Rants on all the ads that suck. Updated whenever it tickles my fancy to do so. Now moved to http://adsthatsuck.ca

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I've gotten emails from people recently asking me if certain ads suck. One of the ones that came up was the Virgin Mobile teaser campaign that directed you to curethecatch.ca.

In my opinion - no, that campaign didn't suck. But it leads to a larger question about teaser advertising; a tactic that has become more and more common over the last few years.

Teaser advertising is usually used for product launches and announcements, and consists of a cryptic ad campaign followed about two weeks later by the "answer" to the advertising riddle. The goal is obviously to create buzz, to get people asking about the ad, to generate interest or to sign up for updates to the announcement.

This can be hit or miss. The Virgin campaign was good for two reasons:
1. It made a major announcement (the introduction of another cell phone company in Canada)
2. The cryptic message backed up their unique sales proposition - their plan had no "catch"

A good example of a miss was one for a drug called Diane-35. The company launched an outdoor campaign with a horribly acne-scarred young woman and the caption "Meet Diane." Two weeks later, she was clean-faced and the caption read "Look at Diane now!" and had a logo for the drug.

What's the difference? Prescription acne medication for women only isn't exactly a huge announcement, to say nothing of the fact that 50% of their CPM was wasted on men who can't use the drug (unless they want to be chemically castrated). This campaign would have been better kept to women's magazines.

It should also be noted that this campaign was against direct-to-consumer advertising laws and was pulled very quickly. Also a bad/completely unethical move.

So, unless you have a huge announcement or a big ad budget burning a hole in your pocket, teaser advertising is probably among the worst ways to spend your money. Create buzz through viral marketing, through contests and PR. It's much less of a gamble.

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Ad hunting

Let me just begin by saying that before I began this thing, I never realized how difficult it was to take a photograph of an ad on a crowded bus without looking quite mad. But, dear readers, fret not, as looking like a lunatic while riding public transportation is a small price to pay for an example of an ad that sucks as much as this one.

I first noticed this a couple of weeks before I started this column (or "blog" in the parlance of our times) and it was one of the driving forces behind its inception. However, I was slow in posting this due to the fact that this is an ad that requires a picture to do it justice. So, like a zombie stalking its prey, I bided my time until I had the proper tools at my disposal, and the bus was sufficiently empty.

And here is that ad. In all of its suckitude:

Granted, this is a pretty obvious one. The design is offensive and the messages are all over the place. I had to do some research to find out that this is an actual place, not just an online thing as I had expected.

But let's go beyond the general ugliness of this ad. I count no less than nine separate spelling and grammatical errors. Let's review:

1. "commissioin"
2. Save 1000's has an unnecessary apostrophe
3. Manufacturers Auction should have an apostrophe, and is not a proper noun
4. Provincial, Municipal or Federal Employee should not be capitalized

5. "eligable"
6. Numbers are not "better" they are higher or lower. ESPECIALLY in the fine print

But this is the one that really confuses me...

Open 8 days a week? I can't imagine what this is supposed to mean. Is this an homage to the Beatles? Are they open so much that they're open an extra day? Have they managed to transcend the surly bonds of time itself?

For a company that can't even spell... I doubt it.

7. "8 Days a week"
8. Days should not have a capital
9. "Yes Sundays too" requires a comma

So there you go. Nine separate spelling and grammatical errors on the same ad, which has less than sixty words of copy.

When did quality stop mattering? Why is it that this company would see fit to spend about $30,000 on an outdoor advertising campaign, but would spend so little on design and on quality control? My distaste for bad design notwithstanding, at least run your copy by someone with a grade twelve education.

Would you lease a car from people who can't string together a sentence? For me, just the sheer disregard for the English language displayed in this ad is enough to shatter my confidence in the company behind it.

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How To

I figure since I'm going to be spending a good part of my time thinking about and finding ads that suck, we should probably lay down some ground rules. So, we must ask ourselves a simple question:

What makes an ad suck?

Ads suck for a number of reasons and in a number of ways. Most ads suck due to a simple case of not paying enough attention to linking the production of the ad with the key messages. But, even the most highly produced ads can suck if the underlying message sucks, or if it's not there at all.

