Scam or hoax or even worse? An award-winning “ad” blows up in everybody’s face.

September 3, 2009

How could they?

For obvious reasons, this mind-bogglingly crass “ad” for the World Wildlife Federation is getting a ton of play. The trades gave it Crispin Porter like attention, as are we in the blogosphere.

That this piece is so clearly a scam ad is beside the point. In five minutes I could pull up a hundred more just as fake. We all could. Scam ads have become the dandelions of our industry. We almost put up with them. Indeed, some of us even adore them. How else do you explain the awards they invariably get, year after year, show after show?

But not this one. This particular artifact, allegedly from DDB Brazil, has too terrible a subject matter for most of us to bear. Using blatant imagery from 9/11 is wildly inappropriate and probably (hopefully) won’t be for decades, if ever. Only the Holocaust compares.

However, I suspect it is not merely the content that riles and disturbs us but rather the way in which it was used. Nature, for all her power is not, and never will be, a murderer. Comparing the arbitrary horror of a tsunami with the man made malevolence of September 11, 2001 is…

Horrendous? Ridiculous? Absurd?

All I can say is what were they thinking? I came up with a startling conclusion: this “ad” was not created to win awards any more than it was made to build awareness for the WWF. I believe the creators made this thing to get attention. For who and why I’m not sure. But they knew it would blow up. And they knew it would blow up in September. They knew.

And for that the perpetrators are guilty of far more than scamming.

Hold on… terrorists? No, not quite. More like hate criminals.

Having proposed this theory, I don’t believe DDB (or any real agency) was responsible for condoning something like this. I’m guessing a handful of morons did it –maybe even just one or two, “acting alone,” as they say.

Of course the perpetrators will be fired…that is if they even have jobs in the first place. I suspect they don’t. Perhaps they were trying to get back at the agency for harms done to them.

So, was this scam ad a hoax? The only other explanation would be to attribute complete ignorance on the part of the creators, which, all cynicism aside, I’m having trouble accepting.

Either way, the “ad” made Keith Olbermann’s “Worst persons in the World” list, in which he actually names numerous creative staff from the agency.

\"Worst persons in the World\"

Update: Adfreak has a post featuring a series of vague explanations and partial apologies, which seem to render both agency and client culpable. I still think it was mad men acting alone!

Adfreak post: Mea culpa or mystery?

Steff on Twitter

34 Responses to “Scam or hoax or even worse? An award-winning “ad” blows up in everybody’s face.”

  1. Ignaci said

    “Having proposed this theory, I don’t believe DDB (or any real agency) was responsible for condoning something like this. I’m guessing a handful of morons did it –maybe even just one or two, “acting alone,” as they say.”

    Are you kidding? If anyone did an iota of background fact-checking on most ‘award winning’ Brazilian ads, they’d find the majority are fake, and the agencies footed the award show bill. This one is no exception.

    This horribly misguided “ad” was created to win awards, period.

    You’ve spoken out against scam before, but even when you blogged at Cannes last time, a ton of fakes were allowed to get through. You couldn’t stop it. Or the system is so broken and judges can’t even recognize it anymore. Look at the quality of the photoslop, and the ‘TV spot.’

    The One show and the ad business’s reputation is being hurt because of scam:

    The fact that they even awarded this though, is mind-blowing.

  2. SRP said

    You are right: I judged a show ripe with scams and couldn’t stop them. We threw many flags. The committee checked the submissions. The criteria was forged just like the ad.

    But this ad is different. I cannot rule out hoax, albeit a sick one.

    And new information suggests the agency and client knew. Unbelievable.

  3. Liz said

    Sometimes I think creatives get so caught up in their own underwear trying to be provocative, they completely lose sight of decency (to say nothing of strategy, or what impact their work might have on a marketer).

    Nice analysis S.

  4. bobby b said

    I thought it was a gutsy and effective idea. To put the 9/11 deaths up against the tsunami deaths, and to then see the world condemning that the 9/11 deaths could be so shamefully cheapened, is evidence of a global warping of our values and proportion.

    But it’s entertaining to see that all of the trades take their self-bestowal of awards and honoraria so seriously. The guy who got the “Honorable Mention” at last year’s “Directions and Capabilities In Municipal Wastewater Treatment Facility Design” extravaganza is still collaring people to explain how most of the winning designs could never actually be built, but were designed simply to create a porfolio.

