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top 3 advertising FAILs of 2008.

Teaching advertising the past few years means always looking out for good and bad examples to show the class. I tell them that much of the advertising out there is garbage and shouldn’t be automatically seen as examples. So just my luck that I went on teaching leave this semester to write a book, and three of the biggest advertising FAILs come down the pipeline as potential teachable moments.

Here, without further ado, are the top (bottom?) 3 advertising FAILs of 2008:

3. Revenge of the Motrin Moms. It probably seemed clever at the time, an online Motrin ad poking fun at the trend of women wearing babies in a sling and promoting the pain reliever. Many concerned mothers, however, were not amused. So they mobilized on blogs and Twitter, rallying under a #MotrinMoms hashtag, some calling for a boycott of Motrin and parent Johnson & Johnson. The company tried to end the pain with a prominent apology on its home page — a contrite use of prominent real estate — and bore the brunt of such a public pillorying.

Losers: Motrin, Johnson & Johnson. Winner: Twitter, receiving its breakout moment.

2. What Claus Is This? In the 1990s, McDonald’s tried to rebrand Ronald McDonald as all grown up to promote its new Arch Deluxe sandwich. The campaign and sandwich both bombed. Not learning history’s lessons, the new AT&T Palm Centro campaign does McD’s one worse by trying to rebrand Santa Claus as Claus, a would-be urban/urbane hipster whose life is transformed by the use of the poor man’s iPhone.

Besides the ads being embarrassingly bad, the campaign violates two tenets. First, you don’t try to rebrand an icon during an economic downturn; with banks failing and automakers looking for a public bailout, familiar and comfortable icons and institutions retain the highest value. Secondly, you DO NOT try to rebrand Santa Claus. We’ve come to accept him as a benevolent and oddly omniscient old man, not a tech-obsessed wank.

Losers: AT&T, Santa Claus, the ghost of Norman Rockwell. Winners: None.

1. Microsoft’s $100 million campaign about nothing. The buzz was Microsoft had corralled Jerry Seinfeld to launch a $100 million campaign to answer Apple’s simple but stupendously successful Hello, I’m A Mac campaign. Then the first ad came out, with Seinfeld and Bill Gates chatting in a shoe store, to a collective Huh? A second literally forgettable ad, featuring the duo as not-quite-invited houseguests or something, followed briefly. Then Seinfeld unceremoniously disappeared, replaced by a series of people you wouldn’t invite over for dinner saying I’m A PC and explaining what they did with their computers. That was apparently supplanted with too-little too-late gee-whiz paeans to Microsoft Vista/Mojave/Arch Deluxe.

Ultimately this failed on every advertising level: Neither the strategy, nor the execution, nor the branding statement were consistent or effective. The abrupt shift from the slick Seinfeld-Gates ads about nothing to DIY user testimonials was so jarring, it’s hard to even see this as one well-planned campaign. Meanwhile, the Hello I’m A Mac campaign keeps chugging along with a clear strategy, execution and branding statement.

Losers: Microsoft, Bill Gates, Jerry Seinfeld’s pitchman credentials, viewers. Winners: Microsoft haters, Apple.

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