We’ve all seen bad ads before. Some of them have terrible production value, some have bad scripts, and some have such wooden acting (funeral and income protection insurance ads, I’m looking at you) that you can’t help but laugh incredulously at how bad they are. There’s a new kind of bad ad that I’ve been seeing over the past couple of years though, and it hasn’t got anything to do with the above traits. These ads have good production value and do most things quite well. The problem is, they are usually trying to latch onto some social trend and appropriate it for their brand. It may see like a good idea – inserting your brand into the current conversation, but this is where the issues start, because effective advertising isn’t about being seen with what is popular at the time, it’s about making statements that are in line with your brand and the public perception of your brand.
There’s obviously a lot of talk about what Nike has done with Colin Kaepernick over the last couple of weeks. It’s polarised almost everyone, but in looking at their future market most agree that it was an incredibly smart move. And the way they did it was smart too. Simple. Elegant. A single picture of Kaepernick, with the words “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”. A profound slogan. It’s meme worthy too, and those have exploded all across the internet. Parody isn’t necessarily a bad thing here, because it keeps the conversation going and those making the memes aren’t against what the ad is saying. In most cases I’d say they’re for it, because the people in a rage over the ad aren’t going to be interested in humour.
It’s estimated that this pared back, simple ad has given Nike an estimated $163 million in free publicity. Not bad at all for a single picture. This very article is adding to that just by talking about it. It’s a calculated bet too – while many are incredibly angry over it, there are plenty who have now sided with the brand (sales have increased 31%). Let’s face it, there’s a good chance that when this dies down, those people burning their shoes will go back to buying Nike sooner than they think, because the product is what they like and purchase, not the social stance.
That’s what I think is the genius behind this campaign – Nike isn’t expressly saying they agree with anything Kaepernick does, or trying to latch onto any kind of social movement, they’re simply saying that believing in something is a good thing. Nike is being political without actually being political. And that, to me, is where the genius lies. Nike isn’t saying “this is who we are”. They’re not setting quotas for minority athletes to be sponsored, they aren’t issuing press releases on protests in the news. They’re just standing behind one of their sponsored athletes. Kaepernick himself is a loaded enough topic that everyone has lost their mind over it. Only time will tell, but at the moment, it appears to be a very smart ad.
Now let’s look at some ads that aren’t so smart.
You’ve probably seen this ad on TV as it’s been doing the rounds recently. It’s one of the better ads out there and you can tell a lot of thought has been put into it. There’s something deeply personal about an ad that makes you question your own mortality and place in the circle of life, and so the subject has to be handled with a lot of care so as not to come off as cheesy or melodramatic. This ad plays it perfectly and gives us what feels to be an intimate look into the life and death of a typical Australian man.
And just after the poignant moment of his funeral, the screen goes dark, and the Westpac logo appears on the screen. The first time I saw it, I felt a wave of revulsion sweep over me. After all, there was nothing tying in this man’s life to the Westpac brand, it was just this bittersweet story followed by their logo. Interestingly when I found it on Youtube, the title of the video was referring to how they can help with the loss of a loved one and their estate, but on TV, there’s nothing like that present.
Now, I don’t hate banks or Westpac, but I felt profoundly manipulated and taken advantage of when that logo flashed up on screen. When you consider we’ve just had a Royal Commission into banking and financial services, and amongst the many horrible things they’ve done is the fact that they’ve continued to charge interest and fees to dead people, it’s rather sleazy to put an ad such as this on TV. The comments on YouTube share a similar sentiment:
I got sucked in….watched the adv and thought it was from a funeral director. Thought, “how good is that! Well done to the creators.” Shock horror…Westpac….The Hindenburg now comes to mind…”Oh the humanity…” but it comes out as “Oh the hypocrisy…”
How disgusting that they see themselves like that, “the great saviours”. The more likely scenario would be that the poor old fellow in the ad worked hard all his life then died from a heart attack when he opened a foreclosure notice from Westpac
Speaking of sleazy, I’m sure we’ve all seen this ad, where they butcher an iconic piece of Australian music whilst showing various scenes of people helping each other out in a crisis. I was expecting it to be an ad from the SES or rural fire service. Nope, it’s an ad for the NRMA, with the tagline “we’re here to help”. Now, there isn’t a single image in this ad that suggests the NRMA’s involvement. It’s either volunteer organisations assisting in disasters, or people assisting each other in their everyday lives. The word “help” implies altruism – providing assistance to another human being with no expectation of reciprocity or reward. You do it because it’s the right thing to do. It feels sleazy that an insurance company tries to piggyback off such goodwill and insert themselves into it. Again, I don’t have issues with insurance companies, but they don’t “help” anyone – they offer a service that requires payment.
It’s remarkable that the advertising agencies and the companies themselves can be so utterly tone deaf about their own brand. I don’t know a single person that wasn’t turned off by the NRMA ads, and the tsunami of negative comments on the video on YouTube speaks for itself. Westpac wisely turned off comments for their main video, but alternate videos have the comments that I mentioned above, showing that nobody has been fooled.
It’s quite obvious that we’re in the midst of a trend where brands – any brand, regardless of industry, are trying to show that they have a social conscience. They’ve probably read or heard of whatever study that says what you stand for is really important to Millennials, so they go to an ad agency and try to follow the trend. This is what lead to that horrid Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner, where they tried to glamorise protesting and encourage people to “join in the conversation.” What conversation they’re talking about, no one actually knows. They probably have no idea either.
The problem with this way of advertising is that’s utterly inauthentic. We know that banks don’t care about people, because just 10 years ago we witnessed the collapse of the financial system due to their greed and willingness to do whatever they could to make money. We know insurance companies aren’t out to actually help people, they’re providing a service enforced strictly by policy wording. When Apple really came on the scene following Steve Jobs’ reinstatement in the late 90s, their advertising worked because it was who they were. Apple was the renegade brand for the cool kids, and their advertising reflected that. It made other people want to join in the trend. Their products reflected this advertising as well – funky, different and bold. Do you notice how they don’t do that anymore? That’s because they know it wouldn’t be authentic to talk about themselves as renegades from the mainstream, because now they are they mainstream.
And that’s why so many brands fail when it comes to their advertising, because the people behind them have zero self awareness. Whoever is responsible for these ads just doesn’t get it – you can’t advertise based on what you think your brand is or what you’d like it to be, you have to advertise based on what it actually is in the eyes of the public. It doesn’t matter if you have a well made ad that strikes an emotional cord (like Westpac), or you hire one of the hottest people on TV (Pepsi) to sell your message. If people suspect, or know, that the message is full of it, they’re not only going to disengage from your brand, they’re going to be turned off it. So rather than spending a lot of money to bring new business to your brand, you’re actively pushing people away.