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What creating fake ads through a fake agency taught me about brand activism

By Steve Mast, President & chief innovation officer

September 26, 2018 | 5 min read

Imagine scrolling through your social media feed and coming across an ad for Amber Alert Lager (for the gentleman who doesn’t like to wait) or Thwongs (thong diapers for the fashion-forward mom). How would you react? My guess is you’d do nothing. I know this because my company created, tested and posted these very ads, under the name of a fake ad agency.

Steve Mast

Steve Mast created the fake agency 'Four Old White Guys'

Instead of waiting around for a truly offensive ad to appear, we decided to make our own and test them. Surprisingly, the over-the-top ads generated next to no reaction.

It shows just how hard it can actually be to offend, even today.

Contrast that to the loud and very polarized reaction to Nike – a brand with a long history, no shortage of clout and millions of eager fans – when it unveiled its Colin Kaepernick campaign. The difference is striking, and leads to the obvious question: why would ads designed to draw fire go unnoticed, while those that are purpose-led cause a firestorm?


I have an idea, and it starts with a story. After reading the flurry of conflicting opinion pieces in the wake of the Nike ad, I decided to hold a survey of one. I asked my 15-year old son what he thought about the commercial.

His response caught me off guard. He acknowledged that he liked it but flagged that it already felt like old news by that point, and then told me he was considering buying new Nike shoes set to be released for the holidays. In other words, no big deal.

Ultimately, all brands are judged by one thing, and one thing alone: their ability to drive revenue, which comes from knowing their audience and creating great products. If they do that, the “how it’s done part” becomes secondary. In the case of my son, nothing he saw alienated him, and if anything, he was brought that much closer to the brand. For Nike, that’s a success.

So, the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t about whether Nike did the right thing. Rather, we should be asking how the world of advertising is shifting from slow and methodical to agile and timely, and how activism may come to eclipse humour and satire, and what this means for brands.

It may be among the most high-profile examples, but Nike is hardly new when it comes to courting controversy. Chipotle made a big splash with its 2012 Superbowl ad calling for more sustainable farming. The recent Airbnb ‘We Accept’ campaign is another good example.

But not everyone can execute like that. Pepsi is a good example of a brand with a good idea and poor execution. They had the best of intentions, but what was clear was that it wasn’t core to what Pepsi believed nor did they test it along the way of development. It felt forced, hollow and consumers saw right through it.

Many companies opt for the safety of humour to get their message across, and for brands that embody comedy, that may still be the right way to go. For those seeking to get more ‘edgy’ content there’s always satire to explore, which allows a brand to play with an issue – but with no strings attached. In both these cases, there’s still latitude for error.

When it comes to mixing advertising and activism, however, the stakes are much higher. Activism walks a fine line and there is no out. If you choose to stand for a cause – even if certain groups think you're choosing the wrong side - you better be prepared to support it in full. Once you start, there's no backing down.

That’s especially true of big brands that already have entrenched critics – blowback will come, and should be expected. Smaller brands are unlikely to receive that kind of attention, and thus have some built-in protection.

Size aside, the challenge for brands who want to embrace activism is clear. They must find a way to take on tough topics, stay true to their values, satisfy their existing customer base while exploring opportunities to grow, and make a long-term impact. And they must do it while moving faster than ever before.

This is what the new world of agile advertising is all about. Brands who are up to the task should begin preparing themselves. And know that if you aren’t, chances are your competitors certainly are.

Steve Mast is president and chief innovation officer of data collection company Delvinia


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