Creating scam ads. My controversial theory on who’s most guilty!

September 8, 2009

Three scam ads, conspicuously void of copy.

In the still-breaking wake of the Brazilian scam-ad fiasco I detect a story that is bound to amuse half the population of the creative department and enrage the other.

When it comes to making scam ads I think art directors are guiltier than copywriters. Easy for a copywriter to say, I know. But let’s look at the evidence, which while circumstantial, is still pretty damning. We need only go as far as the nefarious 9/11 ad.

Evil scam in more ways than one

The art direction is stunning while the concept and copy are not. These truths are self-evident: the photograph, the retouching. Even the work’s many, many detractors agree: the ad looks great.

But it’s the ad’s contempt for copy, branding and readability that make it so incriminating to the art department. You can’t read the copy and when you do it’s bad. The tiny WWF logo is about the only thing linking the work to its benefactor. In this case a mercy but the general point remains: the copy has been marginalized to the point of being virtually irrelevant.

As a copywriter, creative director, awards show judge… I see this over and over and over again. And while everyone associated with the ad is culpable, in the end the art director owns the crime.

Is this a gross generalization? Of course. But when you look at the vast majority of award-winning scam ads (and I’ve seen hundreds) they are almost all strong visually. Unless the concept is copy driven, a so-called “headline campaign,” the text (usually one sentence) is down or up and away in the ad, often set in unreadable 8 or 10-point type.

Why? You’ve heard the reasons: 1) nobody reads copy 2) copy makes work “adsy” 3) award-show judges deduct points for work that’s “adsy.” You can refute or debate these reasons but you cannot deny they aren’t real. Even if it’s subconscious, art directors feel their creation is violated by copy.

A majority of art directors study fine art, be it painting, design, photography or filmmaking. Then maybe they go to ad school. By the time an AD gets real work, he possesses an artistic sensibility. Deep down the commercialization of his ideas will always frustrate him.

While many copywriters study literature, they are less inclined to carry its ideals with them into our profession. Copywriting is more clearly a vocation than art direction. We are more comfortable calling ourselves salesmen than art directors. That’s my opinion.

What might be less obvious is the hidden power art directors have in the creation of work. Copywriters are often given credit for an ad’s conception but the art directors deliver the baby. They are the last person to touch the work. Like no one else, they control how an ad enters the world. And how it enters awards shows.

Art directors shrink the type. Art directors make the logo smaller. Art directors accept copy like the mandatory it is. They are bred to make ads beautiful. The temptation to “clean and polish” an ad before submitting it to any given award show gets the better of them. Scam ads happen.

Readers- Take above with a grain of salt. This isn’t the Mitchell Report. I was merely looking for a provocative and fresh angle in which to talk about our industry. Besides, I’ve got nothing against art directors. Some of my best friends are art directors.

Steff on Twitter


14 Responses to “Creating scam ads. My controversial theory on who’s most guilty!”

  1. Dubya said

    I see your point, and you’re right with being able to tell that these are all scam ads. Basically all those award winning Lego, Matchbox, Hot Wheels, Scrabble ads etc…Also look at the big ‘sphere action figures’ campaign that had won from Singapore a few years back. Same thing.

    But I disagree with a few aspects of your point. First, the reason so much scam looks art-director inspired, is because it’s all visual. Visual puns blew up about ten years ago at award shows and haven’t stopped – because (tired) international judges can all understand them, fast, at a show. They’re like award show crack. Makes entertaining reading of annuals too. Good ads though? Maybe some.

    Second, I don’t even separate art directors from copywriters as much any more. I know too many that do both, but only sign off on one antiquated role. Many copywriters think visually, and art directors are able to form sentences.

    Not to mention, many ad creatives now come out of a 4 year school that taught not only their practice – but marketing and strategic planning. Yet they ‘re forced to answer to newly anointed ‘planners’ who have no experience in forming ad strategies and how to make good work. It’s a mess, but a different topic altogether – the new, needed role of ‘Strategic Creatives’ to replace the old way (and streamline).

  2. Dustin said

    Great post. But, I have a few thoughts…

    Keep in mind, with all I’m saying, I’m not standing up for this ad, or the practice of creating and submitting so-called “scam ads”.

    “In this case a mercy but the general point remains: the copy has been marginalized to the point of being virtually irrelevant.”

    The copy is essential to the concept here. And its not marginalized. It may be tastefully small, but without it, you might think this is a visualization of what its like being a panda in the forest surrounded by hunters. Or some sort of confusing comparison of terrorists to poachers.

    “While many copywriters study literature, they are less inclined to carry its ideals with them into our profession. Copywriting is more clearly a vocation than art direction. We are more comfortable calling ourselves salesmen than art directors.”

    We all carry our ideals with us into this business. Over time, CW or AD, we may lose them as we become versed in the intricacies of this business, or as we move up to stations at agencies where we are truly responsible for the bottom line and become all to aware that the bottom line dictates if we keep or lose our homes.

    I do find it easier for copywriters to let go of ideas when they are killed. Its much easier to let go of something you typed up than something you spent 20 hours comping up.

