Wit, edge and subversion are being replaced by nebulous 'brand purpose'

Have ads become a bit too worthy and vanilla?

Jeremy Lee
Jeremy Lee

Is advertising funny anymore? It's one of those existential questions the industry asks itself from time to time. And of course the answer is yes - there's still plenty of fun to be had. But a glance at the most recent ads in the Work section of the Campaign website suggests that this particular emotion is one that the industry is currently struggling to provide.

Brands are demanding (or being advised) that they need to have "purpose" and they need to make a big deal about it. For some, most notably of Unilever’s "sustainable living brands", this has been a successful strategy, giving them a point of differentiation that turns a profit.

But what has happened to wit, edge and subversion? Have these attributes been sacrificed on the altar of brand worthiness?

At this point it’s obligatory to mention Tango – so here goes – but it’s also true to observe that it's almost impossible to think that any agency would come up with, or any marketer buy, something anywhere close to the "Tango Megaphone" ad from 2000.

The TV spot featured a bunch of sinister balding ginger middle-aged men in jumpers shouting at James Corden through orange plastic megaphones. The ad was banned amid claims that it could lead to the bullying of fat children (and no one wants that) but it was just one of many great HHCL ads that followed its 1992 spot "Orange Man", created by Trevor Robinson, Al Young, Steve Henry and Axel Chaldecott.

Warm and fuzzy

There’s very little advertising that provokes a surprise (good or bad) anymore – maybe that’s why the action of choosing a Pick or a Turkey of the Week has become a little harder of late. So much work just seems to be wrapped in a safe vanilla coating of purpose, designed to give its creators and awards juries a warm and fuzzy, if nebulous, feeling that as well as selling something they are also "doing good". David Kolbusz and Dylan Williams wrote memorably about the trend last year.

That’s not to say there isn’t a smattering of examples that have managed to do both. Paddy Power, firstly through Crispin Porter & Bogusky, and to a certain extent at its newer berth Lucky Generals, can still pull it out of the bag. Adam & Eve/DDB quite rightly bagged a Grand Prix last year at Cannes for its surprising (and subversive) "Shoplifters" spot for Harvey Nichols, that featured comedy cartoon faces superimposed on real CCTV footage of shoplifters trying to escape from its store.

Given that the retailer's group marketing director and creative director Shadi Halliwell left in June, we’ll have to wait and see if her replacement is similarly adventurous and willing to push the brand into new creative territories. Equally, perhaps her appointment as chief marketing officer at Three may have emboldened Gravity Road to create the distinctive and frankly bizarre "Streaming consciousness" film for the mobile network.

Faced with the choice between this and a brand like KFC trying its hardest to make consumers infer how happy the chickens whose flesh make up its products are in its latest campaign by Mother, I know which I’d prefer.

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