  5. Dabitch said

    Not sure I buy the lone-creative-team theory.

  6. edstate said

    As Keith O points out “…what is the point, by the way?”

    The ad is horrible on many levels, but on it’s intended level (advertising) it’s simply a BAD AD. It makes no sense. The connection doesn’t work.

    Now, about the One Show problem, which is the larger issue here: these corrupt, self-serving money grubbers have ruined our industry for too long. And here’s how to fix it:

    1) Make absolutely sure the ad is REAL. And “running once, in the middle of the night” does not count.

    2) Any agencies/creatives caught cheating are banned from all award shows. As are any agencies the creatives may eventually migrate to. This will prevent the “profiteering” culture that currently exists.

    3) take agency’s names OFF the entries: so the “agency of the moment” doesn’t automatically win, and the little guys get a fair chance.

    Scam advertising is CHEATING, pure and simple. And we should be embarrassed we’ve tolerated it for as long as we have.

    More importantly, our agencies RIGHT NOW are being run by these cheaters. Creatives who gamed the system, entered fake work, won Lions/Pencils/etc, got big jobs… and are currently running the big agencies into the ground.

    Yay us!

  7. SRP said


    You open with a point that gets lost in all this: the ad sucks. The concept and the copy barely make sense. Even if the ad weren’t so crass I still have no idea what I’m supposed to think, feel and do.

  8. south america and the far east are bastions of fake ads. always have been. the shows want the fees and therefore make it easy for even the average third-grader to figure out ways to beat the system. there are too many shows–the clios, the andy’s, the new york festivals, to name but a few, are second-rate affairs where winning is about the same as hitting a baseball off a tee.

  9. Mandão said

    Knowing the agency philosophy (DM9DDB – Brazil) for years, as for I’m a brazilian working at the industry, not in São Paulo, but yoes, in Brazil, I can clarify some points (and they are scary):

    1-Not AT ALL a lone-creative-team job.

    2-WWS Brazil has been a DDB Brazil client (and to this point STILL is – don’t think they’ll be able to hold it much longer, though), and approved this add to run ONCE on a minor Newspaper (I don’t know how you call this, but in Brazil, we call it “ghosts”, you run an add you wouldn’t run anywhere only once somewhere no one will never see it making it eligible to prizes). Normally, the client does not pay anything for the creation of this type of add, for the agency is doing it in order to win prizes, BUT the client SEES it (WWF Brazil).

    3- The add is translated to english when submitted.

    4- Submitted work is always seen by the bosses before it is in fact submitted.

    5- Finally, funny thing, DM9DDB (DDB Brazil) was voted the AGENCY OF THE YEAR on Cannes. Most of their winning (bronze, silver or gold lions) were on “never published” (run once, small media) adds.

    This is our industry. Welcome to the jungle.

  10. Amy said

    I’m not quite sure why I’m supposed to be offended. Isn’t it true that global warming and the things HUMANS do are wreaking devastation on the planet? I agree that maybe it’s a bit shocking that they are using the 9/11 imagery… but isn’t that what advertising does? Uses our collective ethos and pathos to make a point?

    And the point, here: we are shocked and appalled when madmen take innocent lives. But that devastation occurs on a large-scale basis — hundreds of times over — by the things we do on a daily basis. Why not use one devastation to put another in context? Just because it was an act of terrorism doesn’t — in my mind — make it verboten.

  11. Alan Wolk said

    SP: The agency in question seems to have a history of this – they were, oddly enough, named “Agency of the Year” at Cannes!

    While it would be nice to think of this as the work of a rogue creative team, and while I agree with your assessment of the ad, it seems many in Brazil have a different POV.

    Check out this link (translated via Google’s translator) for a Brazilian ad blog. You’ll find our 9/11-Holocaust theory does not have a lot of takers down in Brazil:

  12. SRP said

    I agree, they are scam fanatics in South America. Partly because creative directors are treated like rock stars.

  13. Boobies said

    I don’t think the ad sucks. The strategy is pretty straightforward: Most of us here in the US are so protected and removed from the rest of the world, we don’t see how fragile the planet really is.

