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Chief Creatives Sound Off on Scam Ads -- and What the Industry Should do About Them

John Boiler, Susan Credle and Deacon Webster Decry the Practice

By Published on . 17

Scam ad scandals just won't go away. As the recent Ford Figo fiasco out of JWT India shows, they're just getting worse, and more prevalent. In light of the incident, we've asked top agency chief creatives to weigh in on the continuing (mal)practice, and what the industry should do about it.

John Boiler, 72andSunny
To me, the ads are kinda lame. We operate in the pop culture space a lot, but these just borrow from it rather than create anything out of it. Referential of the majority opinion and operate from a cliche to make an easy gag.

I can't think of a punishment too severe for agencies who promote scam ads and pollute shows with them. It's the most disgusting manifestation of ego in our industry. Hurts clients and agencies reputations. And the ones awarded ultimately deserve, and will likely receive, the legacy of Lance Armstrong. No good for anyone, long-term or short.

John Boiler
John Boiler

How to handle? Agencies gotta sack the highest person vaguely responsible. Not just for the offending ads, but for the tolerance and perpetuation of the behavior in the agency culture. Sir Martin, maybe? Yeah, I'd start there.

Shows need to strictly enforce a zero tolerance policy. I think they should permanently ban any agency responsible for one bona fide and provable offense. It will raise their reputation, if slightly diminish [profits from] their entry fees. I wonder what they think they should do?

Susan Credle, Leo Burnett
I believe advertising and brands have the power to influence the world. The assumption is for the better. But every once in a while, we create work that can damage the world. We need to take what we do seriously. Sometimes, we are so consumed with winning awards that we forget how public our work is. With virtual sharing, work can spread even more quickly to the public. Each of us needs to ask if the work we are creating lives up not only to the brand, but to a human standard. Perhaps, we need a Hippocratic-type oath in this industry--a reminder that public communication comes with great responsibility.

Transparency. We hear that word over and over again. People want the truth. And I think people also want to forgive when they hear the truth. If we are honest when we make a human error, forgiveness often follows pretty quickly.

Susan Credle
Susan Credle

I don't really understand scam ads. The most exciting part of being in the business of advertising for me is watching work become a part of our culture. This is impossible to have happen with scam ads. A scam ad might collect a shiny object or two. A scam ad might ignorantly be celebrated in our insular community. A scam ad might make a portfolio stand out. But a scam ad will not sell a product, build a brand or, if we aim incredibly high, change the world. And that is the business we are in on our best day.

One way to handle the scam situation would be to create a Haute Couture category. Work created in a vacuum. Work free of the pressures of business. Work that doesn't have to deliver on a brief. Work that doesn't have to run. Work that represents what we dream we could do if we dared.

Deacon Webster, Walrus, NYC
Creatively, these ads are pretty terrible. Even without the political context, the notion that a large trunk will somehow contribute to the eradication of your worries metaphorical or otherwise is not exactly believable or compelling.

Couple that with the fact that it's India where women are literally getting raped by their bus drivers at the moment, and they're highly offensive on two intellectual levels. I have no understanding of what the agency's thinking was.

Scam ads have been around forever --you can spot them pretty easily. For instance, if it's supposedly a "magazine spread" and yet you notice that the vital part of the image and 90% of the type runs right up the middle of the page, where the gutter should be, it's probably fake. Real spreads avoid the gutter like the plague. Is it a transit campaign for Scrabble? It's fake. There are 50 other signs.

Deacon Webster
Deacon Webster

But here's the thing, most of the awards shows are not out to reward people for selling the realest, most widely seen campaign. They are there to reward creativity in general. They are exhibitions of "what could be" within the format of a given ad unit. The Ford ads supposedly ran, and were accompanied by tear sheets and a client letter. How do you police the fact that they probably ran once in some junky pub that nobody reads? You can't.

The Effies are excellent and don't seem to run into these issues because they're all about whether or not an idea actually worked, but that's sometimes hard to prove and again is not what shows like the One Show and Cannes are set up to showcase, minus a few specific categories. When scam ads get press like this, they do a lot to reinforce the notion that ad agencies just want to win awards, and don't actually care about their clients' business, but when you've got clients who use the Gunn report to make decisions about who to talk to about a new piece of business, it's hard to say they're not helping to perpetuate the problem.

If non-effectiveness-oriented awards shows really want to put a stop to the practice, they should create categories based on spend levels. You should be forced to produce an executed media plan that accompanies the work. That way junk like these ford ads will be relegated to the "under $15k category" along with the other 10,000 entries from Malaysia, Singapore and the like, while the really great work that was widely seen and probably required a leap of faith on the behalf of the client who put real money behind it will be free to stand above the fray and shine like it deserves to.

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