The top seven…most patronising pieces of communication

Sometimes brands have big ideas. Sometimes marketers get so caught up with a grandiose idea that instead of finding engaging ways to sell breakfast cereal, they start to believe their own rhetoric. And sometimes it’s just lazy marketing. Here are my top seven inadvertently patronising pieces of communication…

1) Last night thousands of women gathered in Sydney’s Centennial Park to take part in She Runs the Night, an event created by Nike.

she runs the nightI have no issue whatsoever with women, or humans in general, coming together to get fit and have fun, and I loved the initiative; my beef is with the slightly unsavoury subtext. When unpacked, it goes something like this: Ordinarily, Woman, you cannot run in public parks after dark without fear. But for one night, courtesy of Nike, you can run (in a pack) in safety, for a small fee, while wearing a t-shirt to advertise our brand.

Say thank you.

And Nike is just one (beautifully marketed) example of this: brands aiming for connection through their communication in a way that ends up coming across as condescending.

2) Emirates is currently running its “Hello Tomorrow” campaign, in which the very notion of the future has been co-opted. The ad is unquestionably gorgeous, and the spirit it intends to evoke is bordering on euphoric. But then comes the copy: “Tomorrow believes that the more of our world we we see the richer we become” it smugly intones.
I’m no grammarian, but I’m fairly sure that “tomorrow” is a noun, not a sentient being, and as such neither believes nor feels anything at all, and if it did, it might have bigger concerns than which airline to fly.

Possibly things like “if everyone is going to see as much of the world as possible via carbon-footprint-heavy international long haul flights, will I, Tomorrow, even exist ..?”

In any case, Emirates does not have the right to brand the future, and it insults our intelligence to suggest that it does.

3) There are a number of variations on this theme: any advert for a piece of technology which uses the existing technology to demonstrate the futuristic capabilities of the new.

“See colours like never before” as images rendered in supposedly new and brilliant ways fill your existing TV screen, or “experience sound so crystal it’ll set your teeth on edge” as a loud chiming noise peals from your dusty old speakers. Gosh. I can’t even imagine what that would be like because my TV just can’t support…wait a second…

This ad by Samsung for its 3D LED TV actually puts virtual 3D glasses over the screen so we, the viewers, can see what television might look like in 3D, if only we had a 3D television.

4) Kellogg’s Special K TVC from 2009 has stood the test of time in providing one of the most insinuatingly smug voice-overs ever. “Ever tempted by an evening snack..?” it wonders breathily, before providing us with a frankly ludicrous pantomime of a young woman suffering from early onset-senility which necessitates her leaving notes to herself in order to find the food she has squirrelled away around her empty house.

We’re left with a shot of the young woman gnawing apparently contentedly on an muesli bar while the voiceover reaches a frenzy of fawning intimacy. You can practically hear the VO artist baring her teeth in a painful rictus of smiling as she insists that these are “treats we’ll feel good about.” The insight juts through almost as awkwardly as the hipbones of the model and makes me want to shout “you don’t know me, Kelloggs!”

5) McDonald’s El Maco. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s offensive, but its portrayal of Mexicans falls into the category of slack stereotyping at the very least. Whatever Top Gear’s obnoxious presenters may say, it’s clear that McDonald’s is the lazy party. a) Mexico is not a country populated by men playing tiny guitars wearing oversized hats, and b) Mexican food is not so exotic and unusual that we need to be convinced to eat chilli sauce by a grinning mariachi urging us on.

¡Andele andele! right into the 21st century, Maccas.

McDonalds 2012
McDonalds 1994.

6) L’Oreal is still using a tag line that was conceived in the fifties, from a remarkable insight by celebrated copywriter Shirley Polykoff (the full story on Dave Trott’s blog).

“Because you’re worth it” had resonance and relevance in 1955, but in 2012, the idea that women still need to be given permission to spend money as they please – or at least, any more than any of us need permission to spend our own cash-begins to pall. That coupled with the fact that L’Oreal is no longer one of the more expensive brands in market these days starts to add up to an large, albeit, one hopes, inadvertent diss to the consumer.

Buy a seventeen dollar mascara. Because you’re worth it.

Why, thank you L’Oreal. You’ve empowered me to feel, well, not quite a million dollars, but certainly a smidge over ten.

7) And it’s not just advertising. This is a small and doubtless petty thing, but I think it stands to show that your brand’s proposition is communicated through every single interaction, not just your ATL comms. When you board a Qantas flight- after you’ve recovered from the cognitive dissonance of John Travolta appearing in pilot drag to introduce the safety video – then you hear the line, “We know you’re perfectly capable of operating a seat belt, but here’s a few tips on how this one works.”

Who was it who said everything that comes after a “but” negates the first clause?

