6 examples of insane honesty in content marketing

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Doug Kessler

01. 03. 2017 | 7 min read

6 examples of insane honesty in content marketing

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You’ve read the Insane Honesty slideshare.

(If you haven’t, here it is:)


Now here are the examples.

Six fantastic examples of Insane Honesty – some legendary, some unsung-to-date-but-now-oh-so-sung.

[Now with NEW and improved examples, below — most of which, to be insanely honest,  aren’t as good as the Big Six but some of which are right up there.]

I hope they prove to you the power of this underused tactic and that you find ways to use it.

1) Avis advertises its second-place market share.

So you’re a car rental company being soundly beaten by a bigger, better-known car rental company.

Marketing 101 said:

“Ignore your market share and just act like the leader — like the dreams of any (every) Disney princess, one day it may come true.”

What Avis did:

They didn’t just admit their second-tier market share, they advertised it.

In fact, they didn’t just advertise it, they made it the center of one of the most successful campaigns ever run :

“We’re number two. We try harder.”

This is the original ad, written by Paula Green of Doyle Dane Bernbach in 1962:

Avis campaign DDB - Insane Honesty in marketing

Subsequent ads tied their number two status to specific benefits:

Insane Honesty by Avis -marketing

The campaign (preserved as a Project Re:brief here) turned into a strategy for the whole business – and took Avis from 18% market share to 34% in a very short time.
Fifty years later, it’s still their line. (That in itself is insane: how many ad lines last for fifty years?)

Avis - an example of Insane Honesty in marketing


2) Volkswagen Beetle embraces the obvious.

In a world where all cars looked like this:

insane honesty for the VW beetle

How do you introduce a car that looked like this?:

insane honesty for the VW beetle launch

Well, what you don’t do is pretend it’s beautiful.

They could have ignored the design but, let’s face it, how the Beetle LOOKED would always be the elephant in the room.

So instead of ignoring it, they made it the hero of the entire campaign. And the rest is advertising history:

insane honesty in marketing - VW

Google “Classic VW Beetle ads” and you’ll see dozens and dozens of these terrific, insanely honest ads (also done by DDB in their heyday).

insanely honest VW beetle ads

Another favourite is an early example of news-jacking:

classc vw ad with lunar module

What VW and DDB did here is not just re-invent car advertising and create one of the most successful car brands in history. They also sowed the seeds of a distinctive brand that would pay dividends for decades (and is still paying them today). VW is a likeable, fun, self-effacing car brand — and attained that without sacrificing brand values like quality and integrity.

3. A real estate agent gets real.

The rose-tinted property descriptions of comically optimistic real estate agents have become a cultural cliché. So it’s surprising and refreshing to see an honest ad for a crappy little flat.

In this example of Insane Honesty, posted on Zoopla by Harvey Residential, a Hoxton flat is described as:

“Not a very nice one bedroom flat but like the budgie it’s cheap; open plan, has a well used kitchen, and if you can call it this – a small lounge.”

That ‘not very nice’ has just entered my Copywriting Hall of Fame right alongside ‘Buy More Beef You Bastards’.

The accompanying photos support the copy:

insane honesty in real estate marketing

The ad got lots of press coverage and the flat got a lot of attention – from the right people: people who wanted to live in Hoxton but couldn’t afford a nice flat there.  As Warren George, the director of Harvey Residential put it, “There is no point giving people the wrong message.”


4. A budget hotel celebrates its dirty linen.

I LOVE this one.

When the Hans Brinker, a not-very-nice budget hotel in Amsterdam, added lots of beds (not rooms, beds) and raised prices, they knew they needed a special kind of marketing. Fortunately, they chose a special kind of ad agency, Kessels Kramer.

The hotel looked like this:

insane honesty: kessels kramer and Hans Brinker Hotel

And the rooms looked like this:

insanely honest hotel ad

The campaign is a terrific example of the first principle of Insane Honesty: take your weakest points and put them in the spotlight.

