Evian, Twin Towers and Macmillan: the Good, The Bad and the Ugly of viral advertising
COMMENT - Dan Douglass, executive creative director at Meteorite, believes DDB Brasil's notorious 'Twin Towers' viral raises a big issue: the danger that viral is just an expedient medium for work that can't get aired anywhere else.
DDB Brasil's viral: 'illogical'
When DDB Brasil decided to air their ‘Twin Towers' ad for World Wildlife Fund (WWF), they shot themselves and the advertising industry in the foot.
As the agency climbed the greasy pole of self-publicity and the more visible this piece of creative became to the outside world, the more it left the hideous backside of the industry exposed. WWF Brasil have distanced themselves from the creative, the creative team has been fired, and DDB Brasil have apologised.
For those few who haven't seen it, the ad, stunningly produced via CGI, reprises the awful moment two aircraft pile in to the Twin Towers.
Our POV is above Manhattan and as the horror of 9/11 is re-enacted, another plane sails into view. We look down its lines as if we are a shooter looking at a target down the length of gun-barrel. Then another plane appears. Then another. The World Trade Centre becomes a concrete and steel pin cushion for hundreds of these manned death missiles.
What's it all about as regards WWF?
Well, the point is that, whilst the attack on the Twin Towers killed 2,819 souls, the tsunami of 2005 claimed the lives of more than 280,000. A quick calculation brings us to the conclusion that nature is 100 times more brutally powerful than mankind could ever be, even at its most deviant and malevolent. We should therefore respect and conserve our planet.
Much has been written about the ‘Twin Towers' creative. And I wouldn't want to go over well-trodden ground. My opinion is that this viral ad is wrong on so many counts it's difficult to know where to begin. I'm sure the banning of it and the outrage that ensued its airing caused a secret surge of pride at DDB.
After all, that's what advertising does - disrupt. And banning presents them with the ultimate bragging rights. Everyone's talking about it. Including me right now.
But, of course, it's a specious defence of a specious piece of creative.
Putting aside the factual inconsistencies, what offends me is the total absence of logic about this ad. The attack on the Twin Towers was preventable. The tsunami was not.
Nor will any future tsunamis be. What efforts of conservation would have stopped the Earth's crust fracturing anyway? Seismic shifts are as old as the Earth. Respect doesn't stop them. Regardless of how much ecological care we take from here on, we're due a big quake on the San Andreas fault any day now. And nothing we can do will prevent it.
This ad is just bad. It's a solution in search of a client brief. And because none presented itself, DDB Brasil found one and ran it without the client's permission. By the time WWF picked up on it, the toothpaste was out of the tube. It's a cheap trick.
Which set me thinking on other viral ads I've come across recently. If ‘Twin Towers' is bad viral advertising, where's the Good and the Ugly?
Well, the Good has to be Evian's roller-skating babies. As one friend of mine described it, it's ‘weird' and she winced. The babies aren't the soft pink marshmallow type you find in Pampers commercials. They're tough little renaissance hombres with all the moves.
Cherubs with a precocity bordering on arrogance - the type you'd find in a Reubens, taming a lion or fluttering over the bed-chamber with prescient adult gaze.
What there is in this ad is a tremendous amount of joy. And if Evian's cri de coeur is ‘live young', then to invest new-borns with this adult agility says it all. You come away from this ad smiling and saying ‘How did they do that?' It's entertaining, engaging, does a lot for the brand - it's funny, joyous and, yes, disruptive. The Good.
And now for the Ugly. You may have thought the DDB Brasil Twin Towers creative spot filled that berth. But that was a plain lazy piece of creative and therefore just plain bad. No, for real inappropriateness and offence, check out the Macmillan sex guru spot.
Miss Pleasure, a new age sex therapist accompanied by wind chimes and surrounded by erotic aids (including the pleasuring Roger, her faithful bearded assistant) tells us that we can get maximum pleasure with the simple application of a finger.
Roger's face is a study in concentration. Out of shot, his finger is exploring Miss Pleasure's equipment and there is a look of total gratification on her face when he hits the spot. Of course the gag - that Roger is really manipulating a cursor on a computer sitting in Miss Pleasure's lap - is telegraphed from the very first frame.
The film is resolved with the line ‘The Macmillan website - the perfect spot to find information and support to help you with sexual relationships and support after cancer'.
It's supposed to be the big reveal, but it arrives like an Italian train. Totally expected. And therefore not very funny. Which breaks the first rule of viral.
Put this creative into context and you get a sense of its ugliness. Not just ‘not exactly an oil painting' ugly, but plug-ugly, gargoyle ugly, the sort of ugly that sends you running for the hills and taking monastic orders.
Three quarters of people say cancer affects their sexual relationships. Stuart Daskin, Senior cancer information nurse at Macmillan Cancer Support points out ‘Cancer can leave a lasting impact on a person long after treatment ends.
People usually think of hair loss and the other effects of cancer, but often it is how it affects a person's feelings about themselves that can be most distressing. It can leave people's confidence shattered, body image low and make it psychologically or physically difficult to have sex at all'.
So how is it that this coy piece of ‘Carry On' sexual innuendo will help people to address these problems? You don't get a smile or a laugh from this viral - it just urges you to share in a sort of furtive Frankie Howerd titter that puts sex firmly back in the unmentionable box. It totally misfires.
Making this sort of ham-fisted (rather than fine-fingered) attempt at humour with an issue so sensitive and personal strikes me as crass at best, and, at worst - well - emotionally damaging. Because it reinforces the very barriers it sets out to tear down. And this among a vulnerable constituency of people with cancer. It's ugly. Very ugly.
What does this tell us about viral advertising?
It's time to stop pretending that much of what is out there is anything other than an agency vanity project. Like broadcast, great viral advertising has accountability, compelling logic and disruption at its heart. It has to be ‘wrong' by definition, because it subverts the familiar, the ordered and the comfortable. But acknowledging there's a right kind of wrong, a wrong kind of wrong and a just plain wrong is the true art of creative.
Next time you think up a viral advertising idea, apply this test. Imagine all the Ofcom rules and regulations in broadcast were relaxed. You could use as much shock as you wanted. Would you still run the idea? Would you exercise more rigour?
If the answer's ‘yes', you are guilty of treating online simply as an expedient medium for running work that can't get aired anywhere else.
Dan Douglass is executive creative director at Meteorite
This article was first published on Marketing Direct
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