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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Coincidental validation

I caught the last few minutes of O'Reilly on Advertising, a CBC Radio One show that's rebroadcast on Saturday morning, and he echoed exactly what I was getting at in my last post, but in a much more coherent way. Apparently, he doesn't just write his stuff off the top of his head in the middle of the night.

He said (and I'm paraphrasing here, since I can't find the exact words):

With PVRs and the internet, the consumer is more empowered than ever to avoid commercial messages. The new science of advertising isn't about intrusion, it's about engagement.

Exactly. Make ads entertaining and engaging, tell a great story and consumers won't WANT to skip over them.

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New and inventive ways to piss off your audience

My friend Andrew points me to an interesting type of advertising that I'd never seen before. Seems Toronto-1, recently purchased by City-TV, has begun running commercials during their evening movies, each running about five seconds long, inserted randomly between scenes.

I wasn't sure exactly what he was talking about when he first described these, so he was kind enough to send me a video copy. Let me tell you - these ads are possibly the most annoying thing on the face of the planet. They're jarring, loud, and completely interrupt any possible enjoyment you might have of whatever crappy movie they're playing on a Friday evening when you should be out with your friends anyway.

You can't really get the whole effect of how irritating these ads are without seeing for yourself, so I've posted the example, taken from tonight's presentation of "In the Line of Fire". The quality sucks, but I don't want to break my server, so you're going to have to deal with it. Take a look and judge for yourself. Go ahead. I'll wait.


Andrew suggested the name "blipverts" for these little ads, and I think it's a very fitting title. The term was originally coined in Max Headroom to describe the highly time-compressed ads that were part of the MH world.

I suggested in my last post that traditional media have to innovate in order to remain financially viable when more advertisers are turning to new media to sell their products. I will suggest in this one that this is not the way to do it.

A commentor in that post was quick to point out that newspapers have to sell more ads to stay in business now, but at the point that it becomes more of an advertising medium than an information medium - the audience would leave immediately. I think that's what's going to happen here.

Personally, I don't want to watch a movie with a product randomly screaming at me in the middle, and I don't think I'm alone. Is this the shape of things to come? Maybe, but only briefly - and people will get so annoyed with them, they'll just change the channel. I know I certainly will.

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Advertising takes over

Reading my friend Joe's blog today, a post of his created an interesting discussion. The National Post today had this attached to it. A wrap ad for the Mazda 5 that covered the front page. (Click for a larger version)

Joe didn't like it.

I'll be honest - I don't like this sort of thing either, but it's something we're seeing more and more. Advertising is increasingly embedding itself in the media - integrating the masthead of our national newspaper, placing itself in the middle of a scene of a movie or a television show. This isn't anything new by any stretch of the imagination, but it's become a lot more prevalent.

In the case of television, it's the only way for advertising to survive in a post-Tivo world, where it only takes the press of a button to avoid commercials. Hell, I like commercials and I do it.

The newspaper is starting to go the same way. Ad sales are losing market share to the online audience, and the effectiveness of newspaper advertising gets weaker with every RSS feed that gets published from a major news source.

Newspapers are facing a major crisis right now. They need advertising dollars to survive, but the way people want the news is changing drastically. Thanks to innovations like Google news and RSS, people want to sample a number of different media outlets, to focus on what they're really interested in, and to do it all while they check their email in the morning.

Maybe a sweeping generalization, but more and more people that I know (who aren't journalists) get their news that way. And who can blame them? I hardly ever read the newspaper, unless I'm sitting by myself in a coffee shop, and I have never really cared for the experience.

I'm not arguing that the newspaper has lost its place as a news medium, but I am arguing that more and more, it's going to have to adapt. It's going to have to adapt to attract and retain readers, and it's going to have to adapt to interest advertisers who are only interested in getting impact for their money. As time goes on, I predict that we're going to see a lot more of this kind of thing, and it's only going to get worse.