John Travolta Qantas 



Cathie McGinn


  1. Bazza
    4 May 12
    6:08 pm

  2. I don’t feel I am enough of a hipster to have the lifestyle portrayed in the Emirates ad

  3. John
    4 May 12
    6:12 pm

  4. I don’t really have a problem with the Macca’s ad using Mexican stereotypes. If it shows the modern westernised side of Mexico then it;ll look like the rest of the world.

    But I much prefer the 1994 ad, much better and makes me want the burger much more.

    Why didn’t they simply re-run it?

  5. Craig
    4 May 12
    7:23 pm

  6. 1,2,4,3,4,6,7 – odd numbering but great article.

  7. Nic
    5 May 12
    10:01 am

  8. Superb article.

  9. Marcusg
    6 May 12
    11:07 pm

  10. What about those arrogant Range Rover drivers that just dump their dirty laundry at the dry cleaners without a comment or concern and drive away. Great pitch it ain’t!

  11. rob
    7 May 12
    9:01 am

  12. Timely article given the recent debate surrounding RIM’s Wake Up campaign – have a read of the copy in the cover wraps of toady’s papers……these guys are delusional and I haven’t seen such a smug piece of communication in a long time.

    Apple could almost pull off the attitude given they have runs on the board and the credentials to back it up. RIM has neither, so the references to Apple ads peppered through the copy just remind us of the much better competitor.

    Back to the drawing board RIM, pity you’ve blown so much money on this travesty of a campaign.

  13. Cathie
    7 May 12
    9:29 am

  14. Craig – numbering fixed. Thank you! Cathie – mUmBRELLA

  15. ellymc
    7 May 12
    9:37 am

  16. You missed the current St George ad about women spending too much on shoes.

  17. Sam de Brito
    7 May 12
    9:47 am

  18. Love it. Re Nike, Felix Salmon tweeted this yesterday: “This is depressing. Casey Neistat gets lots of money from Nike, which causes him to lose his sense of…

  19. Peter Bray
    7 May 12
    9:47 am

  20. Thoughtful piece Cathie. However, have a look at the background on Nike’s Run the Night overseas. Will put it in context, I think it is superb (and no they aren’t a client)

  21. Craig Ashley Russell
    7 May 12
    10:15 am

  22. It saddens me there are so many examples in this article, and that as @ellymc noted, still more could be added.
    Wonderful words as per usual McGinn. Perhaps it’s time to move from writer, to copywriter and change the machine from the inside.

  23. Cathie McGinn
    7 May 12
    10:52 am

  24. @Peter Bray I wrote the story about the event: -and as I say above, I loved the initiative.
    But let’s not forget it’s advertising, not altruism…
    Cathie – mUmBRELLA

  25. Tiki Godzilla
    7 May 12
    11:54 am

  26. Good work McGinn.
    Now that you have the uppity womyn angle covered, what about the stereotype that all men in advertisements are beer swilling, girlfriend dodging, salad avoiding bogans?

  27. fraser
    7 May 12
    12:33 pm

  28. Re Nike, 3000 women clearly didn’t find it patronising or lazy marketing as they paid $80 to attend.

    Most brands couldn’t get 3,000 people to attend an event if they paid customers $80.

    Other brands will dust the best part of $100k on experiential events in the CBD that may have a reach of 50,000+ but get about 100 people engaging. looking at the return on engagement I would take Nikes lazy and patronising communication any day of the week.

  29. Tony Healy
    7 May 12
    12:45 pm

  30. Cathie, the Nike run is a fascinating subject, and it was brilliantly executed. In terms of its messsage, though, are you sure it’s trying to scare women runners? That angle did crop up in stories, and was addressed by organisers, but I actually think it was incidental to the core promotion.

    Even in the park during the run, I don’t think there were any police or overt signs of security. There were just a few police at the entry points.

    The run itself seemed to be a cross between a nightclub and a fun run, with various illuminated effects, including pink trees in the park. I thought it was stunning.

  31. neocube champ
    8 May 12
    12:00 pm

  32. I have always had a soft spot for the el Maco campaigns, even if the product consistently fails to deliver…

  33. Nicky Bryson
    8 May 12
    1:42 pm

  34. Ah, this article made my day! I would just like to add the “She bought a Jeep?” TVC to this patronising category.

  35. Mark S
    14 May 12
    6:35 pm

  36. Excellent thinking.

    You’re right when you say the Maccas ad is as much stereotyping as it is patronising…of the two I think the former is the worse sin, because it promulgates ignorance and in this case racism which to me is much more dangerous and damaging than patronisation which simply has the effect of pissing us off.

    Sadly, there’s no shortage of either in our wonderful industry!