Advertising as camouflage

In 2008, Anthony Curcio needed 25 men to help him on a job in Monroe, Washington.

So he advertised on Craigslist – the pay was good, $28.50 an hour.

Landscaping work, but you had to come dressed ready to start: jeans, blue shirt, work shoes, yellow safety vest, safety goggles and a painter’s mask.

The meeting place was in the Bank of America car park, on 9 September.

At the time stated in the ad, dozens of men showed up dressed and ready.

They looked around for the boss, but there were just lots of other men dressed like them.

Then a Brink’s armoured car pulled in outside the Bank of America, and the guard went into the bank.

A minute or so later, the guard came out with two sacks of money.

Suddenly one of the landscapers pepper-sprayed the guard, grabbed the sacks and ran off.

Everyone stood around wondering what the hell was happening, it must be a robbery.

Eventually the police showed up and asked for a description of the robber.

All anyone could repeat was what he was wearing: jeans, blue shirt, work shoes, yellow safety vest, safety goggles and a painter’s mask.

Just like the dozens of other men standing around in the car park.

The police checked all the VCR cameras, but everyone fitted exactly that description.

Because the job Curcio advertised on Craigslist wasn’t what everyone thought.

It wasn’t a landscaping job, it was a bank job – and he escaped with $400,000.

He did it by reversing conventional wisdom.

He didn’t make himself blend into the environment, he changed the environment to blend in with him.

He had been setting up the robbery for weeks, dressed as someone nobody would notice, a landscaper: sweeping up, picking weeds, cutting grass.

He noted the days and times the armoured car came, when it had the biggest bags of cash.

He noted the number of guards, their security routine.

All he needed on the day of the robbery was to make sure no-one could identify him.

So he advertised for several dozen people dressed exactly like him to be standing around in that spot at exactly that time.

It was a new take on camouflage.

Fitting in so no-one will notice you because that’s what he wanted, not to be noticed.

But that’s pretty much the opposite of what we want.

If we fit in and no-one notices us, we’ve wasted our money.

If no-one notices us, we may as well not be running any advertising at all.

If we look like all the other ads around us, we’ll be as invisible and we’ll escape unnoticed.

But is that really what we want our advertising to do, escape unnoticed?

Every time I do a talk I make the point that, if you live in a major conurbation, you’re exposed to around 2,000 advertising messages a day.

Press ads, OOH, radio ads, pre-rolls on YouTube, ads on Facebook and Twitter, 16- and 48-sheet crosstracks on the Tube, commercials on Freeview or Sky, plus all the rest – that’s 2,000 advertising messages a day.

Then I ask: "As a consumer, hold your hand up if you remember one from yesterday."

Out of an audience of 200, usually six, maybe 10 hands go up.

So, do the math, 200 times 2,000 ads each, equals 400,000 ads.

So 400,000 ad exposures and, every time I do it, around 10 ads are even remembered 24 hours later.

I think we’re doing a pretty good job of camouflaging ourselves.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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