Bad for DDB, Bad for Ad Shows, Just Plain Bad

How the WWF-9/11 Controversy Put the Worst Possible Spotlight on Madison Avenue

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Insensitive and simply awful creative. Lust for awards at the expense of a client. Ignorance on the part of executives about what's going on at -- and coming out of -- their own agency. Truly awful crisis management at both the local and global level.

This parade of horribles, many of which represent the worst of the agency business, marched last week on DDB's much-celebrated Brazilian agency, spiraling the creative powerhouse into a days-long crisis that could have been averted with even halfway-decent PR. The scandal began when a little-seen print ad that exploited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made on behalf of the World Wildlife Fund was outed and condemned widely on the internet. It widened when the agency denied it had anything to do with a video version that was entered in Cannes -- a claim that turned out to be a lie.

Complicit in the crisis was awards-show culture that doesn't do nearly enough to weed out scam ads, those edgy creative concoctions that get only enough media weight to qualify for the awards circuit. As tasteless and ineffective as it might have been, "Tsunami," the DDB ad in question, actually netted a so-called "merit award" in the prestigious One Show this year. That award was withdrawn during last week's outcry, which sparked the One Show board to create new rules to regulate scam ads.

According to new rules released Friday, the show will ban for three years any ad that "has run once, on late-night TV, or has only run because the agency produced a single ad and paid to run it themselves." Fake ads and people credited on them will be banned for five years. It remains to be seen whether other awards shows will follow suit and adopt more-stringent standards when it comes to eliminating these kinds of ads.

The print ad depicts dozens of planes flying toward a Manhattan with the now-fallen World Trade Center towers still standing. The copy: "The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it."

Like wildfire
The ad garnered enough blog attention to land DDB Brasil President Sergio Valente and the responsible creatives the title of "Worst People in the World" on Keith Olbermann's MSNBC show. It first appeared on the blog Ads of the World, which received the work as part of a DDB press release. Ad Age sibling Creativity also received the ad, in what was said to be a mistake, from DDB Brasil.

One of the most shocking elements of the affair was how poorly DDB, both locally and at the global level, responded to the crisis. In addition to the embarrassing mismanagement on the ground in Sao Paulo -- the office initially and almost comically denied creating the ad -- DDB's worldwide leadership was apparently caught in an end-of-summer slumber and was slow in responding to a major crisis at one of its most important agencies.

Days after the offending ad surfaced, Global CEO Chuck Brymer, whose agency works on heartland American brands such as Budweiser, McDonald's and State Farm, could muster only a short statement on behalf of an agency whose creative prowess DDB is always celebrating: "I find the advertisement offensive and insensitive and I humbly apologize on behalf of myself and the employees of DDB Worldwide."

After requests for further comment, a PR person gave another brief line: "We are taking corrective actions to ensure that future pro bono work from our offices undergo a more rigorous review."

On the agency website, and in a joint statement with WWF-Brazil, DDB Brasil apologized for the ad and attributed it to "the inexperience of some professionals on both sides, and not bad faith or disrespect toward American suffering." DDB Brasil has been the WWF's agency in Brazil for three years and has won numerous creative awards for its work for the conservation group. DDB Brasil also won Agency of the Year at Cannes this year for winning more Lions than any other agency

'Absolutely tasteless'
Given the embarrassment the situation has brought for both the ad network and the global conservation network, one wonders how an ad packed with incendiary imagery got past DDB checkpoints to make it into international award shows.

"Obviously somebody made this ad to win awards and get attention," said Bob Moore, chief creative officer at Publicis USA, when consulted on the matter. "It's absolutely tasteless. It probably was a rogue creative team trying to win awards. This desperation to win awards is getting out of control."

"This ad also shows us there is no such thing as local," he continued. "Digital distribution has made it so that everything is global. You need to be sensitive to a wider audience. But that's not the case here because they entered it into international awards shows. That's half the problem."

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Contributing: Rupal Parekh

Local ads, global fury

A roll call of local ads that drew global ire when blogs found them

MICROSOFT POLAND'S RACIAL EDIT Microsoft Poland's business website displayed a racially manipulated version of a photo from the software company's U.S. site. In the original, a black man is sitting at a conference table with an Asian man and a white woman. For the Polish site, a white man's head was pasted over the black man's. The image was condemned for its laziness -- the black man's hand is still visible in the Polish version -- and for racial insensitivity.

BURGER KING'S SACRED SNACKS Ads for the fast feeder in Spain in July depicted the Hindu goddess Lakshmi sitting on top of a ham sandwich above the banner "A snack that is sacred.", The ad, from an agency in Spain, was offensive not only because it used a deity to sell sandwiches but because many Hindus are vegetarian.

MEXICO'S ABSOLUT WORLD An Absolut vodka print ad from Teran/ TBWA in Mexico City redrew a map of Mexico to include most of the U.S. Southwest. Even though the ad ran only in Mexico, it was called racist by some Americans once blogs carried it north of the border last year.

EL PAÍS AND 9/11 Spanish newspaper El País ran an ad in 2004 showing pictures of the Manhattan skyline before and after the Sept. 11 attack with the caption "A lot can happen in a day. Imagine what can happen in three months" to promote three months of free access to elpais.com. Negative attention home and abroad forced the paper to run a page-one apology.

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