In 2014, I was at Leo Burnett Sydney when I was told that we’d be pitching for a NSW Government campaign. Specifically, the ad was an anti-marijuana PSA targeted at teenagers. It was clear from the outset that the brief was so full of holes that it barely managed to float into our office.
Unable to push a scare tactic (most weed wranglers are let off with a warning and a number of US states have legalised it) or health message (medicinal marijuana has become a saviour for sufferers of terminal illness), our prospective client instead went with the flimsy insight that weed was no longer ‘cool’, and that smoking it made you the outcast of your social group.
Nobody in advertising likes to lose a pitch, but in retrospect, we really dodged a bullet. The winner of that campaign was #StonerSloth, arguably the most lampooned, absurd piece of creative that NSW had seen in a long time.
Not only did it completely fail to hit its target, but it became a reverse meme in the process. Up in Byron Bay during Falls Festival that summer, kids wore Stoner Sloth t-shirts and pins as they rolled joints from weed kept in Stoner Sloth branded tins.
In trying to make marijuana uncool, the government had instead done a number on themselves.
In the past two days, Transport for NSW, another state government body, managed the same Christmas trick by releasing not one, but two spectacularly terrible videos on social media, each aimed at young people.
This comes a time when confidence in our Premier is at an all-time low, as he increasingly shows his disdain for anyone under the age of 35.
The first piece, which sees a former The X Factor finalist, Jayden Rodrigues, and his mates romping around the construction site that is George Street, trying to imply that Sydney still has many late night options and is ‘open for business’.
That seems to mean spending a lot of money and participating in the late night economy with all the grit of an active teenage member of Hillsong; karaoke, VR arcades and expensive tickets to Aladdin.
The second was so bad that even the client realised, removing it from Facebook within 24 hours after being taken to task by thousands of commenters. It featured Santas rapping about tapping on and off with your Opal card.
Basically, it’s a tombstone that writes itself.
Here’s the problem with bad creative that comes from your government. Every one of us is the client. When a beer company green-lights a bad ad for beer, that company paid for it. When the NSW government approves consistently awful pieces of creative that are so out of touch they make Clive Palmer appear relevant, we’re paying for it.
Earlier in the week, I expressed the sentiment that it seemed like every government campaign was written by dads. But that’s not really true; I know plenty of dads who wouldn’t talk down to their kids or belittle them with jokes that aren’t funny.
Rather, the government is more like that creepy, out of touch Uncle at a Sunday barbie, trying to tell you about how cool the Harlem Shake is in 2016 while laughing about how you still can’t afford property.
None of us expect our government to be hip to the latest trends; it’s a field that largely employs people with a severe lack of empathy or any quantifiable social skills.
However, its increasing deafness towards the people who will be the future of this country is astounding.
To get into the second round of the marijuana pitch, our ideas had to go through three solid weeks of research. This is the same research group that thought Stoner Sloth was a brilliant concept.
We hold our financial institutions accountable when they waste or lose our money. We take our telcos to task when they create stupid campaigns and rain down hell on our insurers for insultingly out of touch creative, so why can’t we do the same for the State Government’s advertising?
After all, we might not all have an ANZ, Telstra or NRMA account but we sure as hell pay tax.
Jonathan Seidler is a journalist and copywriter at M&C Saatchi