    “Copywriters are often given credit for an ad’s conception but the art directors deliver the baby.”

    Here I would agree with Dubya above. I would hope the generalization doesn’t still prevail that CW’s are the thinkers and AD’s are the pixel monkeys. If the argument is “Why does it seem that copywriters end up in ECD positions more often than Art Directors?” I’d say its because they have more time to suckle the client’s teet while the AD is making the advertising. Which leads us to…

    “What might be less obvious is the hidden power art directors have in the creation of work.”

    Hidden power, or burden?

  3. Dustin said

    One other thought/question:

    Where do we draw the legal line as to what’s a scam ad?

    Did it have to run 100% “as is”, or is it a scam to shrink the logo 10%?

    Did it have to run once? Twice? Regionally? Locally?

    Did the client pay for the production of it, or did the agency?

    Was the “intent” if the ad to be entered into shows, or to sell product?

    My fear with all of this talk about rules and regulations that will supposedly eliminate scam ads is that there is no black or white. And there are many ads now that never run at all and are purely created for PR purposes and leaked to the public. I can’t say where the line is crossed. But, I’m not sure if anyone can. Look at all the PR this ad has gotten the WWF. Not saying its good, but how goes the adage “there’s no bad PR”?

  4. Atul said

    Well, I agree quite a lot of work seen at cannes or any other major awards are not meet to get business or whatever the real objective is.
    It is the theme executed in best possiable way.
    Graphic ideas are in vougue today.
    A sensable communicater has to take his own call : how much attention/efforts to be given on work that will give him recognition & change his life & how much efforts to be made to give client the best value for his money. No but the above example did’nt tigger my emotion.
    Good art direction. But over all it did’nt move me.

  5. kash said

    when those bad taste lego ads came out of china last year, suggesting that we could rebuild the world’s disasters with lego, no one really flinched, but since this is talking about something that just as tragically happened right here, suddenly we’re looking to ban and crucify people. if this ad showed iraq or vietnam or somalia would we be changing the rules? I’m not sure if we would.

  6. SRP said

    Thoughtful posts, guys. Thank you.

    You’re a badass art director. Glad you took my “accusation” the right way!

    Lego scams are oddly rampant in Adland. There’s even a website with only fake Lego ads on it.

  7. Mark Kelly said

    I think the issue here is more about the blind lust for award show gold, than about art directors versus copywriters. Sure there are art directors out there who care more about graphic appeal than sales appeal. But then there are many writers who don’t give a damn about what an ad looks like. Forgetting that garnering attention is an important sales tool. We can all point fingers, but the problem is that award shows need stricter eligibility and enforcement procedures.
    Don’t let the fake ads in. It casts a bad light on the industry.

  8. I like visual solutions just fine. In fact, I have a couple in my book. But overall, I think we’ve done the business a dis-service by minimizing the importance of copy for a generation. Much like how many art directors and designers think the fundamentals of their craft has gone downhill.

    But I think what drives the copy-less scam ads is people following the “award-winning” formula, rather than it being designer’s revenge or whatever.

    I support the scam ban, becuase creating great work is only part of what creatives do. We also have to sell great work and defend great work from batallions of revisions. Scam work is like a wide reciever running from the bench into the end zone to catch the winning touchdown.

  9. Brook said

    Me likes pretty ad. Me thinks WWF ad very provocative. Me just art director though.

  10. dustindsmith said

    This got me thinking… How do you legitimately enforce a SCAM AD BAN?

  11. Bruno said

    One thing you’re missing out on is the fact that the scam ads you and I see are not designed by a small agency to win a Silver at the Springfield Advertising Federation “Besties.” Those ads that are internationally famous were created to win international awards, where the subtleties of the copy in the original language will either not translate or almost certainly fail to impress the — also international — jury. A well-art-directed poster has a much better chance to be understood, appreciated, and ultimately awarded, than that perfectly-wordsmithed (is it a word? Now it is!) :60 radio spot originally recorded in Romanian. Is it unfair to copywriters? Maybe. But it’s easier for the Austrian judge to “get” an image of a car that’s been made to like a shark than to understand the nuances or the poetry of Spanish copy.

  12. Eugenius P. said

    Most creative were drawn to provocative work when we first got into the business. (For me, the Partnership for a Drug Free America and Children’s Defense Fund work comes to mind.) But as you get older, you realize that provocation is not the only measure of an ad and that sensationalizing a problem is not the same as solving one. Yet the provocative work continues — especially on the pro bono stuff — the creators continue to garner attention — for themselves and their agencies — and, alas, the problems do not get fixed. Maybe the simple, brutal reality is that ads — no matter how tasty and provocative and sweet looking in your book — don’t fix social problems. Period. (P.S. This is my first post. Nice job on the “Gods” blog.)

  13. SRP said

    “Sensationalizing a problem is not the same as solving one.” A very great observation, Eugenius P. Thank you for sharing it.

  14. Patrick Scullin said

    Interesting observation, but the real culprits are CDs who permit and even encourage scam ads, and those CDs who hire their creators. We have the power to stop them… Stop rewarding them!

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