The Schlock of the New

Our Mole in the ad world explores its current obsession with new media

One of my ad agency’s clients was recently approached by a man with an intriguing proposition. He was, he explained, responsible for a well-known alternative comedian’s Facebook page and Twitter account, each of which were followed by nearly 250,000 young men — just the sort of cool, trend-setting audience that has become so hard to reach through conventional advertising. For a sum that compared very favourably with the cost of an old-fashioned TV spot, he was offering to “seed”, or talk up, my client’s products. 

It would work like this. The celebrity would say that he’d spotted a new ad on YouTube he really liked. His followers would check out the clip via an embedded link. There would then be a lively debate about whether the celebrity was right, using YouTube’s comment facility. Meanwhile, the celebrity would report that he’d tried the product itself and had forgotten just how good it was, and so on — an apparently virtuous circle of social networking, free viral media, product placement, user-generated content and celebrity blogging. These are seductive enough buzzwords when used singly, but when set in conjunction like this, they are almost guaranteed to send any marketing man into paroxysms of digital excitement. My client wanted us to go ahead as quickly as possible.

There was just one flaw in this proposal: the celebrity didn’t exist. Or rather, he exists, but someone had created a Facebook page and Twitter account in his name and had then gone about building up an audience large enough to warrant this kind of scam. This, of course, was the person who had approached my client. 

It turned out that he had been completely open about this aspect of the scheme: he was operating within the law, or thereabouts, as he had never explicitly said online that he was the celebrity whose name he was using — only that he had just been to the Baftas and wasn’t Jonathan Ross rubbish? It was with some difficulty that I managed to persuade my client that this was not something in which he should get involved.

It isn’t only pornographers for whom cyberspace has become a heady mixture of Klondike, Shangri-La and Looking-Glass Land. Marketeers are obsessed with it. In this election year, you can bet that a dozen T-shirt-wearing wonks from across the political divide are even now trying to work out how to use the internet to speed their man to victory. It worked for Obama, the thinking goes, with his texted thank-yous, his “Jews for Obama” campaign (in which hip Jewish comedienne Sarah Silverman made an online film, The Great Schlep, urging Jews with retired parents in Florida to visit them before election day), his YouTube supporters such as “Obama girl” and all those blog-friendly speeches about Change and Hope. 

Could it work over here? To some extent it already has. David Cameron might have got in first with Webcameron — “Makes him look like a terrorist on al-Jazeera,” one Tory grandee is reported to have snorted — but Labour have become enthusiastic Twitterers. Sarah Brown was one of the first, tweeting from the G8 summit in Italy — “Am hoping that no veal served at lunch again today. Have declined it twice this trip as just feel very strongly about it” — but to everyone’s surprise, it is the famously prolix John Prescott who has proved rather adept at pithy 140-character jabs. Sample: “So this is the CHANGE we’d get from Cameron. His school had three toilets: 1 Gents, 1 Ladies & 1 for Chauffeurs!” 

Okay, it isn’t a very good joke — and it might have been better had Prezza remembered that there isn’t much call for Ladies’ toilets at Eton — but it’s a lot funnier than anything he delivered at a Labour party conference. 

Meanwhile, both party leaders are desperately courting Mumsnet, publishing blogs, doing webchats and updating their websites — though if you go to the Downing Street homepage, it’s Sarah Brown’s photo you’ll find. “Read more about SARAH BROWN. Our SARAH BROWN SECTION contains biographical info, pictures, news and blog posts from the Prime Minister’s wife.” “Meet the Prime Minister,’ by contrast, is relegated to an inside page. 

You might expect advertising professionals to be tempering all this e-optimism with some hard-bitten cynicism. It is, after all, our job to cast a critical eye over the more grandiose schemes of those who pay our bills. 

In fact, the opposite is true. Ad people love nothing better than some groovy new gimmick that allows them to believe that their job isn’t really flogging stuff, it’s “brand engineering”, “experiential engagement” or “360-degree insight”. Every agency worth its salt is now “media neutral” (translation: does more than ads), and has a “Head of Social Media” (translation: digital specialist) whose job it is to “cool-hunt” (translation: keep abreast of new developments).

Just as with the politicos, it was the Obama campaign that turned a fad into a frenzy. It wasn’t so much the campaign itself as the creative awards it won — The Great Schlep, for example, won the Droga5 agency the Titanium Lion at the Cannes Advertising Festival, an event every bit as important in the advertising world as the Film Festival is to Hollywood. All of a sudden, every creative director in London was clamouring for a digital campaign that would garner him the kind of acclaim Dave Droga was getting. In practice, that meant perfectly good copywriters — the kind of people who could knock out a couple of Carling Black Label spots before opening time — were suddenly spending most of their time building websites or wrestling with the intricacies of augmented reality as applied to iPhone apps. 

But what the cyber-champions appear to have missed is the essentially feral nature of the web. It isn’t only Cameron and Brown who have come unstuck on Mumsnet: the agency Campbell Lace Beta attempted to “provoke a debate” by running ads suggesting that working women make bad mothers. When outraged Mumsnetters responded by emailing the agency’s clients, demanding that it be fired, the “debate” was swiftly brought to an end with solicitors’ letters threatening legal action against individual mums. 

Similarly, Cameron’s “We can’t go on like this” poster, such a success in the civilised environs of a focus group, provoked howls of mirth online — and dozens of parodies: my own favourite was the one that turned his heavily-airbrushed visage into an ad for Madame Tussauds. 

Personally, if I were Cameron or Brown, I’d ditch the webtoys and the apps and try to come up with a persuasive, simple, mass-market strategy — what we used to call “a good idea”. Walkers crisps did that with their “Do us a Flavour” competition. It was one of the most successful promotions ever — interestingly enough, organised in the form of an election — with more than 1.2 million entries. But did it win any big creative awards at Cannes? Do us a favour — it wasn’t even in the running.

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