The Kendall Jenner Pepsi Max ad everyone hates is possibly the most perfect form of awful advertising. Somehow, it manages to combine loathsome celeb-vertising, where the celebrity has no connection to the product, with obscene cultural appropriation. The resulting shit storm was well-deserved.
Not all culture-jacking/news-jacking ads have been bad. Some have even been pretty good, like this recent Nike “Equality” spot by Wieden & Kennedy. While a bit heavy-handed, it’s simple and effective and doesn’t make Nike look like soulless opportunists. And it just feels right for the brand — a talent you learn only by making ads, and then making more ads.
Still, the bar is high. Even “tasteful” culture-jacking ads should be viewed skeptically. Brands are not nonprofits. Brands are not your friend. If they run an “issue” or “purpose” ad, it’s still an ad, aimed at increasing sales. It’s not a documentary “film.” Understand that Dove doesn’t give a shit about “female empowerment.” They do give a big shit about female purchase power.
Also, culture-jacking advertising is lazy. The concept already exists; it’s just sitting there, waiting for an execution to be wrapped around it. This is the main (unspoken) reason why so many brands are switching to “cause” marketing—it’s just plain easier than coming up with an entertaining/informative idea that sells a product/benefit. And of course it’s cheaper because the idea is simply copied.
While Pepsi’s “protest” ad was the most cringeworthy recent example of forced altruism, there have been plenty others. To the rogue’s gallery.
Cadillac “Carry” (Agency: Rokkan)
The spot, which first ran during the Oscars, opens on vague quick cuts of protest footage featuring milquetoast signs, and the line, “We are a nation divided … that’s what they tell us, right?”
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That “they” removes Cadillac from the discussion. Very sly, hucksters. Now cue the strings and slip in a black man hugging a white cop. “We carry each other” (insert literal “carrying” visuals). And — here’s come the awkward segue — Cadillac has “carried” all kinds of (well-off) people. Can we find a famous black man? Yes! Handicapped man shot, good. Returning soldier shot, good. Then, another awkward segue: We don’t just carry people, we carry an idea that (insert shot of non-racist cowboy-hat Trump voter) “while we’re not the same, we can be one.”
What utter bullshit. Remember, this is the same brand that just three years ago (also during the Oscars) ran this badly received “Fuck you, lazy European fucks” spot.
Which POV is “authentic”? Which POV do you believe?
Audi “Daughter” (Agency: Venable Bell & Partners)
Kudos to Audi for at least using a creative linchpin (a soap box derby) that connects to the product. The ad, which first ran in the Super Bowl, addresses the gender pay gap. What’s disturbing about the commercial is that it came out of, not just left field, but nowhere. (Audi’s U.S. executive team is 14 percent female.) As one of America’s best-ever copywriters Ernie Schenck said about the spot and all of these issue ads on his Facebook page: “There has to be some organic connection to a brand for purpose (ads) to work.” I guess we’ve all missed all the “Audi is an equal-pay champion” press.
Skol “Skolors” (Agency: F/Nazca Saatchi & Saatchi)
Lastly, and most lamely, Brazilian beer brand Skol just premiered “Skolors” — special edition cans in a spectrum of skin colors that “toast diversity.” Here’s the accompanying video. As HighJive pointed out, a German cola brand hatched this exact same idea in February. And this Skolors malarkey is coming from a sexist brand that exploited and mocked women for years with their ads, like so:
This “illusion of purpose” marketing trend won’t be slowing anytime soon. Even if it doesn’t sell, it’s cool, it’s “now,” and the kids dig it. But here’s one professional adman’s suggestion for brands going forward: How about you actually become a responsible, sustainable, equal opportunity company, and then get your PR people to push that good news out through the press? Then get back to selling with your advertising, with funny, dramatic, original, entertaining executions. Because entertainment has been, is now, and will always be, wicked cool.