Category: Marketing Mistakes

Pale Blue Eyes: The Creepiest Ad of 2020

This little boy looks nothing like a serial killer.

Just saw one of the creepiest ads of a soon-to-be-over (hopefully) surreal year. I know it’s supposed to be a satirical take on the assumed monotony of our lockdown. But…wellllll…

Did food delivery service, SnackCrate, hire Jordan Peele (Get-Out, Us) to direct this? It features zombie-like, ultra-white characters with blonde hair and dead, pale, pale blue eyes, smiling vacantly as if they were cyborgs programmed to vaguely mimic human expressions. I couldn’t believe the creators were serious. Or, I guess more to the point, comedic.

After some vignettes of the pale family’s soulless life,  SnackCrate delivers a box to a mixed-race family across the street from the ultra-white replicants of this surreal, homogenous suburban neighborhood (reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands). The little blonde child walks across the street like a badly programmed robot (I swear, he looks like a Jeffrey Dahmer as a child–or me). The friendly Black neighbor girl opens the box and a golden light emits from it, illuminating the boy’s face. His creepy smile broadens, yet his eyes remain dead, like a doll’s.  I know it’s not his fault; he was directed to look like this. He’s probably delightfully warm in real life. And funny.

Okay, okay, I get it. The “concept” was to portray the everyday, life-sucking sameness of everyone’s lives during the lockdown. (Yeah, those creatives really nailed that one.)(Oh, that was sarcastic, in case you didn’t get my tone.) And SnackCrate is somehow the answer. Of course they never show you what the product is. I assume it’s food. Or munchies for weed. But it could also be a mind-altering drug, for all we know– the one all of these blank-staring zombies are on. Or some sort of alien-generated, mind-control weapon. Or a lightbulb. Maybe they figured the name of the company, SnackCrate, would give away that it’s some sort of food. Like Soylent Green. But I get that it’s supposed to be satirical, i.e. funny.

You’d have to be on a mind-control substance yourself to think this was funny. It feels like it was humor generated by AI, who thought it had a bead on what humans think is comedy.

Predator eyes

An aside about blue eyed models and actors.

What’s this thing I see so often lately with models, actors, and characters with ultra-pale blue eyes? I’ve seen that more than in the past in fashion ads and even in general consumer ads. Not just blue eyes, but eyes that seem unnaturally pale. They look like predators. Or Hitler Youth. Or alien vampires.  I mean I don’t have anything against blue eyes (I have blue eyes…though I prefer to described them as “steel grey”–and blonde hair–or had–it’s also steel grey now). Some of my best friends…yada yada.  But I’ve even seen them on non-white models and actors, many of whom, I know, are born with blue eyes themselves (see this interesting story about how prehistoric Britons probably had dark skin and blue eyes). But the point isn’t who owns blue eyes genetically, it’s a conscious casting decision. And the photography and its post-manipulation seem to emphasize the paleness of the iris. When the expression “Blue-Eyed Devils” has long stood for historic, exploitive European colonialism to most of the world (who don’t have blue eyes), this doesn’t seem like the most engaging look.




Not only blue eyes.  The pinpoint pupils look distinctly like a predator honing in on its prey.  The paleness of the iris maximizes this. It’s definitely a horror-movie, non-human look. The photographers, art directors, and Photoshoppers are evidently trying to emphasize the light blue iris by reducing the size of the pupils. Ethologically, wide -open pupils signal relaxation, friendliness, not-a-threat. Narrow pupils signal aggression, hunger, threat. As we have evolved from prey species ourselves, we have a primeval fear of predator species with narrowed pupils (oh, like leopards, for instance). I myself remember that reflexive, Australopithecine surge of gut-panic that swept over me years ago when I was an art director at a commercial shoot using a supposedly tame tiger. We were all encouraged to stand next to the tiger for a group, publicity shot. When the trainer raised a morsel of meat on a long stick to get the tiger to sit up, I saw at once its pupils snap to pinpoints as it saw the meat and started salivating, showing its five-inch fangs. Couldn’t wait for the photographer to hurry up and take the goddam picture already. Admittedly, the tiger didn’t have blue eyes–they were a golden color–but the contrast really emphasized the pinpoint pupil, which meant one thing, “I’m going to eat you.”

Where was I?

Oh yes. Getting back to my crit of this SnackCrate spot: Though I may be alone in this, like Will Smith’s lonely character in I Am Legend, but I did feel distinctly unsettled after I saw this ad. Which is ironic because the mission statement on SnackCrate’s website says the whole point is to bring all the world’s cultures together by sharing their local snacks.  You know; by getting people in Mexico City to love Sydney’s love of Vegemite….or something., or people on the West Coast to love Chicago-style “pizza”.  Not a bad marketing message in itself. Maybe that was the point of having the blue-eyed, blonde family relate to their multi-racial neighbors. But now that we’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of pale white people, (even pale white people have become suspicious of each other), I think the way they executed this idea backfires. My expectation (from Jordan Peele’s example in Get Out) was that the creepy little boy was going to first eat the snack offered him, and then eat his neighbors.

