On Friday the 13th, Lucky Generals founding partner Andy Nairn tells us why being beset by bad luck can in fact inspire brands and agencies to produce some of their most memorable marketing.
In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s Friday the 13th today. In many countries this is seen as the unluckiest date on the calendar (although there are actually lots of regional variations, from Friday 17th in Italy to Tuesday 13th in Greece). Some people avoid big purchases, business decisions, family events or journeys on this date, in case something goes wrong. There’s even a word to describe the clinical condition: paraskevidekatriaphobia.
Of course, most of us scoff at such superstition. And quite rightly: there’s no evidence that this day is unluckier than any other. In fact, if anything, the opposite may be true: in 2008, the Dutch Institute for Insurance Statistics analyzed many years’ worth of data and reported that there are fewer accidents, fires or reports of theft on this day, as people are more cautious and more likely to stay at home. In Finland, the authorities take this insight one step further and hold their National Accident Day on Friday 13th.
All of this goes to show that things that look unlucky aren’t always what they seem. In fact, a supposed misfortune can actually be the very thing that sparks creativity and prompts a positive breakthrough. That’s certainly true in our world, where some of the greatest success stories have not only been born out of adversity – they’ve been driven by it. These case studies remind us that blessings often come in disguise and part of our job is to recognize them when they knock at our door.
Take an extreme example, like a self-inflicted crisis. KFC famously experienced one of these in 2018, when it switched suppliers and ran out of chicken. For a couple of days, the UK raged about the fiasco. But the company managed to rescue the situation, with an admirable blend of honesty and self-deprecating humor. “FCK” said those iconic ads by Mother – and suddenly the company began to generate goodwill from a disaster.
Alternatively, what about when your category is affected by a taboo? Many advertisers would regard this as bad luck and resign themselves to coy metaphors and lifestyle imagery to get round the problem. But Essity and AMV have taken a different approach in recent years. Rather than shy away from the biological facts of women’s bodies, they’ve embraced them in a series of glorious campaigns, from #VivaLaVulva to #Wombstories.
Then there are customer complaints. Conventional wisdom would be to brush them under the carpet, or at least deal with them behind closed doors. However, they can be a source of positive energy too. Channel 4 proved this with a great campaign recently. The broadcaster used its on-screen talent to give voice to real viewer gripes – making the point that if nobody was complaining about its shows, it would be worried.
A similar dynamic applies to product flaws. Traditionally, marketers are told to accentuate the positives and not draw attention to their imperfections. But ever since DDB’s famous campaigns for VW (“Think small”) and Avis (“We try harder”) in the 1950s, we’ve known that acknowledging a minor downside can have a major upside. Psychologists call it “the pratfall effect”, in recognition of the fact that human beings like their heroes to be fallible. One of my favourite examples of this genre is Guinness’s “Good things come to those who wait.” It’s a classic case of turning a supposed weakness into a strength.
Even budgetary and timing constraints don’t always have to be bad news. We’ve probably all worked on projects where we begin by bemoaning these limitations – but end up crediting them as part of our success. That was certainly the case with our first-ever campaign as an agency, when Paddy Power briefed us to tackle homophobia in football. It was precisely because we had neither money nor time that we ended up sending out rainbow-coloured bootlaces to every professional footballer in the country. If we had been “lucky” enough to have more of either commodity, maybe we wouldn’t have developed a campaign that’s still going strong today.
Of course, the last 18 months have been particularly tough. So it’s only human for us to dwell on our various misfortunes and curse the hand that we’ve been dealt. But we’re better to think like Walt Disney – who credited bankruptcy and other setbacks for his success: “You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
So don’t be afraid to walk on the cracks, smile when you see that black cat crossing your path and take a detour under that ladder if you can. Because sometimes, a bit of misfortune can turn out to be your saviour. And as for Friday 13th? Well, my paraskevidekatriaphobic friends, this could be your lucky day.
Andy Nairn is a founder of Lucky Generals and the author of Go Luck Yourself, which is available from all the usual places including here