There are lots and lots of great executions to choose from (here’s a Google-trove) but here are a few favourites:

Insanely honest hans brinker hotel ads


Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 10.23.41


And just to show that the campaign attracts ideal prospects (young, stoned people who don’t care about hotel frills and aren’t likely to be actually sleeping in the room anyway), here’s a fairly typical Trip Advisor review:

an example of insane honesty in marketing

Just goes to show you the power of managing expectations (so you can slightly exceed them). And I love their response.

5. An ugly building tells it like it is.

So you’ve bought a big office building in a nice-enough neighbourhood (Wood Green) but it looks like this:

Insanely honest office building

Maybe you only have enough money to do up the lobby but not enough to slap on that skin-deep, glass cladding developers seem to love.

Well, you could ignore the look of the building and market its location, price and amenities. Or you could go the insanely honest route:

insane honesty in marketing

They actually called the building Ugli — and slapped it on the outside in 20-foot high letters.

In short: they had FUN attracting their best prospects without worrying about alienating their worst (companies that want their building to say who they are).

Nice website too (by JP Creative):

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 10.36.46


6. Three, no four, more examples

I don’t know why, but I wanted the number 6 in the headline of this post, so I’m smuggling three , no four, more examples here, with a bit less discussion (you get the idea anyway):


[UPDATE: even MORE BONUS examples at the same low price…]

Thomson Holidays tells it like it is

Back in 1996, Richard Bowden-Doyle (then Deputy MD of Thomson Tours, now Velocity Chairman), decided to be insanely honest in every hotel description in Thomson’s brochures.

As part of their ‘Tell It Like It Is’ initiative, they printed the bad reviews and ratings, along with negative comments about specific properties. No one had ever done that before.

The result: massive publicity; a leap to 30% market share; a major uplift in customer satisfaction scores (we talk about this effect in our Managing Expectations post) — oh, and a big, fat promotion for Richard.

Hyposwiss skips the bullshit

Bank ads are notoriously slimy – full of unctious, sycophantic drooling that disguises an utter disdain for actual customer service.

So this insanely honest campaign by Hyposwiss is refreshing as hell:

an insanely honest campaign by HypoSwiss bank

My favourite headline of the campaign is, “If you want to double the money in your account, please put twice as much in it.”  See more of the ads here.


TransferWise goes all transparent

Transferwise publishes real reviews on their home page — even when there are negative things in them. Here’s one:

an insanely honest home page by TransferWise

See how compelling that is? If you really, really want to transfer money right away, TransferWise may not be your best option. If you don’t mind waiting, they’ll save you a lot of money. So they say so, winning your trust immediately. That’s how Insane Honesty works.

Ricky Gervais does a celebrity endorsement for Optus & Netflix

Great script. Great performance.

Strictly speaking (and why speak if not strictly?), this isn’t really Insane Honesty — it’s comedy. But it touches on the truth behind every celebrity endorsement in a way that hits so close to the bone, it’s kind of insane.  And I like it.

[Thanks for this one, Harry Kapur]:



Pizza Hut in Australia launches a Vegemite Crust pizza:

If you haven’t tasted Vegemite (or Marmite), their faces say it all:
[Damn: the Pizza Hut PR team removed the video and squashed all online trace of it. Bummer. Well, what it showed was people taking their first bites of the new pizza with the, let’s say ‘polarizing’ ingredient (a brown, salty, yeast-extract… you don’t want to know), then grimacing with disgust. Funny. Honest. Surprising. And now dead.]

Nordnet breaks the fourth wall:

(Thanks to Jo Burkhart for this:)

Three reasons you don’t want to adopt Eddie the Terrible.

The Humane Society of Silicon Valley wrote this hilariously honest ad to find a home for Eddie the Terrible.

Thanks to Ann Handley for this — and read her post on why she loves it so much.

insanely honest pet adoption ad

A typical chunk of copy:

“Like to go for walks in dog infested areas? Enjoy the dog park? Keep walking….
While Eddie The Terrible has never actually attacked another dog, he’s made it abundantly clear that he hasn’t ruled out the possibility. He goes from zero to Cujo in .05 seconds when he sees another dog on leash. Well, sayeth you, lots of small dogs bark at other dogs on leash. True. But we know people expect a lot from dogs in this day and age and when it comes to leash theatrics, Eddie’s at the top of his game. Also true: he’s made some progress. But lest his adorable little blond-ness let you think this is going to be a plug-and-play dog, think again.”