So what's the problem with this? I think it comes down to confidence. People want to be confident that the news they read is unaffected by who is advertising in the paper. It's not even close to the case, but this makes it all the more real, and that's unsettling. As the line between advertising and journalism gets thinner, that confidence will weaken further - and more people will adopt higher-tech sources for their news.

So, we end up stuck between journalists who are (or should be) fighting to maintain integrity, and the reality that it takes money to publish a newspaper.

I can say with close to absolute confidence that newspaper readers would not be willing to pay what a newspaper actually costs to print, so it looks like we're stuck with intrusive ads. It's not an ideal situation for unbiased journalism, but I'd argue that there's very little of that left anyway.

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Co-opting Culture

(New Link: http://www.adsthatsuck.ca/archives/2005/07/coopting_cultur.php)

There is nothing more frustrating for me than seeing a commercial on television that would be perfect for this column, and then never seeing it again. This happened to me the other day when I saw the new Rickard's Red commercial with the monks singing about how great Rickard's Red is. Immediately, I hit record on my PVR, as it can record things you've already seen. Imagine my dismay when I find out that for some reason, the PVR only recorded part of the show, and not the part that had the commercial in it. Baffled, I was... and disappointed.

So, if you've seen this commercial, you might know what I'm talking about. If you don't - I'm sorry.

Basically, the commercial is as I described it. Half a dozen monks dressed in scarlet robes sing the virtues of Rickard's Red as it is poured. The song they are actually singing is from Carmina Burana - the first movement, O Fortuna. Even if you don't recognize the name, you've heard this song, I guarantee. It's standard end-of-the world music.

I have a lot of problems with this commercial... and all of them are on principle.

First of all, the monks change the lyrics to something like:
"Oh, Rickard's Red
So clean and smooth
We really like to drink it..."

(those aren't the actual lyrics, but they're similar, and they fit the rhythm)

The original lyrics, which are in Germanic Latin, translate to:
Fate - monstrous
and empty,
you whirling wheel,
you are malevolent,
well-being is vain
and always fades to nothing,
and veiled
you plague me too;
now through the game
I bring my bare back
to your villainy.
Yeah! Exactly what you're looking for in a beer commercial! The whole thing is about whores and how the world is dark and terrible. Granted, I'm probably one out of about 1000 that knows that, but still.

Second, I'm not sure what the monks have to do with anything. This particular piece was based on various poems and songs from the 13th century, some of them liturgical, but the music was written by Carl Orff in the 1930s.

Now, if it sounds like I'm nit-picking at this point, I am. All of my problems with this commercial go back to one thing, and that is co-opting culture, and that's what I'm going to rant about today.

I am not one of those people that believes that art and advertising should be mutually exclusive. In fact, I think there is room for a healthy relationship between art and the commercial world. This is something I take very seriously because I spend a lot of my time working in the arts, promoting theatre and music, performing and helping groups get their art to more people. When I see something like this, it makes me a little nauseous.

There are two kinds of relationships that art and commerce can have. The first is the ideal, and the one that I highly advocate for both sides. That is the symbiotic relationship, where art helps advertising, and advertising, in turn, helps art. You see this quite a bit, especially with a lot of the more progressive companies, and often, the companies with the smartest ad agencies. The example that springs immediately to mind is Volkswagen.

In 2001, they launched a campaign for the VW Cabrio that featured a song that most people hadn't heard of called "Pink Moon" by a guy named Nick Drake. I looked the song up, found out what it was called, and it remains one of my favourite songs to this day. I know at least two other people who found that song by the same means. Maybe they bought the CD, maybe they didn't, but the commercial gave a fairly unknown recording artist some international play. And, I'm sure they sold a few cars in the process.

The other kind seems more common, maybe because it screams at me whenever I see it, and that is the relationship we see here: the parasitic relationship where advertising co-opts a piece of music simply to sell their product. The artist gets no royalties because they're usually dead and the piece is in the public domain, and the music is already popular so it's not like the commercial is promoting high art. The result is people that only know Mozart's Moonlight Sonata as "the diamond song" and Beethoven's Ninth as "the milk song."