I've asked for examples of ads that suck for this blog, and I've found that most of ones people have suggested actually don't suck. I haven't liked all of them, but for the most part, they get a complex message across easily and make me think what I am supposed to think about the product in question.

To be honest, I haven't liked some of the ads that I myself have created. Thing is - whether you do or not really doesn't matter. What matters is that the ad carries the right message to the right people at the right time. If it does that, then it might not make the top 100 of all time, but it will sell your product. And that's what ads are for.

Why do ads suck?

Ads that suck usually suck because of the client. Occasionally, the agency is to blame, but in my own experience, the more freedom the client gives their agency, the better the ads turn out. I've worked on ads that ended up sucking, despite the fact that I was very blunt to the client about this fact. Usually the answer is that someone above them made the decision, and it's all they can do.

Somebody once said "Advertising is the only business where you can give your client your best work, and have them argue with you until you give them your worst."

Anyone who's ever worked in advertising knows exactly what that means.

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It's kind of old, but it's still funny.

Ok... so I'm guessing that everyone and their toy poodle has seen this, but frankly, it's too perfect not to feature here.

Never has there been a more perfect example of an ad that sucks. It's the job of the creative firm to speak to their target market in their own language. But, if that language is so foreign that you are likely to make yourself look like an idiot by even trying... you might want to at least run it by someone who DOES speak the language. It's why I never got into copywriting in Mandarin.

Part of me thinks that there is a chance that this was engineered to get a viral response. Honestly, though... I just can't imagine the client buying into a strategy like that. I think you just have to chalk this one up to being stupid.

(It occurs to me that some of you might not realize WHY this ad sucks. Basically, the copy suggests that the curly-headed fellow on the left wants to fornicate with the McDonald's sandwich.)

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Do we have your attention yet?

A great source of ads that suck are local affiliates. Affiliate advertising is much cheaper (though still not cheap) than national advertising, and that tends to attract a lot of the businesses without large advertising budgets.

OMNI is a great example of these local stations. Besides selling advertising space, they also have bumpers between shows - a "brought to you in part by" kind of thing. One that always gets me as really sucking is for Pinstripe Mens' Wear.

"Do we have your attention yet?"

This is the only line of copy in the whole thing. My response is usually "No," and yes, I do make it a habit of responding to television commercials, even when I'm alone.

This is a tagline that they have invested tens of thousands of dollars in, and yet it really means nothing. Even after searching the web for them (no contact info) I can't tell if they're upscale, discount, or middle-of-the-road. All I know is their name and that they're in Toronto.

If they really wanted my attention, they'd tell me why I should care.

My point in this whole thing is that you don't NEED to be one of these big guys to make your advertising not suck. What you do need is a clear message, a unique selling point and to know your audience. Otherwise, all the advertising money in the world won't help you.

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Mike Myers must be so proud.

Now, I've got a degree in advertising and it's something I read about quite often, so it's rare that a trend in advertising REALLY makes me scratch my head.

I guess I must have been sick the day that we learned that all corporate mascots in television commercials have to have ridiculous Scottish accents in order to be effective.

Take, for instance, the Extra gum commercial in which the angry anthropomorphic piece of chewing gum comes to life and chases down a lady in a triathlon. Why it has a "So I Married an Axe Murderer" accent is beyond me.

Even worse is the Kellogg's Nutrigrain Minis commercial with the little Scottish fellow on the table, being crushed by a Mini. I understand the concept behind the spot... but WHY SCOTTISH? Furthermore, if you're going to go Scottish, learn the bloody accent! It's not that hard!

I guess it's cool to be Scottish now, like it was cool to be Australian in the 1980s. Crocodile Dundee, where have you gone?

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An update to the free prize post

After doing a little bit of research, I found out that those radios are worth $100.

What does this tell you? Sometimes, superlatives don't cut it. When I see "mono radio" I just assume it's a cheap one. If it's worth more than you would expect because it's the most wonderful thing ever, then tell me whatit's worth, otherwise, I'm going to assume you're overselling.

And I'm still not taking the survey.

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Sometimes the free prize isn't worth the corn flakes

Remember when you used to beg your mom for the sugary cereal that you really didn't even like all that much, just so you could get the cool holographic Sugar Bear card? The "free prize" concept still works today - so much so that Seth Godin wrote a book about it called "Free Prize Inside."

