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Creating Buzz without Causing Offence

When some campaigns go awry, it’s often due to external sensitivities that, in the passion of the creative moment, sometimes go unacknowledged. We might question how an agency could have overlooked such a thing, but as we know it is all too easy for groupthink to set in. In October 2009, Zeitgeist wrote about one such gaffe, when DDB made a very hard-hitting and extremely controversial ad for WWF, using 9/11 imagery. It’s important to point out that the real story there was more to do with the painful process of admission that DDB went through rather than the ad itself.

In February, the South African film Night Drive arrived in cinemas. An agency by the name of 1984 was responsible for the advertising in its domestic market. To drum up interest, 1984 decided to take a viral approach and distribute fliers in Johannesburg, offering “the best prices for all your body parts and organs”. Naturally this raised concern, as the fliers themselves looked genuine in an amateur way, with the police treating it as a serious matter. Indeed, earlier that month, elsewhere on the continent in Liberia, The Economist reported on crimes where “body parts such as the heart, blood, tongue, lips, genitals and fingertips, all used in sorcery to bring wealth and power, are removed”. Worse still, members of government were being implicated as they looked for anything to give them an advantage ahead of elections. The agency’s parent company swiftly apologised.

It’s a terribly unfortunate tale that sometimes can happen. Agencies are susceptible to this more often than you might think, and the reasons for this are twofold. Think about what agencies are trying to do in the creation and execution of a campaign. Firstly, they are aiming for verisimilitude, especially if the product being sold (in this case a film), is fictional. Secondly, they are trying to get someone’s attention in a marketplace that is incredibly cluttered; increasingly the message needs to be unique to stand out above the fray, even more so with a stacked, year-round movie calendar.

Indeed, film marketing is therefore one of the places you are more likely to come across viral efforts. Triumphs include The Dark Knight, which won an award at Cannes Lions in 2009, and the campaign for the excellent film Inception, $100m of which was spent on viral efforts. One of the best features of this campaign was the treasure hunt they organised around the UK, releasing clues on Facebook that could lead fans to tickets to the premiere. Zeitgeist covered this in its review of summer film marketing activity last year. By contrast, the viral campaign for this year’s Limitless, however, was not seen as successful. The campaign involved two prongs. Zeitgeist remembers images such as the one above gracing the London Underground trains, with actor Bradley Cooper selling his super-drug, with one side-effect being “death”. It was confusing, but the copy was such that if the reader was paying any attention, they would soon realise it was fake, and that the website was Paramount Studios-affiliated. The film’s other main effort, a video of a man controlling the screens of Times Square with his iPhone, met with initial excitement, then puzzlement when it emerged it was to do with the film in question.

What do we learn then? Well, we learn that there is a very fine line between obscurity and popularity, between prominence and offence. We learn that there is no golden rule, no pieces of a jigsaw to assemble that makes the consumer look up and listen. And always, always read The Economist.

WWF+DDB+9/11 =

October 5, 2009 1 comment

From the October Zeitgeist…

WWF+DDB+9/11 =

Dedicated Zeitgeist readers will recall with sepia-toned whimsy the July issue where we highlighted the recent Domino’s case and the importance of a rapid and decisive damage limitation strategy to deal with an unexpected crisis. A couple of parties who may lament not being on our distribution list are the WWF and DDB Brasil who faced with the noble task of saving the worlds endangered species managed to antagonise a large number of potential donors with an insensitive campaign before embarking on a very public soap opera of denials, rebuttals and admissions in a marvellous example of how not to do things.

The fun started after DDB Brasil produced a print ad showing a large number of airliners pointing their noses at downtown Manhattan in an attempt to show how powerful nature is by contrasting the death tolls from the 2005 tsunami and 9/11.

What was overlooked on this work for the World Wildlife Fund is that the World Wide Web has a global reach and that there might be some people out there who wouldn’t take kindly to 9/11 being trivialised.

First a print ad appeared. It was produced on spec, said DDB Brasil, and never saw the light of day. Then it emerged it ran once in a local paper, whereupon Sergio Valente, president of DDB Brasil, reported “When I saw it, I said, ‘Stop running that ad’.”

Then a TV spot surfaced. Soon after, it was also revealed that the campaign was submitted for award consideration – at Cannes no less, and the One Show.

DDB then admitted creating the print ad, but denied any involvement with the spot, which was curious as, one blog mentions, “the video’s intro features a title card with DDB Brasil’s name on it.

WWF “strongly condemn[ed]” the work that they said was unauthorised. The following day they reneged: their previous statement “may not have been completely accurate”.

Finally, DDB admitted to having made the TV spot, WWF admitted approving the ads. With their faces as red as their hands, both parties issued a joint apology.

The imbroglio was covered by curious amateur bloggers, dedicated advertising journals and major, respected broadsheets newspapers alike. Curiously, the ad, doubtless provocative, actually went unnoticed when it won an award which goes to show how the bungled reaction of two organisations fuelled the resulting furore. After all, this is certainly not the type of publicity WWF (unlike more risqué brands) would wish to court.

At least two lessons can be learned from this fiasco; If something goes wrong, apologise and take ownership immediately; and don’t create adverts belittling 9/11.

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