To earn trust, brands need to stop horsing around
A view from Ian Darby

To earn trust, brands need to stop horsing around

It's high time that serious advertisers stopped goofing about. The horsemeat and Oscar Pistorius gags weighed heavy on social media channels last week and exposed the more tedious among their audience.

With all number of tremulous creative directors and strategy types gagging to press the button on tactical ads that exploit this groundswell, the result was some tawdry stuff that does the brands involved, and the wider ad community, no favours at all.

Which is a shame because advertising had pretty much answered its case as a morally neutral, well-regulated discipline when farming bodies united to fund a campaign to affirm their "buy British" message with the strapline: "Quality assured. Now more than ever, it’s important to know that the meat that you’re buying comes from a trusted source." Soft-drinks companies and the Advertising Association had also impressed with their mature response to some rather shrill and pompous hectoring from the medical profession.

Coincidentally, Pablo Larraín’s well-reviewed film No is winning over many critics of advertising’s contribution to society by highlighting the role that classic branding techniques played in toppling a dictator.

There’s always one idiot who will spoil it, though. Or several, in this case. Step forward Virgin Media, Game and Mini. A trio, two of which are so-called big-brand, responsible advertisers, that chose to run tactical ads making capital out of the horsemeat scandal. Contrast the simple confidence of the farmers’ ad line with the tone of Mini’s print piss-take, created by Iris: "Beef. With a lot of horses hidden in it."

This seemed crass and forced and not in keeping with previous work we’ve seen for Mini. It’s fine for a brand such as Paddy Power, built on cheek and stunt activity, to hold horsemeat burger sales in Dublin shopping centres, but bandwagon-hoppers with more established brands should shy away from this sort of activity.

Why should people trust advertising when brands and their agencies distort their concerns into trite gags?

Such tactical stunts affirm everything the critics decry when they attack the advertising business. Showing it to be an apparently glib, opportunistic and unthinking sector. Why should people trust advertising when brands and their agencies are so intent on holding a mirror back to them that distorts their concerns into trite gags? I’m not sure they should.

More importantly, it’s hard to imagine any of the brands I mentioned above have done themselves any good, even in the short term. The underlying worry is that advertising is following journalism in responding sheep-like to Twitter and its ilk. If the Tweets-per-minute rate on a news event is high, then agencies are leaping to the conclusion that they must bash out a tactical ad. This is starting to leave a bad taste in the mouth.