Ad campaigns that advertising creatives dislike on principle.

March 29, 2010


“Is it something I said?”

Here’s an odd, fun topic: ad campaigns creative people hate even though they’re not necessarily that bad. Frankly, they might even be brilliant. Doesn’t matter. Something about the concept, execution or casting just makes the advertising purist go crazy. The phenomenon is not to be confused with ads we love to hate. (See my post about Progressive Insurance.)

Take the E-trade Babies campaign. Even though these spots are beloved by Americans, I’ve yet to meet an advertising creative who likes them, let alone loves them. The reason for this –at least the one I’m usually given- is that “talking babies have been done to death.”

Maybe so, but in terms of writing and sheer entertainment value the E-trade babies are hard to beat. Last year the golf-themed commercial killed with a baby coining the phrase “shank-o-potomus.” This year, the only time I laughed during the entire Super Bowl was when that baby said “Milk-a-wha?” Ironic many of the same effete creatives who rue this campaign all agree both spots are hilarious. They just don’t like them on principle. Princi-wha?

And then there’s the Aflac Duck. Not only did this silly bird put Aflac on the map it also simplified a fairly complicated supplemental insurance business. And people absolutely adore the campaign. That is, except for us hot shot creatives. We turn our collective noses up at said duck. Why exactly? It’s good advertising. Corny yes. But it does what it’s supposed to do and then some.

So what gives? Why do over-achieving campaigns like the Aflac duck and E-trade babies get so little love from the creative community? Is it something they said? I have a few theories. Maybe a lot of us secretly like these campaigns and only pretend to disdain them. Like scoffing at Billy Joel even though you know every word to Piano Man. Or could it be the popularity of these campaigns makes them too common for the adveratti to respect, sort of like American Idol or Dancing with the Stars? Are we that conceited…that insecure? Most likely.

Author’s note: Similar in strategy and concept to the E-trade campaign is Geico’s equally popular, “So easy a Caveman can do it.” Creative hot shots adore this campaign. I agree it’s a lot of fun. But substitute babies with cavemen. They’re the same damn concept! So why is one beloved and the other not?

What do you think, Gentle Reader? Can you think of any campaigns that are not up to (our) nebulous standards? Below are spots from the above-mentioned campaigns:

Etrade Baby:

Geico Caveman:

Aflac Duck (first spot ever!):

30 Responses to “Ad campaigns that advertising creatives dislike on principle.”

  1. Don’t forget the Progressive Insurance lady. I know how you feel about her!

  2. SRP said

    Dan-
    I mention the Progressive Insurance lady. But I put her in the “campaigns we love to hate,” which I think is different. On the other hand, maybe you’re right…
    D’oh!

  3. Ah, sorry…that’s what I get for reading quickly without my morning coffee.😉

  4. Gene Payne said

    It’s the same reason a lesser-known Chicago garage band hates “Fall Out Boy” or, back in the day, “Smashing Pumpkins.” Jealousy, the green-eyed monster. It’s human nature. How could someone so close to us — heck they used to play on the bill BEFORE us — become so popular with something so obvious and formulaic? If we knew the answer to that, if we could only crack that code…we’d be at the crafts service table on the set of our big budget duck spot — or onstage wailing, “Sugar, we’re goin’ down swinging” — in a heartbeat.

    • SRP said

      Gene-
      Ah, yes, schadenfreude.
      I’ve written a lot about this and its pervasiveness in the creative department.

      • Gene Payne said

        I worked with an art director in Milwaukee – a good one – who once proclaimed, “It’s not that I must succeed, it’s that others must fail.” He had no reason to fear lesser mortals, but there it was. I was amused by that philosophy, before I ever learned the Germans have a term for it. (A lot of Germans up in Milwaukee.)

  5. Matt Herrmann said

    I love this topic.

    My favorite general example of this is the entire category of jingles. They’re so powerful and beloved, and yet so disdained by anyone in advertising. If you think I’m wrong, suggest putting a jingle in an ad in your next internal meeting.

    I think it’s like any thing else that requires “expertise.” When you slide into the easy cliches, it starts making our job look easy, and we hate when people make our job look easy. Because it’s not.

    • SRP said

      Matt-

      Jingles rarely, if ever, catch a break from (us). Why?
      They remind us of what our mandate really is: to sell like hell and be a screw in the brain!
      That and they can be damn annoying.
      FYI: I’ve written at least three…

  6. It’s the same reason many comedians hate Dane Cook and the writers on the Simpsons think Family Man sucks. They believe they’re pandering to the lowest common denominator. And it’s why a lot of people believe Billy Joel is a fifth-rate Paul McCartney. There’s another factor at works here, who authors the work. I’ve met two of the people you mentioned Billy Joel and Billy Corghan–and they were both kind of assholes. So I think they take a little more heat because of their reputation. Like Kaplan Thaler or Grey who both have bad reps in the ad world. As for the Aflac campaign, it introduced the brand nicely, but the reason it recently went into review was that it didn’t really let people know it was insurance for the secondary market. Too much duck, not enough info.

  7. I think this is an instance of creatives trying to have their cake and eat it too in regards to the distinction of advertising as art vs. science.

    At cocktail parties and in casual conversation we fancy ourselves artists, people who live the life of the mind. But then when it comes to producing results, we’re all about the science, with elaborate explanations of why our exceedingly elegant concept/execution/whatever was superior to that pandering crap which was actually successful.

    Ironically, I think it’s because it’s easy to forget that tapping into the cultural zeitgeist has always been more art than science, and that sometimes there’s fairly little rhyme or reason to why the things that take off achieve such success. Just in the right place at the right time, I guess. The artist in us knows this intuitively, even if the scientist in us doesn’t want to admit it.