The ad communicated nothing about SnackCrate’s noble goal. Or even about food. There was no appetite appeal. No message of bringing people together. Just an assumption about our bleak, colorless (except for the blue eyes) lives and how our salvation from zombietopia is SnackCrate. Whatever that is. Okay! Sign me up.

Watching the ad, I also couldn’t help but flash back to a sci-fi horror movie I saw as a kid, Village of the Damned, in which the monsters were beautiful alien children with ash blonde hair and pale, pale eyes that glowed to hypnotize people into killing themselves. So it’s a personal thing with me. Pale eyes freak me out.

It’s only me. I know. I shouldn’t watch any more post-apocalyptic movies about the last human on Earth, or blonde alien invaders. I should get over it.

Beware blonde children with pale eyes.



So THAT’S how ad agencies work!

Badda-book, badda-boom? Really? This fingernails-on-a-blackboard tagline has been interrupting shows, games, movies, and news broadcasts for a couple of years now. Could it be the worst ad campaign of the decade?

One mark of a bad ad is that you can’t recall the advertiser. With this one, though I’ve seen these spots hundreds of times,  I had to look up its name before I started writing this blog because I still couldn’t remember the sponsor. I had just assumed it was one more of those innumerable online travel booking engines (like Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline,, etc.). No, it’s a Maryland-based hospitality holding corporation representing a portfolio of hotel chains. I’m not going to tell you the name or the names of the chains it owns. That’s the ad campaign’s job. At which it fails miserably.

Indeed, the latest iteration of the campaign, called “Glow,” features yet another meeting of the ad agency and the client.  What an engaging concept! The spot begins as two account executives brag about the success of last year’s ad campaign and present a commercial to “take it up a notch,” letting us know right away that this is an ad about advertising.  The commercial-within-a-commercial (an inframercial?) shows a glow around two slo-mo walking customers after they’ve checked into the hotel. These radioactive customers block the logo behind them, teasingly, so we can’t see the brand. The presenter says he assumes that viewers would think they too would glow when they checked in. Then the campaign’s spokesman, who, we gather, is supposed to be the CEO of the company (a white male, naturally) says, “Who glows? Just say ‘Badda-book. Badda-boom.'” Whereupon his sycophant, who is in most of these spots, smirks and says, “Nobody glows!” The CEO gestures at him approvingly, “He gets it” and throws him a treat. (This last part I made up, but the whole thing is just sickening.)

The real-world ad agency that came up with this campaign (McCann Erickson NY) seems to think their job is to inform the public how they come up with these clever ideas, and to make the ad all about how brilliant their tagline is. That comes through loud and clear, unlike any product benefit. Or the name of the brand.

But the tagline they are so proud of is meaningless. It’s a flaccid riff on a mid-20th century rolling gag (bada-bing, bada-boom) made popular on the 1950s Jackie Gleason Show and by generations of gangster movies and TV series ever since.  From what I can understand, the tagline is supposed to remind us that travel (or, at least hotel reservations) is easy to book online. Just like every other hotel or online travel booking service. Whaaaaa!? You mean I can make reservations on this new thing called “The Interwebs” now? I’m sorry, I’ve been trapped in a mine for the past forty years, living on blind cave-crickets, and didn’t know that. What a brave, new world we live in. What’s next? Microwavable popcorn?

Ad Narcissism

Watching this campaign, I get the impression that the people at McCann are mighty pleased with themselves. So much so that they have to keep feeding us these spots that advertise the advertising.  So it’s meta-advertising. And now in this year’s campaign,  with straw-man spots nested within the spots, as if to ask, “Aren’t you glad we didn’t make you watch these dull concepts?” they’re meta-meta-advertising. Like a matryoshka doll of inanity.

To be fair, by itself, badda-book-etc. is not the worst tagline ever written. In fact, if it were paired with clever scripts, it could be an effective tail. But the tail is wagging this dog. All of the spots are just about it and how perfect it is. They are ads for the tagline, not for the hotel…or whatever it is. Which makes it advertising narcissism. Ad nauseam.

The campaign, in spot after spot, breaks a cardinal rule of advertising. It hides the customer benefit. In this and previous spots, if you stay in your seat long enough to wait for the logo and the final line, they do mention something about the chain having the lowest prices (itself a very weak and unsubstantiated position, but at least a customer benefit), but that comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with the badda-book slogan. If they were going to seed that position in our awareness, they would have generated concepts reinforcing cheapness. But they didn’t, because badda-book badda-boom is just so cheek-pinchingly adorable. So let’s make the whole campaign about that. Jackie Gleason is beaming from the grave.

