Out Of Home Brand Strategy Policy & Regulation

Was Waitrose’s wonky work willfully winding up Wandsworth Council?


By Ed Palmer, Managing director

April 30, 2024 | 5 min read

St Luke’s Ed Palmer asks whether the council’s brief but column-conjuring closure of Saatchi & Saatchi’s Waitrose poster was really an unintended consequence.

Council sequesters Waitrose billboard

/ Waitrose

Outdoors’ potential for impact and fame is huge. But it needs to be simple. At least, that’s what’s been drilled into us since time immemorial. It’s all about simple messages, presented in an engaging enough way to grab the attention of passers-by just long enough to land the message. We’ve all been lectured with the well-intentioned but generally arbitrary rules like five words maximum. Or was it seven? Or two?

But because outdoor also has stature and is a very public and broadcast medium, it’s long been the source of great PR, a popular tactic for politicians and brands alike. Think political campaigning, from ‘Labour isn’t working’ to the infamous Brexit bus.

So it’s entirely natural for advertisers to challenge themselves to think, ‘How can this poster be clever enough to be a PR opportunity?’

Special builds are not cheap when measured against standard reach. So, you need to be confident that they are going to be clever enough to generate the attention to justify the investment. But with outdoor, cleverness shouldn’t be subtle.

During the Partygate scandal, Butterkist drove an advan with the slogan ‘here for the drama’ right up to the gates of Downing Street, handing out popcorn to passers-by. That was anything but subtle.

Butterkist riling up Boris Johnson

When Hiscox put posters up with intentional mistakes and blunders recently to highlight the need to insure your business against unforeseen calamities, it left little room for nuance.

If we’re too subtle, it will just go unnoticed or even backfire. Unless it’s perhaps part of a more ingenious masterplan. Take the recent Waitrose poster, for example.

The ad was deliberately put on the slant to reinforce a point about lowered prices. The subtlety was apparently lost on Wandsworth council, who thought it was a health and safety risk and cordoned it off. So, you could be forgiven for thinking this fell into the ‘too subtle for its own good’ trap.

However, there is another, riskier way to amplify attention: the manufactured debate/outrage/derision. Brands will rarely own up to doing this, as it will make the commenters on whom they depend for exposure feel manipulated and stupid. So often, it’s a matter of conjecture as to whether this has been done deliberately or not. But it’s an attractive approach in a polarised world where the algorithm adores the shrill and the ranty. [Editor’s note: Can confirm.]

Sometimes it’s fairly transparent what the advertiser is doing. Farage’s anti-immigrant poster was less dogwhistle politics, more dog foghorn. Other times, it’s not so clear-cut. Was the recent FKA Twigs Calvin Klein poster campaign carefully calibrated to court the right amount of controversy and indignation while retaining the support of enough of the core audience?

We’ll probably never know.

Did Ed Gamble deliberately put a hotdog on his TfL poster so he’d be forced to replace it with a cucumber because of unhealthy eating rules and get bucketloads of PR? Actually, I don’t think anyone saw that one coming.

So, back to Waitrose. Was this poster designed to confuse Wandsworth Council and attract the media’s attention, thereby getting millions of free eyeballs for the brand? If that was the intention, it’s certainly worked, and Waitrose can feel good about that.

But to what extent will these apparently ingenious ways to get short-term PR create subtler, longer-term brand impact? Will a little bit of our subconscious think that a brand that stands for meticulous quality has lost its edge and got a bit sloppy? Or will we perceive that brand as being that little bit smarter and sassier in the face of neanderthal local council ways? We’ll probably never know.

Oscar Levant said there’s a fine line between genius and madness. When it comes to outdoor PR stunts, it can sometimes be hard to tell.

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