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9 Marketing Lessons from a Vulgar Party Game

January 27, 2014


Had a few people over this weekend… One showed up with a FedEx Office box that contained a game called Cards Against Humanity.

Think Apples to Apples for adults. Everybody starts out with 10 white cards. Each round, one player asks a question from a black card, and everyone else answers with their funniest white card.

Questions on the black cards include:

  • “Daddy, why is mommy crying?”
  • “I know I can always get laid by _________.”
  • “What do old people smell like?” 

And here are some of the possible answers from the white cards…

  • “The primal, ball-slapping sex your parents are having right now.”
  • “Gloryholes.” 
  • “Two midgets shitting into a bucket.
You end up with combinations like:
  • “What will always get you laid?” / “Child beauty pageants.”
  • “What’s a girl’s best friend?” / “An erection that lasts longer than four hours.”
  • “Sexy Siamese twins.” / “Betcha can’t have just one.”

According to the official site, Cards Against Humanity is “as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.”

That it was. No topic is off limits and there are questions and answers involving Nazi concentration camps, Christianity, Asian stereotypes, AIDS, abortion, and date rape.

It’s also a great example for my marketing lessons series…

9 Marketing Lessons from a Vulgar Party Game

1. Build on a Proven ConceptApples to Apples has sold over 7,000,000 copies and won multiple awards. No reason to reinvent the wheel, when you can do a variation of what has already been proven to work well.

Apple’s iPhone was like this. People were already familiar with the concept of a mobile phone, so that part was an easy sell. And iPods were already popular, so that part was an easy sell as well.

If an idea works, there is no reason to reinvent it. If there is distribution in place, and you can get access to it, there is no reason to set up your own.

Go with that works. It’s much easier to convince people to buy something they already know they need rather than educate them on something entirely new. And if you don’t have to build a company from scratch, don’t.

2. Fill a HoleApples to Apples is a fun game people are familiar with, but it’s not for every audience. Mattel, who publishes it, has released several versions, including a Jewish Edition, a Bible Edition, and a Disney Edition, but something “adult” was likely too hot for them. That’s where Cards Against Humanity Comes in.

Something similar happened in the movie rental business… What kept independent video rental stores in business long after Blockbuster dominated the market? Porn.

What keeps a local grocer in business when competing against big chains Kroger? What keeps a small chain of coffee shops in business with a Starbucks on almost every corner? It’s the products that are too rare to fill an big, systematized operation, such as locally sourced beef or non-GMO corn, or too controversial for stock holders.

3. Audience Has Value – You can buy Cards Against Humanity, but you can also download a DIY, digital version of the cards and print them yourself. That’s why my friend had done.

While the creators of Cards Against Humanity make no money on the DIY version, there is still value to them when the game is being played. As a “party game” with the suggested player number being between four and 20, every time the DIY version of the game is played, more and more people are likely to purchase it.

The worst thing a creative entrepreneur faces is obscurity of his idea. One of the best things a creative entrepreneur can have is an audience to market to.

If you want to see something similar to this done with a book, check out what I did with my book, Six-Figure Musician. A PDF edition of the book is available for free, with other options, including Kindle, hardcover, paperback, and audiobook available for as little as $5.

4. Exclude People – Cards Against Humanity is vulgar. Somebody is going to be offended — just like somebody is offended no matter what you do.

By going deep with something extremely tasteless, Cards Against Humanity plants the flag and leaves no doubt as to what type of audience they’re targeting. They don’t try to please everybody and, by doing so, they really please some people.

Who is your audience and how can you exclude people who aren’t in that audience?

5. Be Worth Talking AboutCards Against Humanity is so vulgar you might mention it to somebody. If you’re playing a DIY version, you might mention that. And if you know that the game was launched via a Kickstarter campaign, that might be worth mentioning.

There are a lot of ways to be worth talking about, but following what everybody else does isn’t one of them. On Black Friday, instead of lowering the price of Cards Against Humanity, the company raised it. While that might not have gotten more sales, it definitely got people talking and solidified their position of going against the grain.

If “they” zig, you zag.

6. Third-Party Options – Blank cards let you add your own questions and answers to Cards Against Humanity. Beyond that, the game was released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 license, which means you can use and remix it for free, as long as you don’t sell what you’ve created or use the name, which is trademarked.

This was a brilliant move. Facebook did this with apps and not doing this was one of the reasons credited for MySpace’s demise.

People like things they can be part of. This is one of the reasons Kickstarter is so popular — people like watching the creation process.

Is there a way for you to turn customers into creators through crowdsourced artwork, product design, or distribution?

7. The Upsell – If the initial pack of 500 cards isn’t big enough, Cards Against Humanity has several expansion packs, each with 112 cards. Also available is a custom box you can use to store everything.

8. Limited Edition – For true collectors, Cards Against Humanity has released five limited edition expansion packs, including two holiday packs and a collection of cards that were rejected from the original game. The original game is not always available, with “used” copies selling for as much as $150 on Amazon.

9. Localize It – Not everybody knows English. And not everybody gets US-specific cultural references. Because of these things, Cards of Humanity has a UK Edition, a Canadian Edition, and “fan translations” or the original game to Spanish, French, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Polish, and several other languages.

The company the goes “local” will win every time.

With so many music and news options available today, “local” is the only way broadcast radio is able to compete. It’s  the secret weapon that will allow most businesses to do the same with big corporations, regardless of industry, because it’s something that can’t be easily replicated and speaks to the very specific needs of customers that only a few people, other locals, are aware of.

Final Thoughts

It’s worth taking a few minutes to read the reviews on Amazon to get a feel for the reactions people have to Cards of Humanity, both positive and negative. Also take a look at the official site, because they’ve done a brilliant job with the copy and imaging.

ABOUT THIS SERIES: Every Monday, I analyze the good, bad, and ugly about the marketing behind a common business or famous personality. See other posts in this series here and, if you have a request for something (or someone) you’d like me to analyze for this series, contact me via Twitter.

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