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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8 responses to “top 3 advertising FAILs of 2008.

  1. Nice–Press Row theme! I recognize this. Same guy did my theme (Cutline). Or maybe I have it backwards?

    Anyhoo. I think I saw the Seinfeld-Gates ad. Can’t remember though. And I don’t watch TV, so if I can’t remember an ad (and I only see about 50 a year), it means it really sucked. Or, that my memory sucks.

  2. Colin

    If these are three FAILs than the one EPIC FAIL has to be a few years back when McDonalds and some ad men completely did not get what the phrase meant and launched the “I’d hit that!” campaign without realizing that, what they were saying showing some hip 20-something smiling and a burger was, “I would f*** that burger.” To this day I still get LOLs.

    I think it was nice that Microsoft is as clueless about trendy for picking Seinfeld as they’re clueless in their software and operating systems. I mean, it sorta meshed well from the perspective both the company and the comedian are has beens and need to go away. (Actually I’d go one further, Microsuck needs to die a death, it only brings the industry to a loud sucking sound)

    Incredibly despite myself being an ad man I totally missed the Motrin thing though, upon watching the Youtube video my first thought was actually it’s a cool use of fontography and graphics through a flowing environ with interesting imagery. Kinda did it in fact from a visuals perspective. Then, upon reading the humorless dare I say clearly total bitch moms whining about the ad makes me weep for sensible mothers, logic, and the death of senses of humor everywhere. It’s not horrible, but whiny complaining mothers make it horrible, wouldn’t say it’s J&Js fault tho.

    What Claus is It only proves in desperation what ad people will do, but is it worth than when there was the breakdancing cartoon of the Colonel? In other words, maybe this year’s FAILs weren’t as bad as previous years so, as a whole, maybe advertising is getting marginally better, not that it’s saying much.

  3. Rick

    At least Microsoft’s ad campaign helped produce one very good commercial:

  4. I only saw the lamentable Seinfeld/Gates commercial, which featured Gates wiggling his butt in a parking lot. It was so accutely embarrassing I can see why they tried other formats. However nothing would make me buy MS.
    Also awful, that you didn’t mention, was the creepy Circuit City going-on-a-date with your computer. No wonder they are going out of business.

  5. insidetimshead

    LAURA: If you’re fortunate, your brain somehow suppressed it. Lucky you.

    COLIN: Yeah, ad people are not as street-savvy as they think. In the case of Seinfeld, they were taking something with currency years earlier and believing it was fried gold. Sort of like their operating systems.

    RICK: So true. A bit pathetic for Microsoft, when you think about it.

    LYNN: Yeah, there’s just something plain wrong with the Circuit City ads.

  6. Greg

    Oh, captain my captain, you totally *missed* VeeDub’s atrocious mini-van campaign with Brooke Shields. See Stuart Elliott’s “In Adversting” NY Times column, 12/1. Somebody voiced exactly what I was thinking:

    “Some of the criticism of the ads is centered on the unsavory aspects of Germany’s breeding programs during the Hitler era.”

    It sort of leads you to think of eugenics and ubermenschen, which doesn’t exactly sell mini-vans. Well, maybe Tom Cruise will buy one. As we say in our house “NAZI movies for Christmas”? “But honey”, I say, “obviously he’s a GOOD NAZI” 🙂

  7. Wow. That eluded me. No one likes a good reference to eugenics and such more than I do. And here I just thought of it as an insignificant and garden-variety bad campaign.

  8. andeeroo

    Tim: Couldn’t agree more on the Microsoft Gates cheek wiggle and the Klaus campaign. Big flops.

    Waiting to see how Whopper Virgins plays out. Can it do worse than the Creepy King?

    How about a humorous take on gift giving?

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