You see it all the time - President's Choice branding themselves with Michaelangelo and Raphael paintings is a perfect example. The company reaps all the benefit, and it uses up the art, commodifying it, and leaving it devoid of the meaning and beauty that made it last for centuries. I'm sure Rembrandt never conceived of The Girl With Pearl Earrings shilling eye drops, and I doubt he'd be very happy if he was still around.

This example is one of the worst. It changes the words of something that was once a beautiful piece, and mocks it. Maybe that's the nature of advertising - to be so naturally reductive that any meaning beyond the immediately intended is undesirable. I'd like to think not, but if that's the case, leave art alone. When there's such an opportunity for advertising to promote art, abusing it like this is criminal.

That being said, if you have never heard the original version of this song, and you ever get the chance to see it live, take it. It is one of the most powerful pieces of music you will ever hear. I guarantee it.

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In just seven days, I can make you a man.

Before I begin this post, I would just like to say that I absolutely love Google Video. No. Seriously. If Google Video was a woman, I would marry it and let it have my babies. I just might anyway. This is Canada after all. If a man wants to marry a search engine, he should be able to.

Anyway, that said, thanks to the wonder that is Google Video, I found a commercial that's bugged me for a while, but I haven't been able to find an image of it.

Now, I don't know if you've ever used a Bowflex, but it's about the most awkward piece of exercise equipment imaginable, and judging by the commercial, it makes you an idiot too, however ripped. This particular commercial features an ex-fatty who bought a Bowflex, and presumably turned his life around. He loses 110 pounds, gets a haircut that makes him not look like the slowest kid on the short bus, and all of a sudden he's hot tubbing with models who pretend to like him for money.

Thank you, Bowflex.

Now, there's nothing inherently *wrong* with this particular commercial, other than it's pretty cliche, and the fact that in order to lose any significant amount of weight, fatty here would have had to work out for at least three hours a day, unless he wanted to diet - which of course this commercial doesn't mention.

The problem - or at least, my problem with this ad is the punchline.

"I know of other guys who ate sandwiches and lost a lot of weight, but I don't see them on TV with their shirt off."

Mere words cannot describe the visceral reaction I have to these words everytime I hear them. It's like nails on a blackboard. The cockiness of this statement from this guy who can obviously not back it up, is utterly flooring. When was the last time you said, with a cock-sure smirk "Hey ladies - I'm better looking than Jared."

In other news, I'm taller than the midget from Willow.

Now, it seems to me, that if you're going to motivate me to spend an exorbitant amount of money on your elastic band machine, you have to give me something more to aspire to. I need to want to be that guy. This guy... I'm happy not being him.

As marketers, we're storytellers. An important part of storytelling is the suspension of disbelief. If we make a story too hard to swallow, people just won't. This story, with the schmuck, and the fake girlfriend, and the scripted cockiness...is just too much to buy, and not enough to sell.

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The Toyota Ad

You know, I have to say... just when you think Google is powerful, something even better comes along. Whenever I can't find something, my friend Carolyn can somehow track it down. She's good at the Internet.

Anyway, here is the ad that I talked about a few posts ago. Somehow, seeing it really makes the stupidity of it pop out.

Moving forward, indeed.

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Fibonacci would be so proud

It's good to see that I'm not the only opinionated asshole taking the piss out of the world of advertising. Seth Godin points to Grant Hutchinson's critique of the overuse of the spiral in logo design.

splorp. critique. spirals

It's worth pointing out that my past consulting company was called Spiral Media, and had the predictable corresponding logo. I'll have to post it here if I can find it.

See? I can make fun of my own work, too.

By way of a disclaimer, I'd like to say that for my part, I quite like most of these logos, but Grant points to a common trend in graphic design. For whatever reason, certain things are "in" for a good long time, until eventually they jump the shark. I've worked with a number of clients who still had their 1970s "let's take our initials and repeat them in a circle" logo.

What causes a trend like this? I can think of a few things.
- it's technically easier to draw a spiral now than it was three years ago (it's built into Illustrator now)
- the concept of the Fibonacci spiral is talked about more, I think. I've seen a couple of specials on it, but maybe I'm more of a geek than most
- many designers automatically look to the web for inspiration.

