Actually, There is Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

By December 13, 2016Creative, Strategy
there's no such thing as bad publicity

Walz Tetrick’s Creative Director on “Badvertising”

A long time ago, a famous show biz icon named George Cohan said, “I don’t care what you say about me, as long as you say something about me, and as long as you spell my name right.” In terms of branding, those were simpler times. Consumers didn’t have as many choices in the early 20th century, and about the only thing that ever went viral was the flu. Still, it must have worked because the quote was later attributed to a long list of pretty good self-marketers, including P.T. Barnum, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Mae West, Mark Twain and even Harry Truman. P.T. Barnum went on to put his own spin on the idea when he said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Today, it seems a lot of advertisers still believe that just getting your name out there is enough, even if that name has a load of stink attached to it. We know this because every day, we see and hear advertising that is undeniably bad. Sometimes, it’s accidentally bad. But in many cases, it’s intentionally bad.

I call this “badvertising.”

Badvertising can appear in any form. It’s the billboard with 50 words of copy, phone number, web address, prices and store hours. It’s the radio spot using the same jingle that people have openly hated for 50 years, or the conversation between two people talking about their mild-to-severe diarrhea. It’s the TV spot featuring the owner of the company or, even worse, the owner’s children.

Often, badvertisers justify their deeds with the excuse of low budgets. OK, I’ll grant that lack of production money is often a factor. But the truth is, big ideas don’t always require big budgets. And plenty of badvertising has been created by national advertisers with million-dollar coffers. Maybe you’re familiar with some.

Have you ever heard the American Family Insurance jingle? Of course you have. Every ad they’ve done for generations ends with that sappy sing-out. So, what’s wrong with that? Well, time was, the insurance industry was a hotbed of calm sameness. It was all about personal service and happy endings. And if you got lucky, there was a photo of a smiling local agent ready to serve your insurance needs. But then along came GEICO and Progressive and AFLAC, who changed the very nature of insurance marketing with something called “humor.”

Eventually, State Farm and even the good hands people at Allstate joined the creative scrum. But not American Family. No, they’re still stubbornly clinging to that damned jingle, refusing to appeal to anyone under 70. Their rationale, I’m certain, is that everyone knows that song. You can sing along even when they use the instrumental version. It gets stuck in your head. Again, what’s wrong with that? It’s reinforcing the brand, right? It’s differentiating them from the crowd. All true. But when you do that in a way that makes people change the channel to get away from it, you’re doing more harm than good.

On the other side of the sappy insurance jingle coin is Nationwide. You just have to read the name and you can hear the song. “Nation-wide-is-on-your-side.” A real skin-crawler. HOWEVER, they put a twist on it. Now when we hear the tune, we sing, “Chicken parm, you taste so good.” When packaged with the self-deprecating charm of Peyton Manning, it becomes acceptable. Take notes, AmFam.

Of course, national advertisers are far less prone to badvertising than the local guys. As budgets drop, agencies and their clients (and clients who don’t have agencies) try harder and harder to stand out from the crowd. The more outrageous, the better. Through that lens, dumb ideas seem brilliant. When the ads appear in newspapers and billboards and on talk radio and TV morning shows, viewers can’t change the channel fast enough. And badvertisers fall back on that familiar saying, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

But these days, bad publicity really is bad for brands. And ultimately, that’s bad for sales. Consumers (and it’s not just Millennials) want to do business with brands they like. There are too many other options out there to buy from a company that offends you with tasteless jokes. Or has a spokesperson who turns out to be a pedophile. Or just produces ads that grate on your nerves.

Chances are, you haven’t heard of Mike’s Golf Shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee. But a lot of people have. Despite nearly 700,000 views on YouTube, Mike’s intentionally awful TV spot hasn’t resulted in any significant sales increase. Why is that? Because it’s annoying as hell.

In Texas, a company called Miracle Mattress ran a 9/11 mattress sale ad that must have seemed like a pretty good idea after a fifth of Jack Daniels. The predictably offensive ad caused such an uproar that the store’s only move was shutting down permanently.

Not all badvertising is so blatantly horrid. Sometimes, a bad ad is just a couple of copy edits or design tweaks away from being acceptable. But that doesn’t necessarily make it good. You see, most advertising simply goes unnoticed. It’s what we call “nonvertising.” And isn’t nonvertising worse than badvertising? Maybe. The thing is, if you want to get your ad noticed, risk is often part of the equation. The trick is knowing where the line is and taking care not to step over it. As David St. Hubbins famously said, “There’s a fine line between stupid and clever.”

I could find plenty of goodvertising examples done on behalf of clients with tiny budgets. That’s the beauty of a thriving ad community like Kansas City. Lots of good agencies doing great work for a huge variety of clients. My hat goes off to those who rise above their budget woes to create something great.

We’re all striving to achieve a common goal: Get noticed, but for the right reasons. And that’s always going to hinge on strategic thinking, bold creativity, fearless originality and financial resourcefulness. Because that’s how you make the kind of emotional connection that turns a prospect into a customer.

Inspired by relentless curiosity and fearless originality, Jeff Chase leads the creative movement at WTA. He believes in making powerful emotional connections to build long-term brand relationships. With more than 25 years as a writer and creative director, Jeff’s work has enhanced loyalty, stimulated response and won awards across every conceivable advertising medium.