What have we learned here?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned that:

Insane Honesty is surprising

Because marketing is so rarely completely honest.

Insane Honesty is charming.

We like people who make fun of themselves more than we like braggarts.

Insane Honesty alienates the people you want to alienate.

Face it: they were never going to buy no matter what your marketing said.

Insane Honesty attracts your ideal prospects.

The ones who are 9-17 times more likely to buy.

Insane Honesty builds trust.

And that’s maybe the single hardest thing to build in a marketing context.

Insane Honesty signals confidence.

Without a doubt, the most important signal you can send.

Insane Honesty focuses you on battles you can win.

Not a bad place to focus if you’ve got limited resources (and who doesn’t?).

Got any great examples to share?

I’d love to hear about them.


Published in:

  • B2B Content Marketing

  • content

  • content-marketing

  • copywriting

  • honesty

  • insane-honesty

  • writing

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  1. Doug Kessler

    May 14th, 2015

    Great post Doug!

    I’m gonna be honest here: a lot of my blog posts never get comments.

    Question: is it ever okay to start off your own comment thread with a fake comment just to get things rolling?

    1. Andrea


      January 23rd, 2019

      Yes. But let it just wash over you. Great post, Doug!

  2. Doug Kessler

    May 14th, 2015

    Thanks Doug. I definitely know the feeling.

    I mean if Joe Pulizzi or Mark Schaeffer or Ann Handley so much as burp, it kicks off a comment storm that threatens to bring WordPress down.

    But if I pour my guts out – I’m sweating bullets here – do I get a peep? Nothing.


    1. Roger Parker

      Published and Profitable

      March 3rd, 2017


      Seriously, inspiring blog post and comment.


    2. Apr


      May 2nd, 2019

      I couldn’t agree more! this is on point. i really like your tips worth stealing. need to apply this on my professional life, as i cannot live paycheck to paycheck!

    3. Doug Kessler

      May 7th, 2019

      Well, thanks, guys. (Even if I did beg.)

  3. Bo

    May 14th, 2015

    A great reminder of the power of truth. Thanks Doug.

  4. Tammy

    May 14th, 2015

    Great article, refreshing and insightful. Thanks for posting!

  5. Jay Manahan

    May 15th, 2015

    Another one for the books, Doug. It reminds me of George Costanza’s “opposite” philosophy. George to attractive woman: “My name is George. I’m unemployed and I live with my parents.” You call it Insanely Honest Marketing, I’ll call it Opposite Marketing. Yey, I created a buzzword. Users: 1.

  6. Tony

    May 15th, 2015

  7. Patty

    May 15th, 2015

    Absolutely loved the post. Being an unprepared and frankly crappy marketeer, it does scare me a bit, however. It requires a level of cleverness to be done well- with the exception your initial example in Rome. I suppose I stick with squeaky clean honesty and it will work. Bravo

  8. jason

    May 19th, 2015

    My slogan is a parody of the “insane honesty” approach > “I draw things, so you don’t have to.”

  9. Doug Kessler

    May 20th, 2015

    I like it Jason! Downplays the actual talent that goes into it…

  10. Sandra Sealy

    May 24th, 2015

    One of my absolute favs which is quite memorable is for Buckley’s Cough Syrup – “It tastes awful and it works.”


  11. Aaron

    October 15th, 2015

    Love this blog!

    Would love to see a post along the lines of

    “Getting your CEO on-board with honest marketing without resorting to drugs”

    Also, I found that Pizza Hut Vegemite Commercial


    1. Doug Kessler

      November 9th, 2015

      Thanks Aaron! Love that.

  12. Craig Blackburn

    Blue Scribe

    April 22nd, 2016

    Fantastic. At last, a marketing agency that doesn’t sound like a marketing agency. From a B2B journalist-turned-copywriter who’s been criticising vapid marketing blather (in this blog: http://www.bluescribemedia.co.uk/7-types-of-vapid-website-words-which-will-make-you-wince/) I say: ‘Hallelujah’ (and thank you for restoring my faith).

