Lately, I don’t think I’ve been doing my job well. Because my ads haven’t pissed anyone off recently.
In case you haven’t been keeping up, here’s a brief recap:
When the Cartoon Network decided to get some buzz for an upcoming movie, it hired Interference Inc., a company known for guerrilla marketing and street-level buzz generating tactics. So Interference put up some lit displays of cartoon characters in a number of cities. In Boston, a few went up on bridges and overpasses. Someone confused these lights with bombs, authorities were called in, and some of Boston’s streets and trains were brought to a standstill. City, state and federal officials got pissed off about having to investigate a few glorified Lite-Brites, and rightfully so.
Then came the Super Bowl. A Snickers ad pissed off some gay people. A GM spot pissed off some suicidal people—or at least some people who try to help the suicidal people. And the mediocrity of the rest of the spots seemed to piss off everyone else.
When advertising becomes news, there’s always a “Who’s responsible?” witch hunt in the general media. In the case of the Boston terror scare, Time Warner paid restitution, the President of the Cartoon Network resigned, but the CEO of Interference Inc. went into complete hiding. (Talk about true guerrilla marketing.)
And it’s fascinating to watch how clueless the rest of the world is. In the ensuing media overdrive after the Boston incident and the Super Bowl, so-called experts were called in for their opinion on TV shows, talk shows and in newspapers. Business journalists and reporters glaringly failed to learn the facts—or follow the money. Reminding me, once again, that most Americans simply don’t know how advertising agencies or marketing firms operate: how they’re hired, who pays them, and how ideas get conceived and executed.
I’m sure you’ve seen it: whenever you hear talk show hosts or pundits bloviate on advertising, it always boils down to the fact that all this offensive, nasty marketing is the fault of “Madison Avenue.” Those evil people on Madison Avenue, meeting in those Madison Avenue boardrooms, foisting their Madison Avenue puffery and hucksterism on the American public. This, despite the fact 99.99% of advertising professionals don’t live or work on Madison Avenue anymore.
In lieu of finding out the real story behind dubious ads, we get the trite treatments:
Cartoon Network: A NoHo based guerrilla marketing firm terrorizes Boston on behalf of an Atlanta-based client—and it’s all Madison Avenue’s fault.
GM: Deutsch's Los Angeles office films a TV spot for a Detroit-based automaker—and it’s all Madison Avenue’s fault.
Snickers: A commercial for the Hackettstown, NJ client made by TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York—which, truly, is located on Madison Avenue. So yes, in this case, it’s all Madison Avenue’s fault.
In other words, we’re all in this together.
It doesn’t matter what advertising or marketing agency you work for—if you produce some form of paid communications, you’re a part of the machine. And you’re painted with the same broad brush. A groundbreaking Nike TV spot, a junk mail piece for AT&T, a billboard for the local Waffle House—it’s all a part of one large mass, as far as most people are concerned. And for the most part, it’s an unwelcome interruption of daily life. When you tell people you work in advertising, they’ll inevitably offer their opinion of their favorite or least favorite ads. If you’ve ever tried to defend, or even explain, bad advertising you didn’t create to someone who doesn’t work in the ad industry, you know what I mean.
Which is why bad work, whether it’s a national campaign or a sleazy guerrilla marketing tactic, always pisses me off. It makes us all look bad. It implants, in the minds of clients and consumers, the idea that bad advertising is acceptable—because it's so commonplace.
You can rail against big, dinosaur-like agencies, but it’s a part of us. You can roll our eyes at guerrilla marketing stunts, but our industry embraces it most of the time. You can advocate better, more responsible advertising, but when people in our industry are called to account for what they do, they tend to scatter like cockroaches.
So it’s best to keep in mind that the work you do may piss off some consumers, or some organizations. But it also may piss off the rest of the ad industry, who’ll look bad as well.
We’re all in the same ecosystem. We can either evolve together, or we’ll all go extinct.