What’s going wrong in the world of advertising?

McDonald's, Dove and Pepsi have all made significant advertising missteps in recent weeks, but what is driving these spectacular fails? In this guest post, Adam Ferrier tries to uncover why brands are out-of-step with consumers.

What is going on in the world of advertising? Within the past month, we’ve seen three spectacular fails, and not from niche brands, or niche projects – but with three of the biggest advertisers in the world, on very big-budget pieces of communications.

Dove ‘Bottle Shapes’, Pepsi ‘Big Protest’, and now McDonald’s ‘My Dead Dad’ have all, according to social media and the mainstream press (they are now partners in crime), spectacularly missed the mark.

Dove ‘Bottle Shapes’, quite literally objectifies women of all shapes and sizes, and uses a tone that mocks years of earnest and considered championing of making all women feel beautiful.

McDonald’s thinks – I presume – that just because it’s been around for 60 years, it has a right to weigh into how a young child comes to grips with his dad’s death by eating a Fillet-O-Fish (because it’s the same menu item his dad ate).

And Pepsi believed they had the right to fight for world peace, and that putting a Pepsi in a policeman’s hand (who’s as far as I know also fighting for peace) will make this happen!




Strategically and creatively these pieces of work feel wonky.

I’ve worked with two of the three brands above, and the people I met were extremely smart, and knew their brand well. The respective agencies (and the house creative team at Pepsi) are first class, and staffed with wonderfully creative people.

However, something obviously went wrong in all three cases. What was it?

I’d suggest it’s a lack of creative empathy that is permeating throughout the marketing industry. By creative empathy I simply mean understanding how your brand (tick we know that bit), uses creative ideas (tick, we know that bit), to connect with people (this is the bit that feels out of step).

There are at least three reasons many brands are sometimes out of step with what consumers and culture are asking of them. These are:

  1. Less and less marketers and advertisers are satisfied just selling stuff (Mr Mark Ritson writes about it eloquently here). Therefore, more and more brands are reaching into higher-order, purpose-driven spaces, where quite frankly they shouldn’t be playing. McDonald’s has no role in helping young kids understand the concept of death, and Pepsi doesn’t really have the credibility to create a revolution and make world peace happen.
  2. Up Their Own Bum: I’d like to meet the head honchos who made all of these things happen. I bet they are big and powerful personalities, working in hierarchical structures. In a world where data is omni-present, and any argument can be justified and backed up, I think we’re dangerously heading back into the world of the ‘Trust me I’m a creative’ territory. Weird things and ideas keep popping up that have nothing to do with the brand, or sales, and more to do with the ego and careers of the creatives who created them (The Dove Bottles were never meant for sale according to the subsequent press releases –thus the whole idea was a stunt).
  3. Corporate Blindness: People are finding it harder and harder to step out of the office and into culture – not the smashed avocado culture, but suburbia. We know that through our social and media channels our own world view is being fed back to us through self-stroking algorithms. Different groups and pockets of society are becoming increasingly distant from each other – and having less ability to understand each other’s world. Further, as culture gets more fragmented it’s getting more difficult to ‘guess’ where the next outrage will come from, or whose sensibilities will be offended next.

I’m not sure what to do about it. I suspect if I was in the whirlwind of any of these creative ideas I may have gone along with them too. It’s hard to predict a disaster, but very easy to write about them once they’ve happened.

I applaud these brands for trying to push the creative envelope and do work that stands out and gets noticed. However, now more than ever the challenge isn’t just to understand and be good at creativity, but to understand people and culture as well.

The antidote to work like this is not to dial back on the creative ambitions, but to ensure you understand people – and you’ve got to understand them like you’ve never had to before.

Adam Ferrier is a Consumer Psychologist and Co-Founder of Marketing Sciences Ideas Xchange (MSIX)

Adam will present a provocative challenge to the orthodoxy of Prof Byron Sharpe’s How Brands Grow world view, in a session entitled ‘The Antidote to Ehrenberg-Bass’ at Mumbrella360 in June. You can purchase tickets here. 


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