Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Why Does Advertising Suck?

[soundcloud url=”″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

I believe we are, more or less, our idea of ourselves. And when our idea of who we are or should be is bad, or too far removed from reality, well, then bad things happen.

This is even more true for companies and the brands they create.

The most important thing you you can do to brand a company is have a great product or service. The most fundamental interaction with a brand is the benefit your customer derives from using your product. Even as kids, we had that experience, right? The toy looked soooooo awesome on the commercial, but when we got it out of the box (sad trombone sound)

Dear Sir,

I am writing to express my dissatisfaction with your “hot wheels” car. Upon open the package I discovered that not only are the wheels not hot, they aren’t even lukewarm. And my attemps to warm them to a suitably hot temperature resulted in them melting and/or catching on fire.


Shame on you.

So, I’ve spent a good portion of my career in this weird little niche. I wound up there out of necessity, and, when it’s good, it’s really great.

I help companies figure out what they stand for and then how they are going to communicate it. And I backed into this work for the strangest of reasons. It was not, originally, because I wanted to be strategic. It was because I wanted to do great creative work.

If you listen to this podcast, you know that I go at things with a certain verve and I have high standards. I always have. Even when faced with the worst assignments in Advertising and Design — I have said, “There’s no reason for anything to suck.” I still believe that. If you are creating a message, especially a message that uses paid media to insert itself into someone’s life, then you have a responsibility not make it a vulgar waste of that someone’s time. It’s the reason we hate spam.

It’s the reason David Ogilvy said, “The customer isn’t a moron, she’s your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”

“You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine. Do as you would be done by.”

But the majority of people in Advertising and Marketing don’t feel that way. Nor, I think, do the majority of Chief Executives.
This is a Letter on Advertising that the graffiti artist Banksy wrote:

People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you. You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity. Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head. You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.

Whatever you may think of Banksy’s sentiment, you have to admit, if the majority of advertising creative didn’t suck so bad, no one would feel this way.

Look, I’m not saying that we should be better people than we are. Whatever appeal to fear, greed or vanity an advertiser might find effective or advisable, fine — you can make that appeal and it can be entertaining, or stimulating, or just not stupid.

So my question became, why is the majority of advertising so awful? And don’t tell me the bell curve. There is a crapload of money, time and talent spent on making ads. A lot more good work is proposed than produced. And, on top of which, for any brand people are passionate about, you can find content created by fans that is better than the content created by agencies and marketing departments. Sure, it might lack production dollars and polish, but the idea is better. Not just creatively, very often the offer is sharper.

I have, throughout my career, seen a bias against interesting, effective work. It’s really weird. It should be the other way, right?

There are two reasons and the first one is very valid. It’s a matching strategy. I’ll explain it in terms of razors.

Proctor and Gamble’s Gillette has about 80% of the market for razor blade sales.

Schick has about 17% of the market share.

Do you remember any shaving ad you have ever seen? And if you do, do you remember if it was for Schick or Gillette?

Hydro — Fusion are the leading products here, but can you tell me Which one for which company?

They are exactly the same. Price point, marketing messages, the same. And that’s probably a smart decision. We live in a world of spin and it’s easy to forget that you don’t have to win on the spin. You just have to not lose.

When you do something different, there’s a very good chance you are going to get a different result. Could be different good. Could be different bad. Why take a chance?
Run the exact same ad as Gillette grow your market share by getting better placement in stores.

Or by making more and better deals with institutions or the army —

Or any one of a thousand other strategies. It doesn’t need to be the brand.

The second reason is much more craven and contemptible. Organizational cowardice. Most large organizations don’t stand for much at all. And if they are big enough and have enough regulatory protection, they don’t even stand for being a good business. Like cable companies. They suck. They suck, They suck. Comcast and Time Warner cable were tied for dead last in J.D. Power’s customer satisfaction survey. But, if you want cable, or, in many places, importantly, internet, you don’t have a choice.

They simply don’t have to market. Their consumers don’t have a choice. Or if there is a choice, it’s a choice between a few big companies that have tremendous barriers to entry. Utilities, Cable, Healthcare, Insurance, Banking, Broadcast Radio and TV. There’s a reason that the current chairman of the FCC’s last job was cable company lobbyist. Looked at this way, the land of the free doesn’t seem all that free, now does it.
But my point here is not to rail against the political economy of all this. I’m not sure what the point would be, and if needs must, there will be plenty of time to do that later on.

My point is there are institutional reasons why advertising is bad and often downright offensive. But it doesn’t have to be. No piece of communication has to suck.

SFX BRAVEHEART: But that’s impossible. WHY, Why is that impossible?

I’ve done wonderfully entertaining and madcap stuff for people who sell shelves, Patterson Pope. Sure, some their shelves and cabinets move, but even their President and their Director of Marketing will admit there are few things on earth more boring than a set of shelves.

Ads for razors don’t have to be boring any more than ads for deodorant do. (Old Spice, Mitchem anyone?)

Gillette is the ?best? a man can get? I don’t thinks so. And as exhibit A. Dollar Shave Club. Even disregarding that it’s a disruptive model. Just listen to the joy with which this viral video is infused.

SFX — Dollar Shave Club ad

I just wrote a nice radio spot for a chain of convenience stores that just upped their coffee offering. The target is millennial. And it went a little something like this. It went a little something like this.


Announcer: You know what’s great in the morning?

SFX: Fsssssshkt

Announcer: Really good coffee, made just like you like it. You know what’s not great?

Other Person: I’d like a half-caf, half-decaf, soy vanilla….

Announcer: People. People suck. And science shows they suck even more when then come between you and your coffee. Which is why at NAME REDACTED, we’ve gotten rid of them.

Right now you can walk into a NAME REDACTED, press a button and get a freshly made, coffeehouse drink that is as fancy as you like and every bit as good any coffee you can get anywhere else.

In fact, it’s better. Because it’s faster.

NAME REDACTED Because nothing should come between you and your Coffee.

Killed. Slaughtered. That concept was stuffed into a burlap sack with some rocks and tossed off a freeway bridge into a cold deep, fast-moving river.

I’m not going to defend my radio spot. But here’s the weird thing, in a strange way, it got killed because the decision-makers thought it was funny and true.

But that’s what people — and the last time I checked, consumers are people — respond to. Truth, humor, honesty, courage.

If my curious rant has a point, it is this. If you have something to sell, market, advertise or otherwise brand — don’t let the fact that most of the stuff you have seen is boring and insipid sway you. Have the courage to do something that doesn’t suck. Remember, big companies, didn’t get to be big companies by acting like big companies.


Dollar Shave Club

Patterson Pope — The Chase
Patterson Pope — Storage is Boring

Subscribe: email | twitter