They never did this on Mad Men

September 7, 2009 at 9:20 am 1 comment

| Gabriel |

DDB (the world’s biggest ad agency) is pretty pissed off at its Brazilian office right now. Recently an unsolicited spec ad “for” the World Wildlife Fund showed up in which an entire squadron of commercial jet liners are aimed squarely at the Manhattan skyline as it appeared at 8:45am on 9/11/01 (although in the ad the sky is overcast). AdAge describes it as:

The description of the ad submitted by the agency said “We see two airplanes blowing up the WTC’s Twin Towers…lettering reminds us that the tsunami killed 100 times more people. The film asks us to respect a planet that is brutally powerful.”

Note that this is not just morally odious (at least to Americans both in and out of the ad industry — apparently foreign ad men and ad prize judges don’t feel this as uniformly as we do) but scientifically illiterate as tsunamis aren’t plausibly connected to human activity. (The ad seems to be confusing them with hurricanes, which are plausibly connected to global warming).

Once the ad became notorious in the ad world, various people tried to track down its provenance, with the Brazilian trade magazine Meio & Mensagem finding old entry records for advertising creative competitions showing it came from DDB Brasil, which at that point ‘fessed up. Needless to say, neither the WWF nor the DDB parent company are happy about this and the responsible team at DDB Brasil was fired. To me the whole thing is best summed up in an AdAge op-ed that sees this ad as the extreme manifestation of creative run amuck in search of prestige and expression, rather than an old-fashioned sell.

Creative directors are entirely to blame for this state of affairs. The main problem is that most of them got where they are today by, you guessed it, winning creative awards. And guess the No. 1 target they’re driving — and I mean driving — their teams to achieve.

This scandal, and the attribution of the malfeasance to the awards mentality, reminded me of some interesting work lately on how prizes can shape fields. (See the bottom of the post for cites).

In advertising specifically you see a real conflict between ad people who see themselves as basically artists and those who see themselves as salesmen. The former are obviously more aligned with the awards mentality, but the latter have the “effies” (for “effective,” as compared to self-indulgent, marketing). Anyway, as seen in this little case study, some ad agencies are:

  • interested in shock value that will attract the attention of prize juries but alienate many consumers
  • so desperate to win awards that they will create spec ads without the knowledge or consent of the putative client, arrange to have them published, and then submit them in the competition.

Cites for awards literature:

[Update: for a much more pleasant PSA story, see Jay’s post on “Don’t Mess With Texas.”

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1 Comment

  • 1. Emme  |  September 7, 2009 at 9:39 am

    I saw the ad you write of, and I remember the first thing that popped into my head was, “Wait, natural disasters are not the same as man-made disasters!”

    I’m so glad you posted on this. It’s fascinating how organizational motivations are shaped, and the ad world is an interesting case. Can an attention-grabbing ad be a bad thing? (Along the lines of all press is good press…) What are prize-awarding panels looking for? Hopefully coherence of message!


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