There are no set rules to define what makes bad advertising. We know the obvious ones prescribed by various government bodies–products that claim to cure a disease before approval from the Food and Drug Administration or encouraging over-consumption of alcohol violates regulations of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
We know the restrictions we can work with, but it is always bad for any brand to err on the side of tone-deaf messaging, bogus claims, confusing slogans, and downright boring messaging.
Let’s look at some of the worst of 2020. For each of these ads, let’s explore the story of what made it incompetent; and what it cost the company–financially or in ‘street cred’.
Aldi’s Poorest Day Challenge
Aldi, a leading supermarket chain in the United Kingdom that’s expanding in some markets in the USA came under attack with its social media campaign, the poorest day challenge. The grocery supermarket chain declared 24th January, 2020 as the most penniless day of the year because it was the last Friday before payday–followed by shopping and spending indulgence. The campaign intended to show it’s possible to feed a family–healthy and affordable meals from impoverished day to payday.
Instagram influencer Natalie Lee championed this campaign. She documented a week-long shopping experience at the supermarket chain. She limited her weekly shopping to $33 for her family of four.
Public disapproval bombarded the campaign. Comments pointed out it’s tone-deaf and insensitive to those living in abject poverty. The campaign incensed politically charged class tensions in the UK due partly to the wake of BREXIT and Covid19.
Social media can quickly become hostile waters. The prospect of a public backlash is near certain in these platforms, should you strike any wrong note.
A notable trait of social media is that all participants are equal. Neither politicians nor companies can expect to command authority in social media, as they do in their traditional modes of outreach.
It’s crucial to understand that this new virtual sphere of global equality is giving rise to an online mobocracy. The mob decides whether your expressions are laudable, ignorable, or despisable. Topics can range from politics to French-Fries. And online dismissals can get quite brutal.
The Aldi phenomenon (or problem) coincides with the #cancel culture–characterized by aggressive public dismissal and shaming of ideas, entities, or persons. Social media collectives canceled companies and celebrities.
While comedians can get away with potentially provocative expressions, your brand marketing and social cannot.
Tanishq Ekatvam, the Beauty of Oneness
The danger of being punished by the cancel culture is not limited to social media ads since every ad is tweetable. The following is another case of hitting a political note in the cancel culture.
Tanishq is the jewelry arm of the Tata group. The Indian jeweler produced an ad depicting an inter-faith marriage; a Muslim mother-in-law welcomes a Hindu daughter-in-law into the household.
It sparked a public controversy–further fueled by national celebrities joining in the debate. Reactions stormed Twitter.
Inter-faith tensions have been high in India. One side is not happy that the Indian media is not bold enough to depict the reverse: a Muslim bride married to a Hindu husband. Proponents cited past repercussions when cinema portrayed such scenarios.
The other side thinks that Tanishq lacks resolve for taking down the ad that promoted unity and diversity. The company did clarify the intention of the ad when it was about to be removed.
The impact of the controversy is not clear on Indian society, but not a good look for Tanishq. It attached itself to an uncomfortable issue, at the cost of provoking customers along lines irrelevant to business or their brand purpose.
In the case of Tanishq, it could have worked very well in a different time and context.
All in all, Tanishq’s Ad did not do bad. Search volume was almost twice as high after the ad aired. Advertising boards came out in support. They also received positive coverage and multiple endorsements on social media. The only err was not being aware of the political and religious tension in India.
The adage, “any publicity is good publicity” places heavy emphasis on the notion which has been famously captured by Oscar Wilde, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” But controversy is a double-edge sword and often has a higher potential to do the brand harm.
Super Bowl Commercials
In contrast to the controversial ads, the 2020 Super Bowl advertisements sparked zero controversies, owing to their apolitical nature. The lowest rated ads were due to lack of clarity or inability to hit the nerve with the target audience.
It’s critical to avoid mistakes that cause public relations nightmares. But it’s equally paramount to produce ads that do well–that leave a lasting impact on viewers, are memorable and keep the momentum on the brand once the Superbowl is over. Otherwise, millions of marketing dollars can get wasted on a :60 second-circus.
Heinz epitomized the lack of clarity in their commercial, “Find the goodness.” The intent was to nail the point home that Heinz ketchup is a calming force in American life during adversity. However, the ad comprised four stories running at the same time on four split screens, which was near impossible to comprehend.
One could argue that the Heinz ad drove re-watches, which has paid dividends over time.
The individual stories could have thrived on their own. But the confusion of the delivery outweighed their value.
The ketchup mogul invested a hefty $5 million in the hopes that the ad would go viral. But it ended up spending $5 million to confuse viewers.
Coke, on the other hand, failed to hit the nerve of the audience with Show up–an ad featuring Martin Scorcese and Jonah Hill. Scorcese expects Hill in a party. Hill is not up to it. But then he drinks the new Coca-Cola Energy, overcomes his hesitance, and finally shows up.
This ad was unusual in that Coke ads have been about the commoner, social causes, and the drink itself, even with celebrity casts. They’ve never been about the celebrities themselves.
The ad scored blank reactions in the stadium. Critics say that the ad was miscast and out of step from brand values and that the old sincere Coke messaging was a lot better.
The soda giant is estimated to have spent at least $10 million on one minute of Scorcese and Hill while alienating viewers.
We Live In The Best Time To Be Creative
If you are a brand creative, your role is to improve the client’s business or reputation. You can create an idea that can help people’s lives feel more gratifying. However, a brand is only one ad away from eroding consumer trust, wasting funds, and inviting backlash.
It is evident that in the digital ecosystem, brands are not just competing on the 5 Ps:
But brands are also impacting society with advertising for both the bad and the good.
Consumers today choose where to spend their money on brands that align with their values based on the social, political, cultural, ethnic, and environment.
A bad advert and wrong messaging can send your sales spiraling down and leave big scars for a long time.
Reviewing advertising is a good way to shed light on methods that work and mistakes to avoid. But it is also important to recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to advertising. FrontAd is dedicated to helping brands navigate effectively through customized solutions.
At the end of the day, consumers are human, and every brand message that reaches the consumer needs a human touch.