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Fake Ad Brand Strategy Marketing

For fakes’ sake, let’s talk about ‘real ads’


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

April 17, 2024 | 15 min read

Why are ‘fake ads’ outperforming the real ones on LinkedIn? I have a theory. Come down the rabbit hole with me.

A totally real billboard

We cover a lot of creative at The Drum, and by creative, I really mean ads + things that pretend they aren’t ads but really are ads. It’s pretty nice when a good ad makes it into the real world to be enjoyed seen by real free-range humans.

But when is an ad actually not an ad at all?

Over the past few days, inspired by a whole lot of chatter on LinkedIn over an easyJet ad that never was, we’ve been exploring what constitutes a ‘fake ad.’ This may include any of the following:

  1. Scams made to win awards. They pretend to run.

  2. PR stunts that didn’t happen. All talk, no walk.

  3. Spec work made by bored creatives who are unaffiliated with the brand.

  4. CGI experiential and OOH that only exists for social.

  5. Single-site experiential and OOH. Anything short of a national campaign is blasphemy right?

  6. Creative mockups made before the real campaign runs.

  7. Anything ‘in the metaverse’. That’s a lie about a channel; therefore, it’s fake.

  8. A digital ad that anyone’s actually clicked on... (that’s a joke, sort of).

  9. Branded content that is only read and shared by the creators.

  10. Scammers posing as brands to separate the elderly from pensions.

I’ve probably missed a few. Isn’t it remarkable how many categories of naff, ineffective advertising there are? Anyway, let’s focus on number three, as that’s really the one that’s getting everyone vexed right now.

Spec work made by bored creatives unaffiliated with the brand

The devil makes work for idle thumbs. Out of work creative directors keep making spec ads for brands they don’t work on. Is it to stay sharp? Because they’ll explode if an idea stays in their head? Do they keep chasing that dopamine hit?

Aussie creative Tom Birts makes a lot of spec ads, and one in particular caught fire recently, propelling Birts into the center of the 'easyJetFakeGate’ that rocked Marketing Twitter for a weekend. Now, it’s worth saying that in 2024, when I say Marketing Twitter, I mean LinkedIn. Ever since the jackboots stormed Elon’s town square, and he told all advertisers to go fuck themselves, that’s where the industry discourse has gravitated.

Tom posted: ‘If I were easyJet, (If I were easyJet. What does that even mean? Some sort of half-man-half-brand? An insult to nature is what it would be.) I’d do something like this.’

Ha, British Airways, take that!

Uncommon, you thought your ad was so great and minimalist, but now it’s been wafted with a foul orange fog.

The responses to Tom’s concept, posted on a Friday, vary from ‘brave,’ ‘bold’ to ‘CLAP EMOJI.’ That was before the strategists appeared to explain why it wouldn’t work, and it was utterly terrible. After a weekend studying whether you can outdrink a hangover, I zombied to my desk and saw this creative everywhere.

The work was shared so widely from its original source that people began to think it was real. My initial response was: ‘How dare easyJet forgo sending it to us. The nerve.’ Then, I looked at it for more than three seconds.

Tom made it clear it was definitely fake. From him to me, via 100 roads, it was now real. BTW, who the fuck shares ads on LinkedIn without tagging or crediting the creator anyway? The whole point of the platform is, ‘nice ad dude’ @personname! I digress.

Tom found it funny and made a good effort to intercept those who misrepresented the work. He’s written about it all here in The Drum.

Allow me a moment on a high horse. Your friendly neighborhood B2B marketing titles employ people who verify and fact-check this stuff. We can’t just throw fake stuff online and farm the pennies from your clicks. I’d be much better dressed if that worked. But that random ‘thought leader’ you follow on LinkedIn won’t take it down and, in some instances, won’t even correct the record. Tread carefully is all I’ll say. I’ve seen CMOs sharing ads about as real as a YouTuber’s apology video.

An easyJet fake takes flight

I haven’t been to easyJet’s marketing headquarters; I assume it is in Luton, where I would only go if easyJet dragged me there kicking and screaming in a depressurizing cabin. Rumor has it they are squeezed into a seatless broom cupboard and have to pay to upgrade.

I can only imagine its marketing team seeing the ad on Monday and asking, ‘Did we run ****ing this?’

And the most obvious sign that it is fake would be the response. ‘It’s not ours; people are actually sharing this one for some reason.’

And that brings me closer to the crux of a point.

How do we get better at spotting spec work?

It’s all about red flags. I’m good at it. As a baby journalist, if I covered a fake, I’d be RTed by some angry bloke on Twitter, mocked by colleagues, and then I’d have to log into the site in my own time and correct the record.

Red flag 1: ‘Ooooh, this is good; a client signed this off?’

That feeling should tell you everything. Real ads often don’t make you feel like that. Usually.

Then you could put on your strategy tophat and probe the thinking.

You’re nodding along; yep, that all makes sense.

So why does it make sense until it hits a social feed?

I cant' misplace an apostrophe without you lot wanting me removed from my job and public life, and yet you’re applauding obviously fake ads.

What it takes to be noticed

Embedded in the shit-yourself-for-attention world of social feeds, where Logan Paul visits Japanese suicide forests and kids eat Tide pods, these dumb ideas stop feeling fake. You can’t see the fake forest for the fake trees.

There’s this awful hellscape in which advertisers have to stand out. The internet is filled with lies. Or, at this stage, it’s a bucket of lies with a dash of internet.

And that leads me to Rory McEntee’s Gymbox marketing. The bus stunt was his. He unashamedly loves a fake ad. He wrote as much on The Drum last week.

