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Idealog—in the ideas business

Scram scam

Dr Martens made a public apology last week over ads depicting four dead rock icons wearing its boots in heaven, after one featuring Kurt Cobain somehow came into focus in his widow’s frequently befuddled vision.

When the campaign first appeared on the Internet many were surprised that the footwear giant would capitalise on the fame of dead legends, but it turns out Dr Martens was just as surprised as anybody. These were scam ads, a long-running awards ploy where ad creatives scramble to get an ad run once so as to enter it into D&AD or Young Guns. This practice is so widespread, that when the winners are announced there is often an outcry of ‘never seen it!’—not just from the public, but from other adpeople.

But this time the agency, Saatchis London, was caught. It was fired by the Doc and, in turn, dismissed the employee it found at fault. But I’ll bet my own ad awards this fall-guy wouldn’t have produced the offending ads all by himself.

How do I know? Because three of those awards, won in my previous life as a copywriter, were scammish in nature—and I sure as hell didn’t create, produce and establish a one-time-only showing all by myself. The ads had the additional imput of (of course) my art director, but also suits, media planners and yes, even the agency PR man himself, Mr Creative Director.

In fact, CDs are known to request scam ads from creatives when their pangs of award hunger are particularly strong.

So why should the creatives take the bullet (and not the Young Guns metal kind)? And perhaps more importantly, why should scam ads exist at all?

Because what’s an ‘ad’ to the public (aside from a pain-in-the-arse Grey’s Anatomy interruption) is not just a sales pitch to a top agency. It is an opportunity to show off, win awards and bump the losers out of your way on the way out of Sky City with your armloads of metal: “shorry itsh hard to carry all thesh”.

If companies like Dr Martens and Volkswagen (remember the VW suicide bomb ad that the carmarker knew nothing about?) want to protect their public image, they should implore awards committees to make entry criteria more stringent. For example: run more than once (preferably at least a respectable ten times) and on more mainstream media than Southland TV or the CD’s mate’s shed-run radio station.

Awards committees have to make the restrictions because as long as there’s an unhealthy does of ego out there in adland, agencies won’t. And I don’t forsee the day creatives come across as humble.

     — Gena Tuffstuff

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Ironic though.
It's not exactly very Doc Martensy to make a public apology.

The funny thing about the ads is that they weren't that good, despite the fuss. The connection between Kurt Kobain or Joe Strummer once wearing DMs was pretty tenuous. I don't think the ads would have been winners of major awards anyway.

To pick up on comments about what constitutes a valid ad, times have changed. There's nothing wrong with Southland TV and I wouldn't discount a little thing called the Internet.

Some of the most 'successful' New Zealand promotions have been so-called 'ambient' media. TBWA's bungy ball promo for Adidas was conducted on one location and for a limited time. It won a number of major international awards including D&AD Gold for the energetic young creative team led by Andy Blood. Following the argument that only media that offer accreditation(discounts/rebates) to advertising agencies are [i]bone fide[/i] denies the fact that the media landscape has changed dramatically and the long-tail effect is just as real here as in other areas of the market.

Its easy to argue that scam ads are a cynical ploy. It raises doubts about the value of creative awards - to clients anyway. I'd argue that clients have always regarded agency fixations with awards with ambivolence (except when they win and get to slug down some champagne and party with the bright young things - human nature).

The ultimate protection against scam ads is that experienced senior creative people who judge them in award festivals can smell them a mile away. In most cases they won't reward someone who hasn't actually addressed a real client brief and delivered a campaign through the tribulations of selling it to a sceptical client and been hashed by film companies, photographers and any number of booby traps that spoil some of even the best ideas.

And, finally, even though advertising isn't art, at least some people are trying to push the boundaries.

But I still think the Dr Martens ads are daft.

In the ad game winning awards means more money, a car with more cup holders and an office with a better view. Why rely on clients to see the genius of your work when you can take matters into your own hands and bang out an ad that you dont need to get approved. The only way scams will stop is if agenciies stop hiring creatives that win awards for scams and that aint gonna happen.