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Dettol Marketing Workplace

The Dettol clean-up: ‘It’s too easy to be pejorative’

By Pam Scobbie, founder

September 15, 2020 | 4 min read

Pam Scobbie, director and executive creative at Wire, takes a forensic look at Dettol’s latest ad misfire, which lovingly detailed the return to the office in several out-of-home spots. Did it misjudge the mood of the nation when it thought we missed old sandwiches and watercooler chats about the weather?

Dettol's cringe Metro ads leave commuters baffled

They say that victory has a thousand fathers, but that failure is an orphan. In that case, the world would have you believe that Dettol is unadoptable and can’t ever come off its naughty step, however well-sterilised it might be.

“Someone’s hired Jeremy Hunt as a copywriter”

“Makes me want to drink Dettol”

“Choose death”

Those were just some of the ‘proper bants’ dished out towards the campaign. Comments that, if it were my work, would make me curl up and volunteer a hard lockdown with no end date. Yes, the copy was all levels of awkward. Even still, the reaction it provoked was absolutely brutal. Disproportionately so. Every 280 character slap-down or grimacing gif that appeared on my feed made me cringe; made me want to send McCann London a condolence card and a large bottle of strong alcohol.

In my mind, the problem with the response is a general issue in certain corners of the industry: it’s too easy to be pejorative. It’s too easy to sneer at another agency’s craft and declare that you could have (would have) done it better. Pre-Covid-19, those conversations would mostly have taken place within the office. Now, unless it’s a piece of work that’s offensive or powered by bad intentions, it just feels a bit unsportsmanlike – and counterproductive – to flog our peers in public for all to see.

For this campaign to blow up in the current climate, so negatively over a couple of misjudged posters seen in reality by a handful of commuters, feels to me, well, exactly that. Misjudged. Even if, as fellow creatives, we don’t love the work, surely we should be encouraged by campaigns making the light of day at all just now, especially after the fright we all endured in March? Signing budgets off, working remotely, trying to connect with audiences and our teams isn’t easy. So would it really hurt to bring a little optimism, or at the very least a little kindness, to the table?

Because there but for the grace... I don’t believe there’s any agency that can point to their own body of work and say in all honesty that there’s no weak link in there, nothing they wish they could do over through a different lens, with a greater budget or with less client intervention.

So, if we really want to improve the quality of work within our industry, it won’t come from armchair critics cancelling work on Twitter. Not in any meaningful way, at least. It’s often true that those who spend time looking for faults in others usually make no time to correct their own. Instead, it would be a better use of energy to look towards ourselves and double-down on our promises to produce single-minded, creatively brilliant campaigns. Work worth fighting for, work to be proud of. That’s a positive goal – but one that won’t be without its challenges in the months ahead.

I stumbled across someone on Twitter wondering if Dettol’s campaign was less of a disaster long-term, more of a happy accident. Maybe this unexpected share-of-mind would actually have the brand rubbing their germ-free hands together in glee at the prospect of more sales, they wondered?

I doubt Dettol is feeling very good about the work. But it’s true that failure is almost never fatal. As long as you have the courage to continue. And don’t get sidetracked by being a bit of a dick to others.

Here’s hoping more of us learn to clean up our own act before focusing on Dettol’s (or any other brand’s) mess.

Pam Scobbie is director and executive creative at Wire.

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