The other cardinal rule the campaign breaks is: Don’t talk about yourself, talk about what you can do for the viewer. The audience doesn’t care what you think of yourself, what JD Power Awards you’ve won, how great you think you are, what your passion is. If they’re going to stick around at all, tell them what you can do for them. But this campaign breaks that rule in spades, because it not only doesn’t talk about what it can do for the customer, it doesn’t even talk about the client; it talks about how great the tagline is  That’s badda-dumb.






We Know You

man on a couch w laser
Stay right where you are.

I know you. You have a passion for life. You won’t anything slow you down. You won’t accept compromise. You stomp on necks when you don’t get what you want.  Wait… What?

Here’s another copywriting trick to get your audience to instantly fast-forward through your commercial or block your ad: Tell them that you know them.

Start with a list of banal virtues that some phoned-in market research has associated with a target market. Then proceed to make your target market feel like a target market, like just another datum waiting to be harvested. People love to be categorized. People love to be second guessed. They love being harvested.

And, most of all, people love being made to feel like a target.

Reality Bites Data

blackswanflockI’ve been thinking about all of the ridiculous upsets in reality, or at least data-driven predictions of reality, in the past three months. From Five Thirty Eight to all the major polls predicting an easy Clinton victory in last year’s election,  all were so wrong that everyone, including the winners, just stared with jaws agape at the broadcast that night. How could this be happening? What about the data?

Prior to that there was the major upset of the World Series, where, against overwhelming data-fueled prediction, the Cubs came from behind and won, heralding in a sign of the End Times as foretold in Revelations (or was it Nostradamus?). Then there was the CFP Bowl in which Clemson didn’t read the script and beat Alabama at the last minute (was that even legal?). Then the Superbowl upset of the upset (also at the last minute, more or less). And the most recent example was the fiasco at the end of the Oscars, in which slam-dunk favorite La La Land lost to Moonlight for Best Picture, even after the former had been mistakenly announced as the winner.

After all these upsets in prediction, it has occurred to me that data don’t know squat. Or we’ve been looking at the wrong data.

What’s going on? How can so many data-fueled models be so off? Aren’t we supposed to be living in a new, enlightened age where every tiny thing can be predicted, every human need anticipated before the human lifeform even knows what it needs?

Apparently not. If you thought that’s where we were going, then you haven’t tried to have a coherent exchange with Siri or Alexa lately. Or tried to get your iDevice to play the song you actually want to listen to instead of what it thinks you’d like to listen to.

I’m sure, too, that all of you have been emptying your email inbox every day of so-called “targeted” junk mail, finely tuned to your most minute desires based on your web-browsing history or your Facebook likes. What? You mean you aren’t worried about your severe-to-moderate irritable bowel syndrome at the moment?  Or that when you look up a title on Amazon or Netflix, they offer up random titles that their algorithms assume are just like what they think you are looking for? (Do you really care that people who watched Sherlock also watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2?)

Everything seems to be not just off, but spectacularly wrong.

Reality Hath Reasons that Data Knoweth Not

Here’s what I think is going on: Reality is biting back. Again. Just at a point in history when we think we have reached the limit of all there is to know in the universe, and Big Data will be the answer to all human needs, everything we thought we knew turns out to be bass ackwards. It reminds me of a similar point of hubris at the end of the 19th century when it was also widely trumpeted by pompous scientists that mankind had just about learned everything that needed to be learned, and everything useful had been invented. Then came Einstein. And the Wright Brothers. And Henry Ford.

Now the age of Big Data is discovering that reality doesn’t give a shit; it has its own agenda.

Chaos theory is rearing its ugly head again. It’s quantum unpredictability (the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) applied to human behavior, whether that behavior is voting, playing a game, or buying.  Quantum Mechanics come into play in the physical world as the observational scale gets smaller and smaller, down at the sub-atomic level. And as that happens, predictability vanishes.

In the realm of human behavior this Heisenberg analogy applies to individual humans, or to individual human events, like a single game or a single election.  This is the atomic, quantum scale of behavior. On that scale, predictability is mythic.

This getting it all wrong is especially true of data-driven advertising.  Advertising data-specialists can try to convince their clients that they can serve up an ad to the exact person in the precise frame of mind for their product at the perfect moment; when they’re ready to buy. But all of our personal experience is that they get it dead wrong more often than not.

Wait, Wait, Wait. Too Many Variables.

Besides the Quantum Mechanics of individual events,  there’s the sheer number of variables that sabotage predictability. Each game, each election, each competition, each purchase decision, each individual event has so many variables that the degrees of freedom in any statistical model flatten the bell curve, making it worthless as a predictive tool. The extreme outcomes on a distribution function become as likely as the mean.  The black swan event becomes a flock of black swans.

