Ad Report Card

“Like Cardboard”

The weird new Domino’s ads that bash the company’s pizza.

The Spot:Domino’s employees at the company’s corporate headquarters confront negative feedback from the pizza-eating public. Among the actual customer quotes they read aloud: “Domino’s pizza crust to me is like cardboard” and “The sauce tastes like ketchup.” Something must be done. We see mortified Domino’s chefs testing out different combinations of cheese, dough, and spices. And so is born a new and improved pizza formula,  available now, at a promotional discount rate of $5.99 each for two medium-size pies. (Click here to watch the four-minute documentary from which the 30-second ad is excerpted.)

It’s hard to recall another recent ad in which a company self-flagellates with so much gusto. I guess there’s that 60-second spot GM aired after it declared bankruptcy last year. That ad opened with a dollop of candor (“Let’s be honest,” said the voice-over, “no company wants to go through this”) and made a brief nod at culpability (“There was a time when eight different brands made sense—not anymore”). But it was made in the immediate wake of a crushing corporate failure that dominated the news. If ever a company needed to wipe off its makeup and take a fluorescent-lit look in the mirror, it was GM.

Domino’s is a different story. The brand had no pressing need to publicly kick itself in the ass. And yet it chose to—with more ferocity than GM could muster—and along the way it broke what I assume is a cardinal rule of advertising: Don’t quote your customers cruelly dissing your product.

I’m not talking about politely phrased critiques. Viscerally suggestive words like cardboard and ketchup are employed to describe the taste of Domino’s pizza. Again: In a Domino’s ad. It’s startling when you first see the spot on TV.

Which is exactly the point. Domino’s ad agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, specializes in shock. From reanimating a zombie Orville Redenbacher to smearing dog feces into a man’s palm, CP&B always tries to craft ads that grab the viewer by the collar. The agency’s philosophy holds that a campaign doesn’t truly succeed unless viewers are driven to talk (or tweet) about it.

Lately, CP&B’s favored tactic for buzzing through the cultural clutter is a reality-television-influenced approach. There was Burger King’s “Whopper Freakout,” which showed hidden-camera footage of Whopper fans being falsely informed that the sandwich had been discontinued. Microsoft’s “Laptop Hunters,” in which film crews followed attractive young people as they shopped for computers. And now Domino’s “Pizza Turnaround” (shot by Henry Alex Rubin, the Academy Award-nominated director of Murderball), which takes us behind the scenes in the company’s conference rooms and test kitchens. These are commercials masquerading as documentaries—designed to pierce through the viewer’s built-up resistance to typical scripted, acted spots.

Of course it seems risky for a brand to go negative on itself. But imagine if Domino’s had spent two years and tens of millions of dollars reformulating its pizza (which it did), and then launched the revamped pie with a simple “new and improved” spot. A “We took our great pizza and made it even yummier!” kind of ad. Would anyone notice? Would anyone talk or tweet about the fact that the Domino’s recipe had been altered? “Google the words new and improved,” says Domino’s chief marketing officer Russell Weiner, “and I think you’ll get about 160 million hits. They’re two of the more overused words in marketing. They’ve become wallpaper.”

Besides, in this case I think insulting the previous pizza iteration bears almost no risk at all. Let’s be honest: Most existing customers don’t order Domino’s for its superior taste. Those “ketchup” and “cardboard” descriptions might ring true even with heavy Domino’s users. I myself have been known—in shameful moments—to click out an order on, and I can assure you I’ve never done so with expectations of gourmet cuisine. The brand’s promise is convenience. Easy ordering. Speedy delivery. No cooking and no dishes. A tastier pizza is really just a bonus.

Who might be swayed by ads like these? A potential new customer. Someone who has always been lazy enough to order Domino’s but was afraid—due either to nightmarish past experiences or just a general assumption—that the pizza would be indigestible. Someone who needs an excuse to pull the trigger again, or for the first time. For people like this, Domino’s honest acknowledgment of past shortcomings might be enough to earn the brand a second look

Grade: B+. By attacking itself at its own weakest point, Domino’s pre-emptively disarms its critics. The truly risky aspect of this campaign isn’t that it might repulse customers. It’s that it burns all bridges. Consider: When I asked Weiner how much of a gamble it was to run an ad like this, he shifted the topic to the gamble Domino’s had taken by meddling with its pizza formula. “People brought up New Coke. That was the nightmare—that after all this we’ll have to go back to our old formula.” But New Coke launched on a standard new-and-improved platform (tagline: “The best just got better”), not with violent desecrations of old Coke. After a campaign like this one, there can be no Domino’s Classic.