Hannah, our Content and Communications Manager, discusses whether there is such a term as ‘badvertising’ in our latest blog post.

Everyone remembers a favourite ad campaign; perhaps those that became iconic in decades gone by, or in more recent years the contenders for the best Christmas ad. Not quite as infamous as Oxo’s 16-year-long family campaign, nor surrounded by as much hype as the John Lewis Christmas ads, the Conscious Communications team’s current favourite TV ad is the AA’s ‘singing toddler’.

It could be the simplicity of the ad that makes us love it. It’s a feel-good ad that’s easy to relate to, featuring a toddler singing along in the car to the Tina Turner classic Proud Mary. Despite a breakdown, the father and toddler are able to keep “rollin’, rollin’”, thanks to the speedy arrival of the AA engineer. Some of our team are such ambassadors for the ad that it’s played in our office every time we meet someone who hasn’t seen it! Whether it will live on in our memories in the same way as other favourites have done is yet to be seen, but it has definitely done its job in anchoring the AA in people’s minds as the go-to service to keep you on the road.

In the AA ad, as well as the Oxo campaign and the John Lewis Christmas ads, there is a common theme. The creators have tried to depict scenes that could be ‘any of us’ – characters and plots that we can all easily relate to. These are as ‘mundane’ as the temporary annoyance of breaking down on the side of the road; the more complex emotions depicted by the Oxo family story over the years; and the heart-rending narratives such as in the John Lewis Man on the Moon advert, which highlights the issue of loneliness among those in old age, with a call to action to “show someone they’re loved this Christmas.”

As well as tapping into everyday events like these in order to relate to viewers, brands regularly try to catapult their message further by harnessing the momentum created by current events. Consider Oreo’s reputation for doing this effectively, which it has developed by creating topical campaigns ranging from the reactive ‘dunking in the dark’ tweet during the Super Bowl, to an ad in support of equality during Pride events. This harnessing of topical content propels a brand’s message further than may otherwise have been possible, by ‘piggy backing’ an existing wave of interest, and using already trending hashtags and conversations to increase visibility.

The risk involved, however, with both types of strategy – the everyday experiences and the topical events – is that there’s always the chance that adverts might not ‘land’ well. They may in fact have the opposite effect to what’s intended, creating instead in people’s minds a negative perception of the brand, which might even linger longer than the effects of a positive campaign.

A spokesman for McDonald’s said of a recent ad campaign that they had “wanted to highlight the role McDonald’s has played in [their] customers’ everyday lives – both in good and difficult times” – a similar sentiment to those of the Oxo, John Lewis, AA and Oreo campaigns outlined above. The advert showed a boy talking to his mother about his dead father as he tried to find something in common with him; on arriving at McDonald’s the boy orders a Filet-o-Fish, to which his mother tells him: “that was your Dad’s favourite too.” The advert received widespread criticism, for unsuccessfully “exploit[ing] childhood bereavement as a way to connect with young people and surviving parents alike”.

On face value it’s difficult to work out why some brands achieve such high acclaim for their campaigns, and yet the McDonald’s campaign seemed to have fallen so wide of the mark. A few of us watched it together recently as a reminder, and there was a mixed response. Some thought that it might be that the topic itself is simply too sad and shouldn’t have been exploited in this way. Others thought McDonald’s was simply the wrong brand to tell the story – there is a sense of misalignment between the fast food outlet’s product and such a sensitive topic. Perhaps it was that, in contrast to the Man on the Moon advert’s call to action, the McDonald’s advert doesn’t end by offering a ‘solution’. Whilst we regularly sign up for the experience of being left shocked, saddened, or fired up to act about an injustice in the world by the TV programmes and films that we choose to watch, we have less control over what adverts we watch on TV and so perhaps that is part of why we sometimes feel affronted by particular campaigns.

Pepsi was also criticised recently for an ad campaign depicting a group of protesters, as the narrative ends with the protestors cheering as a model gives a can of Pepsi to a policeman. Protests are ‘topical’ at the moment, as a result of legitimate concerns about equality and over concerns about politics, for example, and so there has been outrage from and on behalf of some of these protest groups, as Pepsi seems to have trivialised these issues. This feels even more unsettling than the McDonald’s advert, and begs the question of what sort of reaction the Pepsi campaign team had imagined the ad would receive. Perhaps they knew they were taking a risk and were operating under the myth that ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’.

We really think there is – do you?

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