In the last election, those extra variables (like the ineffable frustration felt by the traditionally Democratic white labor voters) were ignored in the more traditional models used. Of course, pollsters will probably incorporate those variables in the next round, but then there will be other variables not taken into account. There always are. People always fight the next war with lessons learned from the last one.

Same with marketing again. At any instant of time, there are so many variables in play with a marketing campaign–the economy, social memes, the weather, external stressors, scandals involving your client, local conditions–that advertisers can’t possibly account for them all. And each one tends to spread out that bell curve, so you might as well take a wild guess as to how to frame your message, or where to put it.

But there’s a way around the fickleness of reality.

Great. So What’s a Marketing Professional to Do?

Well. You can always go back to marketing as an art, relying on the ancient psychological tricks of empathy and creativity to make yourself noticed and loved. These tricks used to work pretty damn well, back before Big Data swallowed up advertising like a swarm of army ants, eating it down to the bone. We’re starting to see these ancient tricks pop up again, like plants poking above the soil after a long drought. Every once in a while you see an entertaining TV spot, or a clever web ad that seeks to entertain as well as sell. Marketers are just starting to rediscover the power of creativity. They not only stand out, they use a key into the human psyche that Big Data never had.

This is Unbreakable Rule #3: Be Creative or Die.  It’s also Rule #6: Give Love to Get Love. Data may allow you to ring the doorbell of the most likely customer for your product, but it won’t help you when the door is opened. For that you need to disarm, to charm, to entertain, to win that customer over and keep them from slamming the door in your face, or clicking “skip”. And for that you need both empathy and creativity.

This is what the winner of the last election did, upsetting all predictions; he empathized with just enough people to get him elected. And he sure entertained the hell out of them. He even entertained those who didn’t vote for him, though they continue to hate him. And the reality of that vote will bite not just pollsters, but all of us.

The other consequence of these flock of black swans we’ve been experiencing has been that people have begun to lose faith in data at all.  We now live in a time where conspiracy theories abound, where people believe what they want to believe. To hell with the data! Or so-called facts and experts. Reality is what each person says it is. The biggest problem facing us now is still a marketing one. It is to persuade people that data and mathematical models, even though discredited by recent events, are still useful.  And purveyors of them, pollsters, marketers, account planners, all need to start marketing their value again to a public that has lost faith in data.




People, please, please use a professional to do your ads

A Twin Towers Mattress Sale? Wow! What could go wrong with that?

I know, it’s so tempting to do a commercial yourself.  Why should you pay an overpriced ad agency with expensive writers and art directors and strategists and producers and planners and experience? Your daughter has more creative talent in her little finger than a whole skyscraper (oops, bad metaphor) liberal arts college full of so-called “experts”.  What could possiblay go rong? It’s just a commercial, for crying out loud!

And if something does go wrong–I don’t know–but just say somebody–I don’t know who, some tiny coven of “politically correct” wackos–could possibly be offended by an ad that was intended to be lighthearted as being tasteless; well, you can always quickly take down the ad and nobody’s the wiser. Right? Right? Sure you can.

But here’s another unbreakable rule. In the 21st century, once something is posted, it’s posted and reposted and rereposted for ever and ever. Amen. It’s even flying off out past the Oort Cloud, away from our sad little solar system at the speed of light, to entertain alien supercivilizations we can’t even imagine…in a galaxy far far away.  It’s permanent. To the end of time. (I know; that’s what “permanent” means. I am a writer, after all.)

The poor company, Miracle Mattress, in San Antonio, has announced that due to the unexpected backlash of its “Twin Towers” (of mattresses, people! MATTRESSES!) 9/11 Day Sale ad, it has not only taken the ad off the air, it is closing its doors indefinitely. I feel so sorry for the owner’s daughter, who didn’t mean any harm and acted her heart out in this innocent commercial. She’s probably crying inconsolably. Can you imagine how she must feel?

Still, use this as a cautionary tale. You may be tempted to DIY your own advertising campaign. And save big bucks. And it’s all mad fun …until someone loses an eye. Or a business. But have the professionals do it. Sure, we’re more expensive. But we don’t make business-killing mistakes like this.


There was that time when I…




What? You want to see the commercial? You sicko! I’m not going to indulge that behavior. Google it yourself.

Everything is Clueless

Xfinity Everything is Awesome Still 2
Warning! Not recommended use of mobile device

I couldn’t help spraying my ginger ale through my nose last night when I caught this spot from Comcast (or is it Xfinity? I’m confused. Are they the same company? Can’t they make up their minds what their company name is?). A riff on the Oscar-nominated song, “Everything is Awesome” from the The Lego Movie, the creators of this unintentionally ironic ad must have thought, “OOO-OOO-OOO, this song is about us! Let’s spend a fortune and buy it for our own jingle!”

“Jaylen, you’re awesome! Let’s go tell Nigel!”

(And yes, they probably really do use exclamation points to end all of their sentences.)