    1. Doug Kessler

      April 30th, 2016

      Thanks Craig. Love the ‘wince’ post!

  13. Marquis Jones


    September 3rd, 2016

    This has been by far one of the best post on Marketing in the social world that I have seen,,, wow,,,

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 12th, 2016

      Thanks Marquis!

  14. Nagranee Channa

    September 5th, 2016

    Well said and thanks for putting this post together. I used to employ a similar idea that I liked to call, ‘No bullshit this time, please?’
    But after that episode on Arrow, I now use his line of ‘You have no idea how powerful the truth can be’ to win over any Conventional Marketing Thinkers.

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 8th, 2016

      Nice one!

  15. Mitzi Connell

    October 19th, 2016

    Loved this. Made me laugh loudly and remember the old movie with Dudley Moore – “Crazy People” 🙂


    1. Doug Kessler

      October 25th, 2016

      Thanks Mitzi.
      I hadn’t seen the film but a few people pointed it out — loved it. Such a great idea.

  16. Will Moody

    Food Hoods

    March 14th, 2017

    This article has made me LOL. Love The Avis example which was also used in the books ‘The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing’ and ‘Positioning’ by Al Ries & Jack Trout to show how self-awareness and an understanding of your position in the prospects mind lead to better results.

    I’m also a fan Corsodyl mouthwash whose tagline is along the lines of “for people who spit blood when they brush their teeth” – honesty in action!. Their bottles look like medicine rather than cosmetic products too. All helps to position it as the product with real medical power.

    1. Doug Kessler

      March 28th, 2017

      Thanks Will. Love the Corsodyl example. Someone also suggested one for a Listerine-like product. Something like, “It tastes bad and it works.”

      I loved the Ries & Trout books — read them years ago. Might have to revisit them again.

  17. Emmerey Rose

    July 21st, 2017

    Thanks for sharing Doug! These are crazy cool examples. Love the Volkswagen Beetle ads! lol it turned out pretty hilarious which attracted the customers. But don’t you think insane honesty could also damage reputation when done wrong?

    1. Doug Kessler

      July 25th, 2017

      Thanks Emmery. Yes, badly handled, Insane Honesty could damage your brand. But that’s true of any marketing tactic or strategy: do it well and it can work; do it badly and it can hurt.

      I do think it’s important to align the whole team on the exact definition of an ideal prospect. To agree who you need to attract and who you’re willing to alienate.

      It’s also important to craft the communications carefully. To benefit from the charm dividend without tripping over into arrogance or gimmickry.

  18. Mitchell

    White Ribbon

    August 16th, 2017

    Good read!.

  19. 310 Creative

    310 Creative Inc

    July 16th, 2019

    It’s nice to see an article talking about honesty in content marketing space. Great read.

  20. Luise

    Producao de conteudo web

    March 31st, 2020

    estupendo. estou escrevendo um post para meu blog sobre esse assunto. Você me deu uma grande inspiração.

  21. Anne

    Content Partners

    August 21st, 2020

    Good read and great examples, thanks Doug!
    Most of the examples are more B2C, I think. Do you also know great examples of pure B2B companies?

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 28th, 2020

      Hmmm…. I wish it were more widely done.
      We’ve done some with clients.
      One was a Use Case guide for a piece of networking tech. We listed the situations in which you might be better off with an alternative tot he client’s product.
      To me, it doubled the credibility of the piece. And the use cases we conceded would have been no-sales anyway (or, worse, bad sales).

    2. Anne

      November 27th, 2020

      Thanks so much for the insight, Doug! A good example how Insane Honesty can also work for B2B 🙂

  22. Forest Knight

    September 23rd, 2023

    Great article! Honesty in content marketing is refreshing and builds trust. The examples provided here emphasize the importance of authenticity. Speaking of trust, if you’re looking for reliable property management services, I highly recommend Forest Knight. They’ve consistently demonstrated transparency and integrity in their operations. https://www.forestknight.co.uk/property-managment

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