The concept is standard in market research circles. It's hard to get people to sit in a board room and tell a room full of people how a certain font makes them feel, or to spend their lunch hour filling out online surveys, so participants in focus groups are offered "incentives." These incentives vary by how important you are and how much of your time is needed. Fifty dollars is pretty much the standard for a focus group, and online surveysrange from cash to being entered in a draw.

As someone who works in the advertising world, I get a lot of these. The one I got today, however, had about the stupidest free prize I've ever seen.

The pitch was for me to do an online survey to rate how I "perceive the various advertising options both in terms of efficacy and service to marketers." Seeing as I do a fair amount of ad buying, my opinion must be pretty valuable, right? This online survey must be worth at least $25 or ashot at some great prize, right?

As a token of our appreciation you will be entered into a draw to win one of three Tivoli Audio Model One desktop radios

A radio? Why in the flying Christ would I want a radio? The worst part is - I'm not even guaranteed this radio. It's a DRAW for a radio.

As if this didn't suck enough, my jaw dropped when I read the ridiculous ad copy for this particular radio:

Tivoli Audio Model One AM/FM Table Radio
Where performance and simplicity are paramount but space is sparse, the Model One mono table radio fits the bill. With just three knobs, it is the antithesis of today's ever more complex electronic products. But behind the Model One's simple, innocent appearance, hides a multitude of technology facilitating higher sound reproduction and better reception over anything else near it in size or cost.

Only three knobs. That's perfect, because I'm stupid. And thank God it's mono. I'd hate to hear a crossfade and get seasick.

So, here's the lesson in this. If you're going to ask for someone's time to further your own ends, give them something. But, if you give them garbage and tell them it's gold dust, they're going to see right through you. Andthey're not going to take your stupid survey.

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Those who can't...

When you're on the lookout for ads that suck, every once in a while you find a gem that sucks so much, you can't even help finding out what it's for, just so you can tell other people how much it sucks.

"But wait," you say. "Doesn't the mere fact that you're talking about the ad make it a good ad?"

No. It most certainly does not. I talk about ads because it's what I do all day and sometimes all night. Most people don't care, and if you want to drive a message home, you have to do it in a way that actually gets through to them.

I was walking home from work the other day, when I saw this:

Quick! What does it mean? Who is it by? What does it want you to do?

This is a prime example of a whole campaign that sucks, from planning to execution.

As I stared, confronted with this giant, meaningless "200" I thought to myself, "Wow. This sucks." I squinted to see who was the creator of this monolith of suckery, and ultimately had to cross the street and stop and stare, just to find out who this thing was for.

Turns out the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario.

So I thought "200 what?" Are they working 200 hours per month? Do they want to put a cap on students they see in a day? You obviously want something bad enough to make a billboard out of it... don't keep me in suspense here.

Having the benefit of a number of friends who are teachers, I asked them what the billboard meant. None of them knew.

So, so far - the general public doesn't understand your message, and your own stakeholders don't understand your message.

So consumed with the need to know the depths of how much this ad sucked, I turned to my good friend Google. It took me no less than twenty minutes to find some kind of context for this billboard, and it turned out that the explanation is that elementary teachers want 200 minutes of prep time. After another five minutes of pouring over documents on the site, it turns out they want this every week.

Ok. So why not say that?

Instead, they opt to go with a cryptic message and a poorly designed treatment in a medium that isn't going to hit their target audience with the frequency or impact that they need. Combine this with the fact that one can barely tell who the ad is by and the fact that their website took me twenty minutes to find, and you've got yourself a colossal waste of money.

What could they do better? Ultimately, this is an advocacy ad. This type of ad has to be especially clear because it has no branding or memetic devices to back it up, and it has to be addressed to the right audience, because advertising budgets are normally tight.

If you're going to hit the general public with this kind of message, at least do it clearly. This is obviously more aimed at policy decision makers, so why not spend that money talking directly to them in a clear way? I'm sure there are parts of this campaign that I haven't seen, but even the supporting material on their website is weak.

The lesson here: If you're not going to be clear, there's no point in speaking at all.