  8. Some will not dispute that a campaign works, but take issue with how it works. That f’ing duck did wonders for broad-based awareness, but as brother Schmidt points out, there are weaknesses in the communication so gaping you could drive Raymond Burr through them. Put another way, as an FCB Mad Man from yesteryear said, it may not sell, but you can always get attention by putting a monkey in a jockstrap. In the end, of course, it’s an opinion business.

  9. m.fazende said

    Face it. Advertising works to create brand awareness whether it’s really bad,
    or whether it’s really good.
    I think most of us just decide that we’d rather do the kind that’s really good.

  10. SRP said

    Babies, Cavemen, Ducks…
    Interesting what gets a hall pass from most creatives (Geico) and what doesn’t (Etrade).
    Aren’t they all really stupid, fun ideas that build awareness and that’s about it?

    • classic example: Vlasic pickles. I had to explain to someone that the concept of the stork was from the 1950’s lore that pregnant women craved pickles. She got that. She won’t forget that. It built ad awareness and it’s relevance is overshadowed by it’s consistency…that is the only craving in our humaness that stay’s relevant…but what do I know. I’m a consumer.

  11. brian said

    Am I the only one who likes the E-Trade babies?

    • SRP said

      Brian-
      I love E-Trade babies. Say so in the post. Yet, like I wrote, I’ve not met another creative person who gives this campaign much respect…until you!

    • tracy said

      I liked them, too. Liked. “Milka-wha?” made me crack a teeny smile but overall, this past Super Bowl, I thought the campaign just seemed exhausted.

      I wondered if, the babies had been abandoned this year (I didn’t mean that the way it sounded…oh hell…yes, on some level I did), there would’ve been an OhMyGodNoClydesdalesThisYear?!! Freakout (or low-grade disappointment). Though you can’t really put the two in the same league.

  12. Eileen said

    I like the etrade babies doesn’t mean I will use etrade but their ad is entertaining

  13. danni said

    of course it isn’t up to our standards. we’re in the middle of it all. it’s like asking a gynecologist about vaginas. i’m sure an average one would look good to any old guy, but a gynecologist might be a little pickier.

    speaking of ads a creative might not like, are those charles schwab ads by euro rscg. they just put a rotoscope filter, mixed it with ok copy, and boom, it’s a hit. according to an article in adweek people couldn’t stop looking at it. they even memorized the lines. even i can’t get that damn commercial out of my head.

    maybe that’s why we have awards. so we can strive to perfect it even further. a perfectionist in the field cares about hitting the target market, AND bringing up the standards. this is my brand, and this is what it’s doing for the world.

  14. I’ve just discovered your blog thanks to your Twitter… and thanks… I guess I’ll have some evenings focusing on reading your posts🙂

    I also like the New E-Trade Baby. Indeed, using babies as indeed been done for ages, but we used women, men, dogs, houses, etc. the point is those are just ingredients. The baby here is just a raw ingredient. The most important, the story and the way you choose to tell it can be considered as the recipe. And the story’s fun… so I consider that advertising as good Cuisine🙂

  15. Trey said

    Wasn’t the argument that popularity equates to artisitic merit demolished by the Backstreet Boys? ‘Friday the 13th Part 6’ was the top grossing movie of it’s year, but it’s writer probably skips it on his resume. Aflac is hack work because it screams the company name at you moronically. Caveman has funny and smart layers to it (the insulted minority) which engage your intelligence. The caveman ads are self aware, the duck is, well, not. LCD ads work, but who cares. If ‘working’ is all you’re in this for skip past talking ducks to Billy Mays. Your clients goods will sell. And eventually be forgotten. Much like the careers of countless Creatives who went for your ‘hey, jingles work’ argument at the expense of compelling new storytelling and communication.

  16. Trey said

    Wasn’t the argument that popularity equates to artisitic merit demolished by the Backstreet Boys? ‘Friday the 13th Part 6’ was the top grossing movie of it’s year, but it’s writer probably skips it on his resume. Aflac is hack work because it screams the company name at you moronically. Caveman has funny and smart layers to it (the insulted minority) which engage your intelligence. The caveman ads are self aware, the duck is, well, not. LCD ads work, but who cares. If ‘working’ is all you’re in this for skip past talking ducks to Billy Mays. Your clients goods will sell. And eventually be forgotten. Much like the careers of countless Creatives who went for your ‘hey, jingles work’ argument at the expense of compelling new storytelling and communication.

  17. Why make Godfather instead of the Valachi Papers? Why write Infinite Jest versus anything Jim Patterson writes? Why try to be the Beatles when you can be the Monkees? Because in the end, quality is what matters and endures. Geico will endure longer than the babies and the duck because the idea is smarter and it worked better in the marketplace than either of the other two.

    • SRP said

      Jim-
      The Valachi Papers kicked ass!
      Kidding…sort of.
      But you’re right about doing good work for the sake of doing good work. Vocational karma.

  18. Car insurance. Financial Services. Whatever the hell it is AFLAC does. These are the categories from hell. Any creatives that can come up with an attention getting way of selling these services that involves fun and no overused metaphors, corporate masturbation, borrowed-interest spokespeople or intelligence-insulting banter gets my esteemed respect. The mere fact that we (creatives) are talking about this stuff is proof of its success (truly, could the same be said of “That’s Allstate’s stand”?).

    http://www.quisenblog.com
    http://www.twitter.com/mickeylonchar

  19. Andy Webb said

    The E-trade babies rock. It’s the Geico caveman series that’s kind of lame. I’m glad to have straightened that out for everyone…

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