Now, a good idea spreads like wildfire. Hey - spirals! Let's do THAT.

Now if we could just stop designers from using little pictures of people to show caring.

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Oh, really - come on now!

Thanks to Carolyn for sending this one to me. I haven't checked to see if it's real, but I have no reason to doubt it. I can't look at this one without giggling... there is no room for commentary.

In other news, apparently the May issue of National Geographic ran an ad for the Toyota 4Runner that featured the SUV in a remote location, with the headline:

No intelligent life out here. Just you.

If you're going to be a copywriter, you have to be clever. You have to be a conscious of flow and metre, of metaphor and wordplay. You also have to be aware of what you are actually saying.

There is no intelligent life out here
I am out here
I am not intelligent life
Toyota thinks people who buy 4runners are stupid.

This isn't to say that the concept sucks... just the execution. The sad part is, I'm sure the guy who wrote this is brilliant, and just happened to be half asleep the day he wrote that. I'm sure he's kicking himself now.

I haven't been able to actually find this ad anywhere, just references to it. If anyone has a copy or knows where I can find it, let me know.

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More on Toronto

I talked about the rebranding of Toronto in my last post, and I want to expand on it to include the launch campaign, which you guessed it - sucks.

Again, I have to enter my personal bias against branding cities. It's just death by focus group with nothing that's going to get anyone excited coming out the other end. Maybe this is because I live in Ottawa, which was once *shudder* Technically Beautiful.

These ads were to announce the new mediocre brand and mediocre logo and to really get people excited about it. Well, you can't blame them for trying.

The copy on this one reads "In the city that welcomes the world / every day's an international film festival."

The sentiment is there, but it really doesn't work.

Another one, with a similar layout, touts "That excited feeling you get when you first see a great menu. Only it's a city."

Slight distinction, but a necessary one, I think. First of all, I've never felt *that* excited by a menu. Second, to compare a city to a menu doesn't say much for that city, I'd say.

Am I splitting hairs? Absolutely, but it boggles my mind that a city as great as Toronto (don't tell them I said that) can't come up with something better than this.

I'm not going to touch on the logo too much, but it only makes me think of a public transit logo of some sort. The website says:

The symbol of the logo was designed by bringing together the two letters of Toronto’s nickname “T.O.” to create a fluid and energetic form.

Which, to me, doesn't come across. It just looks like a tear drop. Toronto is crying. How tragic.

If the branding comittee wanted a great slogan, they should have looked west to a town of 2351 people: Biggar, Saskatchewan - home of Sandra Schmirler.

"New York is Big, but this is Biggar."

I know where I'm taking my vacation next year.

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Back in the office

I made a valiant attempt to post over my vacation, but damned if I just couldn't get myself to give two craps about advertising while I was on vacation. I spent about ten days at the Ottawa Fringe Festival, which had an amazing display of some of the best theatre I've seen anywhere. I took in over fourteen plays, and felt a little cleansed afterward.

I was actually inspired to write a one-man play about advertising... if it doesn't suck, I might post some of it here once it's done.

Anyway, on to the ads:

Someone wrote and asked what I thought of the new Toronto rebranding. I anticipated the launch of it, and when I saw it, it met exactly what I expected my expectations would be.


It's really the best word to describe it, and it's not because they didn't have some great people working on the campaign, because they did. I have mixed feelings about branding a city, and most of them stem from the fact that the fear of PR backlash is so great that you really have to water down anything you do, or people will bitch and moan, as they are wont to do.

So... Toronto: Unlimited.

It's safe. It's meaningless. You could apply it to any city in the world (though Zimbabwe Unlimited might be a little too ironic to be appreciated). But nobody's going to get mad. And guaranteed that's what 3/4 of the $4million was spent on.

I might riff tomorrow on their launch campaign, which is kind of terrible, but Blogger is giving me some trouble with uploading photos, and I have to get back to work.

Edit: Uploaded logo