When Badvertising Isn’t

Posted 18 JuneBlog, Ideas, Trends

They got me. I admit it. I saw this ad and didn’t get the joke.

badvertising ad

In my defense, I saw the ad within the context of a coupon sheet from the Sunday newspaper inserts. You know: 45¢ off Lunchables, a limited-time offer from The Franklin Mint, a two-headed, male model slurping a tropical drink through a two-foot straw…I think I can be excused for missing the big picture.

What? Don’t you get it?

But it’s all there: the two-headed man, whose auxiliary head just happens to be a wolf’s (with an eye patch), the pineapple cup with three straws of just the appropriate lengths for a human, his lupine counterpart, and the attractive young woman resting her chin on his/their shoulder — who has managed to balance all three personal hygiene products from the Wolfthorn line in the cradle of her hand and wrist, as if Photoshopped in place from a separate tabletop shot. How clear does it have to be?

As I first stared at this curious trio, I thought I had a near-perfect example of Badvertising on my hands. I’ve been told that this maxim originated in advertising, but it can certainly be applied to almost any creative endeavor: the more hands that touch an ad, the worse it gets. I thought I saw committee design written all over this masterpiece.

Another recent example, from the world of package design (I won’t repeat the name of the brand): a bottle of salad dressing I bought the other day, whose otherwise unremarkable label came festooned with a small badge, bearing the legend, “Made With Goodness.” What could this mean? Is it an imprimatur of the quality of the ingredients or a moral assertion on behalf of the workers who piously funneled balsamic vinegar into the bottle? Or could I accurately characterize this afterthought as a trickle of flop sweat from the sales department? Would one reasonably infer that bottles lacking this official stamp were manufactured with malice aforethought? I mean…that’s why I bought it. Had nothing to do with the price.

But back to the two-headed guy. This should help put it in context for you:

Remember, this is Old Spice (via their agency Wieden+Kennedy Portland), the same people who brought you this character:

The character, perhaps best known for the campaign’s serendipitous tagline “I’m on a horse,” became the subject of a long-running campaign on YouTube, answering user questions with that same Lothario drawl.

The point is that Old Spice/Wieden + Kennedy didn’t just hatch a campaign; they birthed a persona. And they’ve stayed so true to it and kept their tongues planted so firmly in their cheeks, that a patently ridiculous ad like Wolfthorn (or its siblings Foxcrest and Hawkridge) can almost be taken seriously, instead of being correctly read as a parody. So they have it both ways: the uninitiated can indulge in some kind of aspirational upper class macho fantasy, while the cool kids share a knowing laugh, like cool kids usually do.

Designing for 100% of the audience is like fishing with an elastic net: you can cast it wider, but more fish will slip through the mesh. Which isn’t as catchy as the hand analogy, but it still beats “Made With Goodness.” Take it from the nerd who tried to make critical hay out of something he initially failed to understand.

Silverfish hand catch!

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