Gymbox has a special place in my heart; it’s a 20-year-old brand I only know because it lied and faked some ads a year or two ago. There’s a lot to unpack there. Does that mean it worked?

Rory got ‘hooked’ on mocking up ad and PR campaigns. Omar, over at the Media Leader, dug into Gymbox’s little infatuation with fake news, particularly the campaign that pretended to run ads on top of London buses to promote aerial classes.

The trades covered it. After all, it did claim, when pressed by Campaign, that “12 London buses had been booked to run the ads for a week”.

The headlines came in, the social clout spread, and the media owners boiled in anger at having their assets used as a PR canvas. You can Google which titles have and haven’t updated the story, then choose who you read going forward accordingly.

So, lying works?

We don’t really expect to be lied to, which is naive, considering we deal with marketers. And if I am to trust an internet quote site to make this point, HG Wells once said: “Advertising is legalized lying.”

The truth is, we wouldn’t have covered the work if we knew it didn’t run.

There were real campaigns that day that we didn’t cover. This was an opportunity to reflect and grow for us, and perhaps him.

Rory has since written in The Drum that he didn’t think it was that big a deal at the time. “I was getting more exposure than ever. Nor did I expect the criticism, backlash and debate that the series of adverts would cause in adland.”

But is it a big deal?

Well, we did our best to correct the record.

I’m not overly concerned about the margins of the media owners who are keeping a close eye on which inventory you are faking ads on (they’re very welcome to group together and pen an op-ed on these pages).

But I wonder, who were these ads for?

And would they be of any use if they never broke out of a LinkedIn marketing echo chamber? Maybe London creative directors are actually the target demo... so few of you bring the guns! [A new weightlifting category for The Drum Awards next year?]

Rory said: “These ads are created to provoke a reaction. I am a brand owner and have created fakes. Slap on the wrist for me, but while I will be criticized for a lack of authenticity and truthfulness, the reality is my fake ad is driving sales, getting way further reach than a ‘real’ advert and is content within itself.”

He fell short of sharing those figures, they often do that. I’m not going to tally up every mention of that work in social and the press. I saw it at the time, and that, too, was ‘everywhere.’ I assume the ad was run on Gymbox’s socials, too, where it reached actual people. And the expense? Not much.

Some detractors said at the time that he’d be better served by running real ads. I’m sure he’d have liked having a larger budget too...

There’s another example, where Gymbox did(n’t) a four-way Tube ad with Surreal cereal and a few more. The creative read ‘Harder, Feta, Faster, Stronger’ and had its respective brands in place.

I covered this creative. I don’t usually do that. Maybe it was one of those times when literally all of our journalists had Covid-19. I think I realized it was BS halfway into writing it up. I went to the brand to confirm and then ran anyway with the word ‘concept’ in the headline. Sunken cost fallacy, my friends. Other titles ran it without the caveat.

When I pressed Surreal, it responded: “We can neither confirm nor deny whether it’s a real OOH campaign or simply a 10-minute Photoshop job. Let’s just say you could travel Around The World and probably not see it. Unless you Get Lucky.”

Cute answer. Annoying too.

I had a media owner or two in my inbox asking why we’re running fake ads. And I didn’t rightly know. I was tricked by something too good to be true on a slow day for creative is my best guess. It’s also quite nice to see brands with much smaller budgets make a right good go of it.

Rory proved that his team’s ideas can create an impact. He has since run some real campaigns created and bought by real agencies. So, I guess it all worked out. I’m sure he’d prefer a Coca-Cola budget to faking ads and telling fibs.

Time to put the tinfoil hat on

How many fake campaigns have we covered over the years that had the global impact of a mosquito fart in a monsoon?

And it’s about to get worse. For any dufus with an internet connection, AI can generate an image and distribute it online. Sometimes, that’ll be an ad campaign. And that’s not mentioning all of the CGI work cutting into the real world, like the Messi World Cup billboard or the mascara applicator I mentioned. That’s number 4 on my fake ad list above. They do really well on social, although I wonder if the craze is petering out a bit.

And that brings me to Andrew Tindall, the profilic LinkedIn poster with a full ad effectiveness business behind his posts. That’s CHEATING Andrew.

Back to the easyJet ad. Tindall critiqued it, using the full force of all his ad effectiveness knowledge, as though it were a real ad. He tells me his post hit 200,000+ people. We’re unsure how many were on team ‘clap back’ versus team ‘how dare you amplify a fake.’

One Peter Bray responded to Andrew that the fake ad was essentially cheating. That client buy-in and the legal hoops one has to jump through are the most difficult bits of getting a good work run. And it’s much slower to paste up a billboard than to stick a stock through Canva. So, there are lots of excuses for real ads being duller than fakes.

Andrew wrote in The Drum to explain that we should critique fake ads. He’s up to his knees in fake ads. We’ve all sort of half-agreed that ads are basically fake until they run somewhere real humans are likely to have ANY reaction to them. Or, at least to me, that's a useful segregation.

So, every ad he’s ever pre-screened is a fake. Every concept he’s A-B tested is fake. It's all fake until it’s real. The fakes determine what route the real should take. I can’t even imagine how much award-winning work that man’s seen get neutered in the edit. But how many more have been saved?

He says: “This may be why I’m more pro-fake ad than most. Sharing this kind of bold concept work and showing proxy measures for how it would fare in the real world should help agencies sign off bold creative thinking. Not the opposite.”

And I think that’s a helpful point to end.

The marketing profession is a laughing stock in some boardrooms.

That might be because the real work is often more boring than the fakes the executive class is loving on LinkedIn, or it might be that we are making work that has such little impact it might as well be fake.

I don’t know. I only know what creative directors like to click on via LinkedIn.

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