This Ad Will Give You a Headache, but It Sells

HeadOn Sales Are Up 234% Even Though Its Spots Annoy Viewers

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Those rapid-fire "HeadOn, apply directly to the forehead" spots are arguably among the worst commercials ever from a creative standpoint. They're annoying, repetitive, obnoxious -- and effective.
Clutter buster: HeadOn ads seem amateurish and mindnumbing, but the company's marketing chief said consumers remember them.
Clutter buster: HeadOn ads seem amateurish and mindnumbing, but the company's marketing chief said consumers remember them.

"We're not trying to win an award for best creative, that's obvious," chuckles Dan Charron, VP-sales and marketing at Miralus Healthcare, the marketer of the headache remedy. "We're just trying to build a brand by getting people to remember it."

Who, indeed, could forget one of the most amateurish and mind-numbing creative executions out there (formula: Repeat the tagline not once, but three times as a woman rubs the product on her forehead). Yet the campy spots have jump-started sales and won the brand pop-culture credibility and some serious free airtime -- including a solemn commentary from "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams, who called it "the most annoying ad on television."

Jay Leno has spoofed HeadOn on "The Tonight Show" three times ("Big Mac: Apply directly to your ass") and even played the original spot twice on air. "Saturday Night Live" has referenced the ad, as has "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

Apply directly to conversation
Not since "I've fallen and I can't get up" has such a cheesy spot captured the public imagination. "In a very short period of time, we've become pretty close to becoming a household name," Mr. Charron said.

HeadOn is logging some heady growth rates -- 234% from 2005 to 2006. And for the first half of 2007, the brand looks to be on track to double sales. HeadOn ranks No. 9 in the external-analgesics-rubs category and logged $6.5 million in sales last year, up from just $1.9 million in 2005, according to Information Resources Inc. That's not including Wal-Mart, who is "one of our biggest customers" Mr. Charron said.

Miralus' ActivOn, for joint pain, launched in 2006, has leapfrogged past HeadOn, topping out at $5.5 million in sales and jumping to the No. 6 spot in the $278 million external-analgesic-rubs category. Within that category, Head-On is stealing share from such brands as Icy Hot, which was up just 4.4% in 2006; Bengay, which was down 2.5% last year; and Aspercreme, down 12.6% in 2006. (The last for a long time had its own cheesy tagline, "You bet your sweet Aspercreme," since changed to "You bet if it's Aspercreme.)

Those products don't compete directly with HeadOn, which is a headache remedy, but because it's rubbed on the forehead, it's categorized among products used for muscle aches and pains.

HeadOn is really competing against more-traditional oral headache remedies, such as Tylenol and Advil. And it certainly doesn't have the ad budget to match -- it spent just $15 million in measured media in 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence, vs. Tylenol's $150 million across all its lines. Mr. Charron, however, claims the product's overall ad budget will reach $70 million in 2007.

'It's all about recall'
Miralus Healthcare was founded in 2003 in Plantation, Fla., (it recently moved its headquarters to Cheyenne, Wyo.) and launched its first product in 2004, Freedom, a hemorrhoid cream. Although still on the shelves, it's not a big seller.
HeadOn sales
1. Ending Aug. 12, 2007.
Source: Information Resources Inc.; includes supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandise outlets but excludes Wal-Mart.

Mr. Charron is a big believer in focus groups and takes a rather unconventional approach to this most traditional of research tools. "Our No. 1 priority is recall," said Mr. Charron, and sounding a bit like the HeadOn spots himself, he added: "It's all about recall. It's all about recall."

Instead of testing the commercials against other headache remedies or other health-care advertising, Mr. Charron has tested HeadOn spots instead against what he refers to as ad clutter. "Odds are, 99% of the time, our ad won't be next to a headache remedy anyway but a car ad or electronics ad or food ad," he said.

When Mr. Charron was putting together the first campaign for HeadOn, some concepts tested were conventional and typical of health and beauty campaigns: An actor holding the product up and imploring consumers to buy it. Again and again, focus groups showed very little recall for this style, unlike the off-the-charts recall Mr. Charron kept getting when he tested the now-notorious repetitive campaign.

Shunning Madison Ave.
So if you're thinking as an agency business-development executive you can convince him it's time to hire an ad agency and get some better creative, think again. His views on the adworld tend toward the skeptical. And he avoids the dozens of calls he gets each week from agencies looking for his business.

He fears if he hires an agency, he'll lose his dispassionate approach. "If a focus group tells us something is not going to work, we discard it. There's no conflict of interest this way," he said. "We don't care about winning creative awards."

But if the HeadOn story is inspiring as a case study, remember, it's all about the long haul. Despite the buzz and the impressive sales growth figures, Miralus isn't in the black yet.
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