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Out Of Home Brand Strategy Marketing

Want to win an ad award? You’ll need an ‘accident’ and a few cones


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

May 7, 2024 | 11 min read

The Drum’s opinion editor, John McCarthy, explains why marketers need to make more outdoor mistakes.

Numerous 'accidental' ads

Marketers often suffer from the spotlight effect, an assumption that the public’s eyes are on their work at all times. That happens while the public largely tries to avoid said work, which is quite funny really. Some go a step further and assume the apathetic mass ‘loves’ the brand. Smarter marketers know how hard it is to get noticed, never mind remembered. They color within the lines and never put a foot wrong.

There is a tier above. An anthropologist type, usually a sociopath who learned at a young age how to ‘understand humans’ to best cover up their trail of animal graves.

To err is human. To pretend to err is smart marketer.

And ladies, gentlemen, and those dancing around outside those particular boxes, that’s today’s topic.

Why it’s a mistake to underestimate the ‘mistake’

We’re talking about publicity stunts and special ops ads that gather attention due to a perceived accident/flaw/mistake. There’s been a few recently that will almost certainly snap up some awards.

But why am I so sure?

Well, I’ve been working at The Drum for a decade now. I know what ads people search on the internet to watch. And I know what work wins awards. And yes. It’s mostly the same work.

I have a few theories as to why.

We humans supposedly have a negativity bias; it’s why you remember the breakup more than the first date. Or the stinging aftermath more than the balanced spices of the curry itself. Or the scratch from the kitten over your scritches under its neck. This is probably a leftover from our monkey-brain era, but it sure is a handy tool to avoid pain and misfortune; it’s why we don’t eat the mystery mushrooms or put our hands in the campfire twice.

Now, I’m not suggesting marketers want to hurt us until we sing the jingle (although this patent suggests they would if they could). But they can definitely play into these executive functions to give you some ‘fries with that.’

After a few weeks obsessing about ‘fake ads,’ work that marketers pretend to run in the real world for online clout. Now, it’s time to look at ‘faux flaws’ - when marketers play possum for publicity.

Crash and earn (media)

First of all, it’s worth saying that the United Kingdom is a safe nation. Yes, if we swim in our rivers, we need to do so with our mouths shut, but ultimately, we can’t so much as break into a tap dance without first having to identify the nearest fire extinguisher and first aid practitioner.

We excel at forming orderly queues, even in the face of inevitable disappointment. It’s why Greggs is now the mandatory national meal.

The best visual metaphor explaining our safety fetish was a recent ad by Saatchi & Saatchi for Waitrose, a premium supermarket a journalist like me can’t afford to enjoy. The campaign revealed that Waitrose is actually affordable now. I’ll believe it when it see it, there aren’t a lot of Waitrose in Scotland. This was a paradigm shift in messaging from the brand. It needed a big moment to make the news stick.

The answer was a special build poster, a wonderful wonky ad that garnered some attention because some hardhat council man thought it posed a hazard to the public and promptly cordoned it off. And after 12 minutes of scouring the internet, I couldn’t find a single negative comment from real humans who don’t clap with glee when they get to watch a new ad.


From the nation that seemingly specializes in pointing at potholes in newspapers, we love a dash of danger to the otherwise mundane. We’ve got no guns, we wear seat belts even when idling, and our healthcare’s free (when it’s actually available). Our most dangerous predators are the XL Bully, Jack Russell Terrier, Conservative politicians, cavernous potholes, and the humble cow. Probably.

So, when on a bus and we see a billboard hanging on by a thread, we stop tripping out to the pattern of the bus seats and pay attention.

Consider the case of Specsavers, whose marketing stunt involving a crashed van became the talk of the town. Specsavers built upon its long-term fluent device, ‘Should’ve Gone To Specsavers,’ for a fun piece of real-world mayhem. ‘Oh boy, some fella’s in real trouble,’ was probably the public’s reaction. Are they being deceived or amused? I’ll let you decide. Even time we choose to get immersed in a book, isn’t that a level of self-deception?


It’s a Last of the Summer-Wine-style gaffe we can enjoy... if we allow ourselves some respite from the dystopian truth that, if real, this person would never work again. My negativity bias aside, it’s worth noting how few brands are willing to show any vulnerability.

I first stumbled across this trend in 2015 when Richard Shotton wrote a blog about ‘The Pratfall Effect.’ I know it’s an old trick, but it blew my mind. Deliberately doing things wrong felt like such a strong tool in the armory.