    9/11 and Katrina are the closest we have to the kind of destruction that’s happening elsewhere. The kind of destruction that may very well happen to all of the world if we don’t act.

    I think where the ad fails is that 9/11 is still a sacred cow for so many Americans, a feeling that many outside the US don’t share. But you can’t show an image like that here and expect your audience to be open to the message.

    I would call this a win for the agency — it struck dialog and tons of ink. But probably a lose for the brand.

    • bobsyouruncle said

      No, the ad sucks because the 2004 tsunami was not a man-made situation. It was caused by an underwater earthquake that sent a shockwave out, pushing up the sea water, causing a huge tsumani wave. The 9/11 incident was a man-made disaster. WWF touts saving wildlife habitat from the ravages of man. Therefore, the ad makes no sense.

      • Boobies said

        I’m not saying the ad is good, but it most definitely makes sense when you consider that devastation and human loss are still devastation and human loss, whether at the hands of nature or man. In fact, a lot of people would argue that today’s natural disasters are indirectly manmade.

      • Dubya said

        Are you kidding me? It was caused by an earthquake…even if we ‘respected and protected’ the planet, it would have happened.

        So all that’s left is comparing numbers of deaths of separate tragedies…THAT makes it a good ad? If you think so, you have no idea what you’re doing for a living and I’d suggest a new career.

  14. Boobies said

    The ad reminds me of that old anti-smoking ad targeting African Americans. I can’t find it online, but it showed a bunch of white-hooded KKK members at a cross-burning. One of them pulls his hood off, revealing he’s a black guy. A VO talks about the number of African American deaths from smoking; that they’re essentially killing themselves.

  15. Rey said

    Sorry guys, scam, fake or cheating aside. I´ts a good way to make the point, I don´t even see the bad taste in it, it´s NOT MAKING FUN OF THE PEOPLE WHO DIED. IT´S NOT DOWNSIZING THE TRAGEDY, but just the other way around, it takes a HORRIBLE TRAGEDY that everybody condemned to remind us that GLOBAL WARMING caused by us humans could and have been far more destructive than terrorism. It´s a WAKE UP CALL, don´t play dum on me: YOU ARE AD PEOPLE, YOU GET IT. Just because Glenn Beck condemned it, doesn´t make it a bad ad. It´s a radical criticism “as if you could use the 9/11 nightmare to make any point” IS THE TOPIC TABOO NOW???? It´s making a point to help humanity!! Please, FURTHER EXPLAIN YOUR POINT OF VIEW because I don´t get it.

    PS. I hate scams too, but that´s another topic.

  16. Mandão said

    The link brought up via Google translator from a brazilian ad blog does not reflect the thoughts of the serious professionals of the area.

    Many young “just got into (or out of) college” brazilians have this inferiority complex, thus thinking it’s fair enough to mess with a nation’s feelings as long as it is NOT Brazil, and it IS US.

    But NOT A SINGLE serious professional of the area thinks that way, for God’s sake. I hope you guys don’t get a bad impression from what’s written over there, for it gives me the creeps.

  17. SRP said

    I would accept your argument more if the ad in question had copy that made your point(s) instead of bizarre “Respect the planet’s power” dribble. Your blog post is better copy than the crap on this ad.
    PS: Why are Brazilians writing copy in English? Oh I know: to win English/American awards.
    Thank you for your comment. It is a valuable one.

  18. golublog said

    This and that new hitler ad for me are all too much. There’s controversial and there’s offensive.

  19. SRP said

    Last month’s post relative to this one. then, I wrote we are no longer capable of being appalled. I think the exception is this “ad.” here’s the previous piece:

  20. Mindy said

    I could not believe what I was looking at when I saw it. It’s offensive. It’s also just bad advertising. How do you connect a terrorist act with an act of nature? It doesn’t make sense. There is no connection here. What are they selling? The
    WWF is who will suffer. It’s a good cause that has been clouded by an ad agency looking for more gold. Sad state of affairs.

  21. Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66 said

    Lots of problems here, from the horrific execution, to the (mostly dishonest) submission, to how the backblow was (mis)handled. One small point, but especially infuriating, was the apology, which went something like, “sorry to those we might have offended.”

    Whatever happened to just plain “sorry”?

  22. Boobies said

    My definition is that if a client signs off on the ad, it’s not a scam ad.

