All Hail the Antihero!

As rogues and misfits gain an increasing share of the entertainment pie, TV shows like “Person of Interest” and “Dexter,” along with movies like the “Dark Knight” trilogy and “The Hunger Games,” are riding a wave of popularity that lands antiheroes at the top of the pop culture heap. Dark humor and complicated moral motives rule the day as these offerings push the boundaries of what audiences are willing to buy into – and who they are willing to root for. Now entering its final run of eight episodes, “Breaking Bad” stands as perhaps the purest portrayal of an antihero we’ve ever seen in mainstream media. The show follows protagonist Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) as he turns from an unfulfilling career as a high school chemistry teacher to a life of crime, peril and big money, evolving into a ruthless drug lord over the course of the series. Everyone watching has a stake in what happens to White, whether they’re rooting for him to come to his senses and put his family first, to emerge as an invincible American meth kingpin or simply to reap what he has sown. So what is it about these unconventional protagonists that makes them so compelling? And how can we as marketers tap into the power of characters that we love-to-hate and hate-to-love to create campaigns with that can’t-look-away quality? Here are six great examples of antiheroes that have been the face of some of our culture’s most unforgettable advertising campaigns:

Allstate: Mayhem Guy

Allstate is getting a lot of viral mileage out of this character. For a guy who we’re supposed to avoid at all costs, Mr. Mayhem seems like he’d be a pretty good hang. It would almost be worth a costly disaster if we could just tell as cool a story about it as this guy does.

Dunkin Donuts: “Time to make the donuts”

What was it about this man that was supposed to sell donuts? His bland enthusiasm? His lack of clarity and alertness on the job? His doughy physique as testimony to the tastiness of his output? And, yet, you can’t get him out of your mind, can you?

Burger King: “Wake up with the king”

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Antihero, anti-appetite and anti-breakfast, if you ask most people after the first time they saw this spot. Yet, oddly compelling…must…eat…egg biscuit…

Reebok: Terry Tate, Office Linebacker

Undeniably funny – even for the Joe Cube-Dweller among us for whom Terry Tate recalls his most traumatic memories from junior high gym class.

Bud Light: “Mr. Way-Too-Much-Cologne-Wearer

With this series, Budweiser may have succeeded in making fun of every single person to ever hoist one of its beverages. Yet so many of us keep coming back for more, in denial that we could ever be too zealous in our touch football play or that we might ever bring too ponderous a cooler to the backyard barbecue.

Isuzu: Joe Isuzu

This long-running series kept the untrustworthy pitchman in front of TV audiences for more than 20 spots. Nobody would buy a car from this guy. But they might laugh and then go buy a car from the company that hired this guy. It just might be crazy enough to be crazy.