I’ve since used the Pratfall Effect as the excuse for every mis-utterance, typo and frankly cancellable act I’ve conducted ever since. This doesn’t work, I’ve learned the hard way that people have to like you enough to get in on the joke. It’s something brands must be aware of when deploying this tactic.

One of Richard’s paragraphs that has aged well in the subsequent… decade is: “Everyone assumes that brands are fallible, so if a brand is open about its failings, it can persuade consumers that its weaknesses lie in inconsequential areas. This theory partly explains the success of budget airlines. At launch, they openly admitted that the trade-off for cheap prices was a compromised service: no reservations and a small luggage allowance. If they hadn’t admitted as much, consumers may have assumed the cost-cutting had come at the expense of safety.”

In print, when KFC faced a chicken shortage crisis, marketers didn’t hide in depot freezers; it lifted the lid on the situation with the ingenious ‘FCK’ ad. The very same brand also reformulated its chips/fries, agreeing the old ones were a bit shit. Carlsberg did a similar thing with its old beer before it became the tipple of Hannibal Lecter.

By acknowledging the problem head-on and injecting humor into the situation, KFC and others transformed a potential disaster into something vaguely positive.

Uncommon’s Hiscox work appears to be playing out of the Specsavers playbook rather admirably, too, with the gaffes in the insurance, rather than healthcare, spectrum.


In our rush to portray humanity and authenticity, we often overlook one fundamental truth: imperfection is what makes us human. Just as Kate Moss’s gap tooth became an iconic feature of her beauty, and I can say that as a person whose gap whistles in the wind, so too do the flaws of brands that draw us in, making them more relatable and engaging.

In a world where perfection is often portrayed as the ultimate goal, it’s refreshing to see brands embrace their imperfection. Whether it’s a dodgy billboard or a humorous response to a crisis, these imperfections humanize brands and make them more accessible to the public.

Brands have been telling us all we have flaws for decades. Why do they then get to present themselves as the idols of our time? We know it’s a lie.

So why are flawed ads more interesting?

Well to start, the risky marketer is probably better at their job.

A marketer who can conceive a ‘flawed’ ad that builds upon an established strategy, navigates that through a boardroom that can’t show any weakness to the market lest they lose a percentage point, and then execute it in a way that resonates with the public... is probably making a better ad than the schlub throwing out the ‘safe’ option.

And then maybe it’s because behind the glossy facades of advertising lies a world filled with real people facing real challenges who like a simple idea and a bit of entertainment. Maybe it’s because, in a society that often feels sanitized and sterile, these moments of vulnerability offer a glimpse of authenticity or at least someone working for your attention. Or maybe people actually don’t like brands that much and like to see them ‘fail.’

For me, 32, the OG in this category is O2’s ‘Oops.’

O2 Oops

In 2018, there was no worse feeling than the terror of analyzing a dropped phone for damage. Oops indeed. Things have changed in 2024; I only trust the people who have tried to destroy their phones to stop X (I mean Twitter) from bleeding into their dreams.

The ad is so simple. So correct. Subversive. Engaging. Solving a common problem. One that evokes a gut feeling in us. So far, so good. Of course, the medium announcing a screen repair scheme should be smashed to pieces and cordoned off.

It’s a slightly cleaner message than Waitrose’s discount billboard. Smashing a screen to talk about smashed screens is neater than sloping a billboard to talk about sliding prices. What both campaigns have in common is the publicity-grabbing use of a cone. And if you are skeptical, just look at why Banksy chose Glasgow as the home of his world-famous exhibition. He’s really into cones. And he’s our national artist, therefore, we all are.

Duke of Wellington Wikipedia

I dusted off the phonebook and had a chat with a strategist who’s always hunting for these special ops. I asked if it really was just as simple as chucking up a few cones and going to the pub.

Take a look at what they said: “People love it when brands fuck up, show a bit of self-deprecation or hack the media. It’s probably time to take these intentional fuck ups to the next level. And it’s worth honing in on Specsavers in particular, it has been building this platform and developing and executing it for a while now. It’s its birthright to bring out the cones and win awards now.”

I’m no subscriber to the ‘all publicity is good publicity mantra,’ although, in the age of ceaseless social media, yes, you can monetize stupidity and hatred for a while, at least.

But, I know as the purveyor of a publication, the hardest thing in life is to get someone to take a second look at something. Three things are certain in life. Death, taxes and people slowing down to gawp at a car crash. Thanks for reading mine.

When I’m not obsessing over advertising conspiracies, I edit The Drum’s opinion section. It’s where I get all my good ideas from. Give it a read, we've just finished a health marketing focus.

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