Reports that an advertisement devised for The Pitch segment of The Gruen Transfer on ABC1, where two of the advertising industry’s agencies are pitted against each other and challenged with selling the unsellable, went too far and entered the realm of poor taste, racism and discrimination come as no surprise.
Since the debut of The Gruen Transfer, one of the major opportunities for advertising agencies to get some free publicity has been The Pitch segment. Initially clever ads, that thought about the target market, and ways to communicate the message and the action, have given way to pitches that simply are going for the laugh.
Although they are sometimes funny, the disappointment is that, lately, the ads are simply self-indulgent, and demonstrate little understanding of how advertising can be used to change attitudes and behaviour. At their extreme, they have been offensive and sexist.
Obviously I recognise that the presentations on The Gruen Transfer aren’t real pitches, but it reinforces the belief that the advertising industry is a bunch of creatives, who don’t really know what makes a consumer buy a product.
One interpretation of The Pitch is that these agencies, and the people representing the agencies, are simply trying to make people like them through a gag, rather than showing that they know how to strategically present a communication to get people to behave in a particular way.
This is often the case when non-profits are given “pro-bono” advertising advice or consultancy. The agencies might take the campaign seriously, but what they often end up with are ads that don’t communicate much, or at best, don’t communicate clearly the essence of the message, the brand, or the desired action clearly enough to the target audience.
It’s not surprising that ad agencies struggle with communicating a non-profit or charity message; the essence of an organisation or cause such as Violence Against Women, or Asylum Seekers, is much more complex than your average commodity. This, combined with these causes often having multiple stakeholders and publics, mostly result on a reliance of humour, shock, or over-dramatisation – the tools of trade in advertising.
Interestingly, the advertisement that was not approved for broadcast by the ABC is confronting predominantly because there seems to be some truth behind the message, which is about prejudice coming in all shapes and sizes. With the removal of the final banner, FATPRIDE, it would not be far-fetched to see this type of naïve interpretation of a complex message on mainstream television. Keep watching the panel discussion (five men, no women) and you realise that these men, who weild so much power over how our culture is interpreted, are clearly no more than salesmen, without the skills to understand the complexity of these types of issues.
Recent debates on The Gruen Transfer about an Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASCA) advertising campaign highlighted the risks involved in confronting people with complex realities in a media that is mostly about selling commodities through entertainment and fluff. The difficulty with charities, causes, and nonprofits, is that the desired attitude or behaviour resulting from the marketing campaign is often more complex than simply going out and buying a product. This is where the advertising industry, with a focus on simple ideas and messages being communicated in 30 seconds, struggles as a communication method. It is also why a TV advertising campaign may not be the best way to communicate a message in these contexts.
Epilogue: Having watched tonight’s episode of The Gruen Transfer, it is clear that the show has “jumped the shark“. In one segment, the panel discussed the 2007 Speights beer campaign, that had a New Zealand “mate” captaining a ship with a fully working pub to Kiwi mates based in London.
One of the panelists, Brigid Taylor, sunk incredibly low (and was clearly going for the laugh) when she said that the company should have included a promotion where they found the “ultimate southern woman” to go and help out the southern blokes, “… and you choose one really hot one, and one average one, put them on the boat, and then it’s a real test of mateship. Will you do the dog, so your mate can get off with the hot chick? That’s the ultimate test.”
The show has lost its spark, and has resorted to sex, misogyny, and discrimination in its desperate need to be noticed… a bit like much of the material that comes out of the advertising industry.
How very postmodern!