I hate to admit it, but they’re right. It is about them. But not in the way, I suspect, they intended. In the movie “awesome” was about the over-hyped shallowness of corporate hegemony, in which everything, however ordinary and unremarkable, is dialed up to 11. Or, as Mr. Incredible observed in that other satirical CGA movie, The Incredibles, “It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity!” So it was a satire. And that Comcast doesn’t realize that the original song was making fun of monopolistic corporations like theirs, dragging everything down into the same level of banality, makes their commercial unintentionally hilarious. Enough to spray ginger ale out your nose. I wonder what they spent on that license? The movie’s original creators must be rolling on the ground. In massive piles of treasury notes.

Chris Miller, director of The Lego Movie, Tweeted, “Everything Is Awesome used in an Xfinity ad to sell a corporate idealization of consumer culture is more meta than the movie itself, love it.”

Mark Mothersbaugh, the song’s original composer, said  it “…was supposed to be like mind control early in the film. It’s totally irritating, this kind of mindless mantra to get people up and working.”[link to interview]

And one of the song’s co-writers, Shawn Patterson, described the painful process of writing it, “I was going through a very ugly divorce when I wrote that song…There were definitely elements of darkness seeping into my lyrics — sarcasm, heavy f—ing sarcasm.”

But I’m sure the Comcast creative team that had the brilliant idea of using the song had never seen the movie, or, if they had, it probably went right over their heads. “OOO-OOO-OOO that’s a catchy tune!”

And compounding the irony, their interminable commercial strings together a montage of teenagers making selfies, funny cat videos, jackass pratfalls, a ZZ-Top-look-alike imagining himself as a character in Game of Thrones, dancing chickens, and image after image of our modern idiocracy. And all the while the painfully shoehorned lyrics try to convince us that these endless banalities are, guess what? Yeah. Awesome.

I’ve already ranted on the incessant use of that tired adjective. God, how I have come to hate that word. Unless, of course, you use it to describe the super-massive black hole, Sagittarius A*, with a mass of 4.31 million suns at the center of our galaxy thirty-thousand light years from us.  That, by definition, is awesome.

Oh, and so is a super funny cat video. But it has to be really super-funny. Like wearing an adorable costume.

Don’t ask.

Roman Thumbs down 2
Wanna buy a toothbrush?

Here’s a hot tip for you ad-makers: Don’t ask for the sale right off the bat.  Really good salespeople already know this. Really good marketers also know this. Normal human beings know this. But whoever’s been producing the bulk of advertising lately don’t seem to know it. They apparently think they have to start off by asking for the sale. “Looking for tires?” “Tired of paying high prices for catheters?” “If you die, have you planned enough for your funeral?” “Wanna buy a toothbrush?” (this latter isn’t an actual lead line in an ad, but a punchline in an old joke about marketing, which I think you can reconstruct yourself.) All of these may sound like perfectly innocent questions, but we all hear them as sales pitches.

It’s a well-known fact that nobody likes being sold to. Even when we’re in the actual market to buy something, we don’t like being pitched. It feels pushy. It feels like the sales person only sees us as a mark. And forces us to have to answer something unpleasant back, “No.”

And yet, generation after generation of marketers, who themselves don’t like being sold to, seem to think other people aren’t like them. They just charge right in asking a question that they know they don’t want the honest answer to. They force an answer before we have a chance to even consider their offering.

Even as I’m writing this, I just received an e-mail ad with the subject line: “We haven’t heard from you lately, what’s wrong?” Nothing’s wrong, Bucky; now go away. The first line of this e-mail put me on the spot by asking why I hadn’t clicked on any of their recent e-mails lately (or, in my case, never). “No. No. No. Go away.” I felt like shouting. Did the poor guy who is responsible for this e-mail marketing think this approach would work? That starting off defensively, negatively, would somehow win me over? It’s like a person whom you work with asking, “How come you never want to go out with me?”

Never Ask a Question

Years ago, when I was in art school taking an advertising class from one of the industry’s great copywriters, he told us a maxim: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask a question in an ad. Even if it’s a rhetorical question. The reason is that the person reading or hearing the question will, in their mind, automatically answer it.  And, more often than not, the answer is “no.”  He pointed out, that once they’ve said “no”, even to themselves, they’ll shut you out. “No” is the most negative of responses. And people don’t like saying no. It makes them feel negative. I even felt bad sending that e-mail I just got to the spam bin. I feel like I just cost that poor guy a commission, or his job. I’m an awful person. A monster. And I hate that guy for making me feel that way. I want him to die. And now I even feel worse about myself. I’m a seething mass of negativity. And I have to lie down now.


I’m okay now.