    Walter Lürzer once wrote about how he got his start: He built ads for local businesses and posted them on telephone poles. I think he even suggested that we as creatives do the same and then submit them to Archive.

    This ad may be off-brand, and it’s obviously offensive to some, but it’s not a scam ad.

  23. Great points all, SRP, but I don’t a hoax. Just another case of ego-elephantitis. Here’s my take on it:

  24. HeresAnIdea said

    I don’t think anyone in advertising can end scam. We have to appeal to the business sense of the people it affects most adversely: the clients. Every hour a team spends doing scam (for themselves) is an hour taken from what the client has paid for. That is not just unethical, it borders on criminal. So if you care about scam and the crooks who use it to gain leverage over hard working and honest ad people everywhere, please talk to as many clients as possible about this incident. We need to get to a stage where clients should think twice before awarding any business to shops that spend most of their time and top talent servicing their own interests instead of the clients. I don’t know how it is in the US but in Asia, the regional ECD or ECD of nearly every prolific award winning agency is a proponent of scam (of course they call it a different name)…they are someone who got to that position by doing scam ads and forcing subordinate teams to do more scam for their own personal benefit (bonuses etc). Have you seen the kind of ads these agencies enter into awards? It’s ALL scam, backed by a letter from the client. After it wins, they usually run it on a bus stop somewhere….as the outdoor companies give them free space to keep them happy. Or it runs in some dirt cheap rag once. A typical scammer’s sole aim in life is to have as many people as possible make him famous so he can rise to the next level on the ladder. How can you take on such ruthless ambition and win? You can’t. The only people who can help us are the clients. So please, let’s get them on our side. And the only way to do that in this day and age is by appealing to their commercial interests.

    • Amen. You’re absolutely spot on. Unfortunately, it often turns into a logrolling situation where people who have built careers ‘scamming’ become successful and are granted the power to judge award shows and then award more scammers. The madness must stop! Let’s be adult, now attention seeking egomaniac children.

  25. As others have pointed out, this ad just doesn’t make any sense, even putting aside the use of 9/11.

    The bottom line is, if you are a scammer, you are basically admitting that you’re not talented enough creatively to win awards while playing by the rules. It’s dishonest, and it hurts our business. The reality is, it’s way harder to sell great work to clients then it is to create it in the first place.

    We need to recognize and promote people who are talented, honest, and have the ability to sell and protect great work.

    I still care about awards, but I have to say my respect for them has gone WAY down over the years as I now realize how much is scam or “barely legal.”

  26. SRP said

    I’m preparing an interesting follow-up post for next week. Just you wait…

  27. EW said

    Seriously? This is not a comparison. Holocaust is on a whole other level. Had what was depicted in the ad actually happened; hundreds of planes crashing into Manhattan, then it would compare. This was obviously what they wanted to depict in the ad. Now there are good messages that can come from using tragedies in advertising but it needs to fit the context. Comparing terrorism (whether it be Al-Qaida or Builderburg depending on your belief) to a natural disaster, especially one that has nothing to do with global warming or pollution but natural movements of plate tectonics is not wise. I get what they were trying to say “Don’t mess with the earth it is more powerful then YOU!”. It makes both parties tragedies felling used for personal or corporate gain. But using Hiroshima to promote nuclear disarmament is not that bad an idea. Though, I’m sure it would still rub some people the wrong way. Though in that case likely not the Japanese that were effected but westerners who believe it was merited and necessary to end the war. It’s all about context and who you’re speaking to.

  28. Rambo said

    Except this wasn’t a scam or barely legal ad. It was approved and ran. Just as legal as Saatchi’s Crest campaign.

    And I guarantee you that the ad made sense to the One Show judges who gave it a merit award.

  29. Anubis said

    Scam/ghost ads…translate to “the end justifies the means” such ads are not approved by clients, never got published, cause harm to the brand; all of this is committed in the name of creativity… just to sneak into award shows in the hope of winning!!! The only thing such ads win is despise from the professional advertising community and lack of respect so we are in favor of the new rules; as the industry evolves, so must the rules and regulations governing award shows without being spurred by yet another mega scandal. I had posted something on this topic in October 2008, so this incident could have been avoided If only people would wise up. here is the link

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