Formats Unpacked: Parody Adverts

How a local plumber used parody to capture the attention of millions


I’m currently reading Jarvis Cocker’s Good Pop Bad Pop. It’s very good if you love hearing people talk about objects and their nostalgic value. He uses this really nice line about people learning to play an instrument. He says that “music is just organised noise.” Which made me think that formats are just organised content. Like songs, formats have been considered, given a clear structure, and have a repeatability that makes them memorable in a way that audiences like.

That brings us to today’s format which is all about how our brains like the familiar but slightly different. It’s something Derek Thompson refers to as the “Aesthetic Aha” in Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction.

Today, I’m doing the unpacking…

What is it?

What’s the format?

A parody ad is an advertisement that takes inspiration from a film, TV format, song or another piece of media in a humorous way to get the attention of its customers. Austin’s favourite plumbers, Radiant Plumbing & Air Conditioning have got a lot of attention by parodying films such as Dune (Toilet Dune), The Exorcist (Toilet Exorcist) and Kung Foo (Kung Poo). In fact, they’ve done such a good job with their low-budget movie parody ads that last week they caught the attention of John Oliver ​​on his Last Week Tonight show. John offered a $10,000 donation to a food bank if they produce a new ad spoofing a movie of his choosing.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Parodies are a brilliant way for getting into your customers’ heads quickly. When you spot a familiar format, the instant recognition of “oh, I see what’s happening here” frees up space in your brain to absorb the important information (not that there’s a whole lot of information to take absorb from the Radiant ads, but more on that in a bit). With a parody, you don’t waste brain energy trying to gather context. It’s all been done for you in the original. Great formats do this too. You don’t need much context setting to know what’s going to happen in an episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. You just know that it’s going to be similar to the last episode with the exception of the questions and the contestants. 

There’s nothing new about parody ads. In the 80s Campari parodied Casablanca, and in the 90s Griff Rhys Jones was inserted into a range of classic movies for Holsten Pils. Then in the 00s Irn-Bru took on High School Musical and reprised the approach more recently with their Taste Debate campaign. Then there were ads parodying other ads such as Billy Connolly’s take on the classic Wonderbra advert as well as Tango Clear parodying the famous Balls advertisement for Sony Bravia LCD televisions. 

The trick to doing a good parody is choosing a reference that the audience will instantly get. It only takes a spinning toilet cistern in Toilet Exorcist to tell the audience this is a parody of Linda Blair’s finest moment. The title also helps. If the link is too tenuous, doesn’t subvert the genre, or just isn’t funny, then you’re in trouble. Watching parody for the sake of parody can be a bit painful and embarrassing. A good parody has to move the original in a funny and interesting direction to get maximum impact. Remember, it’s not where you take things from but where you take them to.  

The real magic of the Radiant ads isn’t in the writing. The joy is in how ridiculously low-budget they are. And nobody should expect anything else from a local plumber. Broadcast in amongst high budget ads and TV shows, it’s what makes them noticeable and utterly loveable. So they lean in. Hire actors? Why bother when using your own staff will make the ads look even cheaper? Complicated storylines? No chance. The value is all in the shitness of the parody. They know this is one of the worst-ever attempts at remaking Star Wars - and boy do we love them for that - so just get to the the big line “just call Radiant” as quickly as possible. We don’t learn anything about Radiant in the ads other than they seem like a lot of fun. Are people going to spread the word if Radiant reel off all their services in an ad? Probably not. But make you advert look like it cost less than a new toilet brush to make and you’ll get your name mentioned on John Oliver.  

Favourite Episode

The Toiletnator - “That’s not mud - it must be toiletnated.”

Similar Formats

See Irn-Bru and more above.

Thanks for reading.

Whilst I have your attention, we’d love to hear about the big challenges you or your organisation are facing in 2023. What are the information gaps? What big questions do you have that you need answers to? We’d love to hear these for a project we are doing later in the year.

As ever, get in touch if you’d like to unpack a favourite format. Or just to say “hello.” It’s always lovely to hear from you.


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