But I’d go further than the No Questions Maxim. I’d advise you never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask for the sale anywhere in an ad, not even at the end. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a CTA (call-to-action) in it . It’s okay to let people know what you’d like people to do after they read the ad; go to this URL for more info, think about us next time, ask your doctor, etc. But it shouldn’t be to ask them to make a decision about whether or not they’ll buy. Leave that open. Because once you’ve forced the decision, that’s it. Once they’ve said no, heard themselves say no, they imprint that in their memory and condemn you and your low-priced catheters to the spam bin forever. So don’t ask.

Besides. They know you’re trying to sell them something. It’s an ad, for crying out loud! Just don’t sully the mood by asking them to part with money out in the open.

Why Crowd Sourcing Is a Terrible Idea

Boaty McBoatface
Toot! Toot! All aboard for the wackiest cruise this side of fun!

RRS Boaty McBoatface. That’s what you get when you ask the public what they think about naming an arctic research vessel in the U.K. This was the facetious name that won overwhelmingly in an online poll. But what did the organizers expect? Did they think the public would put their wise minds together and somehow arrive at a respectable, inspired name like RRS Borealis? Or RRS Shacketon? (Okay, an ANTarctic explorer, but a name with gravitas.) The most responsible name voted for was RRS David Attenborough but it only won 11,023 votes to RRS Boaty McBoatface‘s 124,109. The Minister for Stopping Silly Names in the U.K. just ruled that BMcB was “not suitable” for a ship’s name and cancelled the whole thing.

But now they face a problem. My dad used to say that once you ask for someone’s opinion, you’re bound by the answer. And by making such a sanctimonious deal about the democratic process of this exercise, those responsible are going to piss off a lot of people (124,109 people at least). Why ask them in the first place? (Which is probably what they thought as they voted overwhelmingly for Boaty.) But this is just one of the problems with the misguided myth of crowd-sourcing. The other is the mood of the contestants.

The Public knew what they were doing.

The Boaty public were not idiots, though Lady Poppy Smythe-Binkieton of the Ministry probably thought they were (not her actual name; there’s another contest for that). They were actually voicing their opinion of the whole trivial, pandering exercise itself. “Boaty McBoatface” actually translates as “Name it yourself, bozos. We don’t care. It’s a f***in’ boat.” It’s sort of like the ridiculous primary process in the U.S. this year ending up with the most asinine candidates. It’s not that people are idiots when they support reality show clowns for president, it’s just their way of saying to the powers that be (or thought they were), “FU. You asked us our opinion last time and ignored it. So here’s our six foot, orange, middle finger with a bad comb-over.”

Oregon plate
You can’t tell what is going on in this house salad unless you’re close enough to replace the expiration stickers.

We had a similar crowd-sourcing fiasco several years ago here in Oregon when the Department of Motor Vehicles held a state-wide contest to redesign the new license plates. They got so many thousands of entries from professional graphic designers that the three-person board assigned to review and judge them was overwhelmed and arbitrarily announced it was only going to look at the last few submitted. This insulted those thousands of people who thought they were participating in an honest competition and had gotten their entries in early. And when the panel (consisting of a state legislator, an employee of the DMV, and a state police officer) picked the winner, they so altered the design that the “winner” disavowed that it was hers. So Oregon now has one of the butt-ugliest license plates of the 50 states. (They went on to add more, equally hideous options over the years.)

Infinite Monkeys

The whole theory behind crowd sourcing, at least in creativity, is that when you chain an infinite number of monkeys to an infinite bank of keyboards, one of them is bound to write King Lear. Nice in theory. But in reality, what you’re going to get from those infinite monkeys is an infinite amount of poo-slinging.  Otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Grey.

Crowd sourcing for creative ideas doesn’t work. One reason  is that the participants think whoever is running it must be incompetent to judge, and so they have no respect for the process. You end up with disingenuous submissions at best, or outright sarcasm at worst (like Boaty McBoatface). The result is not just a committee-designed horse turned into a camel; it turns into Cthulhu.

The other reason crowd sourcing creativity doesn’t work lies in how the winners are decided. If you announce that the winner will be decided democratically, by vote, you either get the most bland name possible (as Eric Hoffer said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”) or, if they are in the mood, something shocking and silly. And then you’re bound by the outcome of the election.

If, on the other hand,  the winner of the competition is selected by the decision of a panel, even if the contestants were sincere and diligent, the judges on the receiving end most likely have no talent, credentials, or imagination themselves to competently pick the best entry.

How do we know this? Because it was their brilliant idea to crowd source the thing in the first place.

The 9 Rules of a Bad Creative Director

kingkong on empire state buildingThey say that even terrible people can serve a purpose, and that purpose, obviously, is to be the opposite of them. These people are anti-models. So I want to enumerate my rules on how to be a bad creative director, so you won’t be one yourself (should you find yourself in that office). Or, should you find yourself working for one, you’ll get out of there now. These rules should also help heads of agencies who have bad CDs working for them to recognize the symptoms and rectify it–with extreme prejudice.

