost Mobile's efforts "too playful for their own good," while another said, "That apostrophe -- the whole concept, really -- is like cyanide." Other blogs have called the ads "disturbing" and "downright disgusting."

Even though the campaign has garnered a slew of negative press, no one can say that it hasn't produced results. The company's subscribers have doubled over the course of the campaign, adding 2 million customers, and Boost Mobile earned the title of the fastest-growing no-contract carrier in the US in 2009.

According to Gelner and Robinson, the campaign continues to evolve to reach different audiences but the company has begun to tone down the gross-out factor.

That should help some TV viewers -- especially those who've outgrown their teenage sense of humor -- finally feel unwrong'd.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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