How to Prevent an Advertising Disaster

We’ve had a good run of ad disasters lately, haven’t we?  Nivea inadvertently flirted with white supremacy and Pepsi trivialized a century or so of nonviolent protest with the aid of a Kardashian.  Last week McDonalds UK tried to sell Filets-O-Fish (Filet-O-Fishes?) on the backs of dead dads.

After picking up their jaws, the first question most right-thinking people ask is “who the hell let this happen?”  As most ad agency vets can attest, ideas often snowball before anyone can put a stop to them.  Usually, these snowballs simply hit the side of a barn; they tend to result in campaigns or ads that made sense to a small group of people in a conference room but not in the real world.  A career-minded sort (not judging) gains nothing by voicing qualms about them.

However, when an idea has the potential to become explosively damaging, everyone has the responsibility to stand up and strongly advise restraint.  As an example, let me share the time I helped prevent an agency from re-fighting WWII.

One would think this would be hard to forget

In my very first gig as Plannerben | Anecdata, I worked with some old friends, DiMassimo Goldstein, where I spent some of my formative years.  They had asked me to help them out with a pitch for a large, Tokyo-based financial institution that planned to open a hybrid online savings bank with a few bricks-and-mortar locations staffed by people who could help customers enroll and manage accounts.

I had the task of determining how much in deposits the bank could expect based on a given marketing expenditure.  Even though I had a purely data-focused role, I attended creative meetings during the project just in case a creative idea had data implications.  Turns out that I contributed something other than data expertise.

During one meeting, DiGo’s Chief Creative Officer Tom Christmann, thankfully a fellow alumnus of mid-90s Kirshenbaum Bond Partners, presented some creative explorations.  Everything seemed OK until he introduced one concept in particular.

“The thing about this brand,” he said, “is that it’s a bank that’s not a bank.  So, I give you,” he paused to flip over a leaf on an easel-mounted flipchart, “Bank Zero.”

There was a hush.  The name sounded cool.  The visuals looked cool as hell–ultramodern interiors that could have been a branch of Chase Bank if they had built one on the space station from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

I broke the hush.

“Tom,” I said, “there is no way I’m going to let you stand in front of the Mitusbishi Corporation and suggest that they name a product ‘Zero.'”

To his everlasting credit, Tom stopped dead in his tracks.  He didn’t argue.  He didn’t try to dance around it.  He simply said “you’re right” and covered the concept board up.

I won’t pretend that nobody else would have caught a potentially embarrassing idea; I’m not here to toot my own horn.  Rather, I wanted to point out what it takes to prevent simple mistakes from metastasizing into something terrible.  Someone has to stand up and make very clear what the bad consequences of an idea might be.  And the idea owner needs to handle criticism as gracefully and thoughtfully as someone like Tom.  If “adulting” hadn’t become a cliche, I’d use that term.

Of course, I can’t tell this story without the funny postscript.

As soon as I made my point about “Zero,” everyone over 40 in the room went “oh.”  Everyone under 40 asked “what?”

Tom replied, “the Mistubishi Zero was the plane that attacked Pearl Harbor.”

All the under-40s said “oh.”  Except one, an under-25.

“What’s Pearl Harbor?” she said.

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