But before you dive into these rules, know this: I’ve obeyed every one at some point in my life. To my shame. Just ask the broken souls who have worked for me. But I did learn. (I hope I learned.) So, see? There’s hope.

Anyway, here are the rules for being a bad creative director:

1. Fire everybody and hire your friends.

I’ve seen this breed of CD a lot.  This is the guy who, when hired from out of town to take over leadership of a creative department, proceeds to spend the next few months laying off the existing staff, one by one, like a dripping water torture, and bringing in old buddies from his last shop. This is extremely bad juju. Not only does it destroy morale of whoever is left, and therefore erodes creative productivity, it sets you up as corrupt, nepotistic jerk, a reputation that will stick to your GlassDoor profile like Crazy Glue.

Full confession: I’ve hired old friends myself. It’s hard not to, at least if they are good at their jobs and highly creative. Some great directors always use the same crew in making their movies. And that’s okay. A good team is worth preserving. But if that comes at the expense of chucking the staff of your new agency overboard,  it’s just a dick move. So only do it if you’re so busy that you have to build on an existing creative department that’s overworked. Which is what I tried to do.

2. Hold creative competitions.

The industry term for this is a “clusterf***”.  This usually happens with a new business pitch, when it’s all hands on deck and the agency is in panic mode. But since it’s never a fair competition–the “winning” idea is judged by you–it tends to drain morale. As your teams line up to your office to present you with their concepts, they feel like the biplanes trying to shoot down King Kong off of the Empire State Building. And if you’ve hired your friends (see Rule 1), all those who aren’t from your entourage feel like it’s rigged, and won’t give you their best. If you try to correct for this and award the winner to the legacy team, you’ll just piss off your friends, and you’ll worry about letting personal feelings cloud your creative judgment. Of course, you can fool yourself into thinking that that would never happen, that you’re completely objective, but–well–see Rule 5 below.

3. Have mass brainstorming sessions.

Creative meetings where everybody in the department (and the account executives too!) all hole up together to brainstorm ideas are the tell of a CD who hasn’t got a clue how creativity works. In the real world the muse comes for each art director or writer in their own way, using their own idiomatic techniques. Sitting for hours in a stuffy meeting room while an enthusiastic CD stands in front of a white board writing down ideas that are tossed up is usually on the bottom of that list of techniques. This method of idea formation works really well in Congress, but never in a creative department. (I’m being sarcastic, in case you can’t tell.)

4. Hog all the juicy assignments for yourself.

If you’re a creative director, and you work in an adequately staffed department, you have to get out of the trenches. Being a creative director is not just being a souped-up art director or writer. It’s being a leader. It is way too tempting to reserve the sexiest projects for yourself. But dole out the assignments and accounts fairly and evenly. Assuming you have hired really talented, skilled people, let them do their jobs. Trust them. And they’ll give your their best.  Hell, they’ll stay late working on their best because they’ll feel ownership in their work.

5. Convince yourself that you have creative objectivity.

Really bad CDs talk themselves into this trap all the time; believing that their judgment in creative concepts is completely objective and that it’s simply the “best” idea that will win. And yet, somehow, the same golden team just keeps winning the competition time after time, even when the rest of the department thinks their ideas are crap. When I was starting out, I worked for this guy who was committed to the whole creative competition thing, believing that competition brought out the best in people.  He had a little speech at the kickoff for each gladiatorial tournament, “This isn’t about favorites. It’s about the best idea. The best idea will stand out.” Then guess which “team’s” concept would always have the “best idea.” Go ahead, bet you can’t guess.

But if you’re a CD and admit to yourself that you’re human, and not objective even in your creative judgment, you’ll be able to avoid that trap. Just keep telling yourself that you have bias. Or that you like Kyle and Chad’s ideas because you guys go way back to when they worked for you at McCann.

6. Write long, rambling creative briefs with pages of irrelevant information.

Depending on the ad agency, the person whose job it is to actually write the creative brief might vary. In some agencies the creative director or creative group head does it. In others, it’s the account executive. In  more enlightened shops it’s the account planner. It doesn’t matter; bad creative directors don’t pay attention to this brief anyway. They don’t even read them. (Who’s got time to read?) But if you come on board as an agency’s new CD, one of the first things you should do is look at and fine tune whatever they’ve been using as a creative brief format.

The criteria for a good creative brief are to be found hidden in its two descriptive words, “creative” and “brief.” Make sure it’s written with information that’s useful to the creative team. And make sure it’s brief; try for one page. But you should put together a format that anyone can fill out. That’s your first job. Day one.

(For reference on what a useful creative brief format looks like, you can use one I’ve lifted for years).

7. Micromanage your staff.

This is most frequently a fault of CDs who started off their careers as art directors, or worse, graphic designers. While taste and appropriateness in art direction are certainly important, leave those calls to the art directors who are working for you. Make sure you’ve got good ones.  But don’t hold their wrists for them. Show them respect. Art direction or copywriting are not your job anymore. Unless, of course, your staff is so overworked that you need to pitch in, too. But make sure it’s “too” and not “instead.”

