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Badvertising – do we seriously believe brands are making bad ads on purpose?

By Andrew Boulton

May 24, 2017 | 4 min read

If you’re a Copywriter, Designer or anyone who exchanges their creativity for the ad man’s shiny coin, then you’ll know what it’s like to be disapproved of.


All of us have, at some point, encountered an opinionated character who is glad to share their dislike and mistrust for advertising. In fact, wander into the wrong kitchen at the wrong party and, rather than quietly filling your pockets with small cakes, you’ll find someone who noisily ranks the evil of your day job somewhere between Mail Online comment moderators and The Mountain from Game of Thrones.

Advertising’s villainy is usually explained as either manipulating the vulnerable, or herding society into a pit of acquisition, status and the iniquitous cult of ‘stuff’.

The other crime that advertising, and more broadly marketing, is accused of is particularly relevant given recent events. And that offence is that we, advertising creatives, are interested only in producing work that gets a reaction. Any kind of reaction.

In the past few weeks you may have noticed that a series of enormous brands have produced creative work that – in the clunky, pseudo-contrition of their own press statements – ‘missed the mark’.

Whether it’s Pepsi deciding that ‘Fizzy Drinks Matter’ is the social movement 2017 deserves, or McDonalds taking McCain’s ‘Daddy or Chips?’ concept to a grim new vista, brands that should know better have been getting things incredibly wrong. Even Dove, possibly the most emotionally authentic brand of the last 10 years, misplaced their hard-won rapport.

But have these brands really slipped up? Perhaps, in a moment of deviant inspiration, they decided that the social media buzz of a crass and offensive piece of creative is worth far more to the brand than work that people will like.

I struggle with this theory, and I know many creatives in the industry who feel the same. Admittedly launching a terrible ad, allowing the froth to build to a suitable pitch and then sheepishly pulling it from existence, has demonstrably thrust Pepsi and McDonalds into the conversation.

And yes, these two brands in particular have a big enough budget and strong enough heritage to take the mirth and fury of an incredulous social media universe on the chin.

But I, perhaps naively, struggle with the idea of creative teams producing wilfully poor or distasteful work. In the same way a football manager will claim they never saw a player do anything but try to win a game, I have never seen a creative attempt anything other than the finest work the brief allows.

Admittedly, as the snivelling apologist for creatives that I am, I can’t help but feel that, for the work to have become as bad as it was, the recommendation of the creatives probably counted for less than it should. Similarly though, I find it hard to picture a malevolent CFO demonstrating a persuasive correlation between the vulgarity of the creative and the uplift in sales.

So next time some goon sneeringly accuses you of producing deliberately controversial work – or pouring every creative flicker you have into an idea you know your client intends to tug back in like a puppy charging at a duckling – then you have every right to be indignant.

And, unless they want their children to be chewing mournfully on a hot fish sandwich this time next week, they had better walk away.

Follow Andrew on Twitter


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