I'm sure there are a ton of strong contenders for the above title, not least all those articles about how this or that is "dead" (invariably the thing in question always turns out not to be dead after all anyway). But last week's edition of Campaign served up something that could surely go in at the top of the chart.
The full article was entitled Fear and loathing in adland. For an analysis of the main article, Ben Kay's excellent post on the subject is well worth a read.
The part I'm more concerned with however, is the side bar to the article, which asks the question What is the bravest campaign of all time?
That is a hell of a question isn't it? An interesting question. I like very much that Campaign asked it. That's a big part of what Campaign should be about – asking difficult questions about advertising and looking critically at the answers.
The bravest campaign of all time. What could that conjure up? A client going out on a limb? Something so outrageous that it redefines the category that it's in? Advertising so out there that it crosses over into art? A strategic approach that defied the category norms? Advertising that shocked, stopped, moved the audience?
The question is good. Really good.
The answers are absolutely, fuckingly, gut-wrenchingly, arse-chlenchingly, awful.
Depressing as fuck. To put it mildly.
You can't blame Campaign for this, because they asked three people who should have bloody good answers; Andy Sandoz – creative partner of Work Club, Jonathan Burley, executive creative director of CHI & Partners, and David Kolbusz, deputy executive creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.
They are three powerful creative leaders, with responsibility for the creative content of millions of pounds worth of advertising, important creative figures at three of highly-regarded London ad agencies.
And what did these leading lights of the advertising industry come up with? Pot Noodle 'Slag of all snacks' and Three's 'Pony'.
I will say that again. According to three of the UK advertising industry's most influential creatives, the BRAVEST CAMPAIGNS OF ALL TIME - ALL. TIME. are Pot Noodle 'Slag of all snacks' and Three's 'Pony.
Jesus. Fucking. Wept.
Let's get this out of the way, I really like the Pot Noodle campaign, really like it.
I was flabbergasted when I read it initially. And then I though, oh fuck it, forget it. But it has stayed with me for days, and I just can't get it out of my head. Out of all the campaigns ever made, ever, three powerful creative directors picked those as the bravest campaigns.
So then I thought, be fair, maybe they were doorstepped, or just given a quick phone call and had to think of something on the spot. That happens doesn't it? Maybe they were just spur of the moment answers. So I challenged myself to think up a couple quickly that are perhaps more worthy of being considered brave.
These aren't necessarily definitive, but this is what I came up with.
United Colours Of Benetton - used the clothing brand's advertising to cover substantial issues and subjects like race, terrorism, HIV and death, featuring things like real images of death scenes, the uniform of a fallen soldier, newly-born baby, inmates on death-row.
Volkswagen 'Lemon'. Okay, easy choice, but it was the first time an advertiser spoke with brutal honesty and openness about its product. It dared to talk about cars not meeting the quality standard. Lets be honest, it ushered in a whole new way of talking for advertising in general.
Avis 'We try harder'. A company takes on the leader in the category by openly telling people that it needs to try harder to earn their custom.
Dove campaign for real beauty. A 180 degree turn from the rest of the category. Challenges the notion of beauty.
The Pepsi Challenge. Publicly, directly challenges the market's (and probably world's) biggest brand with a straight-up comparative taste test.
Like I say, probably not definitive, I reckon I could do better, but not bad for a quick stab. I would venture each is far more worthy of the title than those put forward by our learned friends.
So then I thought, what's the difference between the ones that came to my mind and the ones that infuriated me so much in the article?
And I think it probably comes down to this. The Slag of all snacks, and the Dancing Pony thing are just stylistic things, one is fun and a bit racy (although it is cut through with typical HHCL honesty) and one is a fun bit of entertainment.
But they don't have real substance, they aren't brave, really, in the true sense of the word. They might be 'out there' executionally (especially in the case of Pot Noodle). But they are fundamentally simply enjoyable bits of styling and tone. And this is depressing as a recipe for bravery in advertising.
I reluctantly agree with Dave Trott when he says the role of the creative in most agencies is largely becoming that of a stylist. And it worries me that the best that these influential creatives can come up with is a couple of ads that make you go oooh a bit. It's worryingly close to Dave's assertion.
It makes you think, if the big guns in big agencies think that these two ads represent bravery in advertising, little wonder the output of the industry is largely bland, boring and banal, style-over-substance wallpaper.