This is not to say that one of your jobs isn’t to mentor, or even just train young, inexperienced talent. But as a manager, you have to judge whether you have time for that, or whether you should put a neophyte under the wing of a more senior art director or writer. In doing that, you also mentor your more senior talent for their own leadership development.

8. Keep your mind closed.

Just because you can’t categorize an idea that’s presented to you, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. I once knew a creative director who used to say, “If it’s so original, how come I’ve never seen it before?” (To be fair, he only said it once–after we all laughed.) He also used to tell us, “The best idea is never the first one.” Good warning. So we’d always keep our best concepts to show him last.

Bad creative directors are always looking for concepts that are derivative of something they’ve seen. It’s like they have no imagination. Which begs the question, how did they ever become a creative director?

I have to say that this rule is the hardest to break. It is so tempting to look for the familiar or to imitate an old concept that’s somehow due for a revival. It’s probably why King Kong has been remade so many times.

9. Keep your door closed.

If you work in one of those old fashioned agencies with offices (at least for the officers), and if you want to be a bad creative director, be sure to stay unavailable. Keep that door closed.

If, on the other hand, you want to try to be a good CD, the only time you should close your door is when you’re changing into your superhero costume. Or you’re firing someone. Otherwise make yourself available all the time. In fact, don’t wait for them to come to you; circulate, look in on what people are doing, stay accessible to your team.

That same CD I once worked for in my youth (I’m not going to tell you who, they might still be alive and possibly reading my blog) made us a speech when he came on board, telling us his door was always open. Then he walked into his corner office and shut his door. Literally. It was always closed. And he used his administrative assistant to block access.

Was he a bad creative director? I wasn’t saying that.

Eeeeew! The Risks of a Spokesperson

Jared Fogle pants
“Hey, you know what? I’ll bet two people could probably fit into these jeans.”

When your whole brand becomes identified with a famous personality, it’s sort of like getting married to someone with a secret STD. Case in point: Jared Fogle, Subway’s spokesbeing for the past five years. Looks like he was just sentenced to over 15 years for trafficking in child pornography and having sex with underage prostitutes, plus a stiff six-figure fine.  Oops. Apparently he had been doing this for years without Subway ever knowing it…apparently. Now, whenever you go into a Subway and watch the underage employee cheerfully assemble your sandwich, you’re going to think, “Eeeeeew!”

This is the trouble with attaching your brand to a celebrity spokesentity. Companies like Nike and Gillette have long been aware of this and yet, like addicts, continue to get hitched with athletes who end up getting caught abusing their wives, their dogs, their kids, random women, or just blurting out offensive things in public. There’s a whole industry of the law involved in bad-behavior indemnity on such endorsement contracts. I’m betting that Jell-O is internally cringing at all of those years they had Bill Cosby as their pitchman, and so relieved they retired him some time ago.

The spokesperson doesn’t even have to be an outside celebrity; they can be the boss. Companies like American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, Carl’s Jr., Chik-fil-A, or Trump expose their brands to embarrassment when their self-pitching CEOs start acting like asses in public. They become boycott bait. To be fair, it’s not just male bosses; Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley, the late hotel queen, also Titanicked their brands when they behaved badly (though Stewart has served her time, repented, and somewhat recovered her company’s brand image).

The risk is that human beings–particularly celebrities–are frail. They succumb to temptation at some point in their lives. And when they are raised onto pedestals or inflated with financial success, like Jared Fogle was, that temptation becomes too overwhelming to resist. And then they become liabilities. Euripides and Shakespeare wrote way too many plays based on that cautionary theme of hubris.

Seriously. Next time you’re tempted to sign a celebrity spokesman, watch this movie.

And when you hire somebody, like a Jared Fogle, or a Bill Cosby, or a Lamar Odom, or a Sarah Palin to flog your product, maybe hire a private dick first and look into them a little more closely. Don’t just get all googly-eyed and hand them a contract on the first meeting. Didn’t you see Frozen?

I think the lesson I’m trying to teach, in my pompous, know-it-all way, is that rather than taking the seemingly easy route and hiring a celebrity spokesperson to represent your brand, concentrate more on what your brand stands for and make that thought the symbol. Really successful brands do that.

Or, if you’re really feeling the need for a spokesman, make it an imaginary one, like Jack of Jack-in-the-Box, or Tony the Tiger, or Betty Crocker, or The Michelin Man. Then you can control him, Or her. Or it. Then if it’s a self-important, condescending jerk, like the Geico lizard, it’s your fault. At least the lizard isn’t going to get arrested for slurping Jell-O shots out of the bellybutton of an underage naked mole rat. Eeeeew!

I shall leave you with that nightmare image.