For those who’ve not heard, a Saatchi & Saatchi campaign for client Toyota has led to a $10m suit being filed against the ad firm and the car company, as well as various individuals connected with the campaign.
The campaign, which allowed people to sign up their friends to be ‘pranked’ with a serious of worrying emails from one of 5 colourful fictional characters, was a bungled attempt by the Saatchi suits to make the world’s most boring car company look radical. This is a textbook example of why forging the brand narrative is best left to the publicists: the creative excellence of Ad Agencies does not extend to long form narrative content.
In other words, it was a textbook example of advertising as insular and irrelevant communication. Instead of seeking to connect with any true brand narrative or profile, the Saatchi & Saatchi team betrayed their arrogance and remained convinced of their idea of what the brand needed, irrespective of what people actually wanted.
Ad folk lack understanding of the psyche of the news agenda: unlike PRs, they aren’t programmed to anticipate the downside, to work the worst case scenario into the fibre of their strategy.
Amanda Duik, the woman suing the company, was apparently targeted over a week long period with emails- genuine, for all she knew- from a football hooligan character called ‘Sebastian Bowler’, who came complete with his own S&S-created myspace profile and other web-based proofs of existence. She reckons she experienced sufficient mental distress over the terrifying period to sue for massive damages from all involved.
Those who don’t follow my thoughts closely might be surprised that I’m condemning S&S for this: what differentiates it from the kind of stunts perpetrated by myself and my influences? It’s certainly not because I’ve decided to clamber onto my high horse.
When classic Hollywood movie publicist Jim Moran placed a lion in a motel room under the name ‘TR Zan’ to promote the release of a strikingly similarly named movie, he caused a good deal more distress than S&S have here.
However, his stunt did what good PR does: it tapped into the popular conversation and interwove the brand narrative with it. It spoke of wilderness and adventure, which was exactly right at a time when movies were reflecting the increasingly adventurous spirit of the American public. It had also involved significant calculation of risk, and understood that inevitable bad press would be absorbed by the whole daring nature of the thing.
In part it’s a question of money: ad firms, arguably, have too much. Insular ad campaigns are bred when teams have the time and the resources to ponder their angles until they’re warped out of all recognition, over-thought. PRs, by contrast, are fleet footed. Their spatial awareness of the publicity landscape is second to none because careers spent responding to repeated brand events in real-time have honed their instincts and trained them never to slip up.
It also adds weight to a pet theory of mine: of communications professionals, it’s the PRs who skew furthest to the right (creative) side of the brain. Rightbrained functions, both numerical and linguistic, are much more involved with the comparative, the contextual, the pragmatic. While the leftbrain has the advantage when rigorously pursuing a clear, single minded idea, it must be difficult to wrap a leftbrained mind around an idea as mutable and intangible as a brand narrative.
While I think that Duik is probably taking this rather too seriously, her lawsuit should come as a warning to ad folk everywhere. In the modern world, the hierarchy of ideas does not flow from the comms professionals to the public. Communications must be discursive, responsive, and above all, narrative. Nobody understands this better than a good PR.