Every four years a glut of highly paid professionals gather together to unite the world, hammer their opposition and prove to everyone that their team is number one. These teams are ad agencies, and their tournament will be well underway by the time Russia has kicked a ball in the general direction of Saudi Arabia on the 14th June.
The World Cup is adland’s Valhalla – a heaven of high fees, even bigger media spends and lofty aspirations of greatness. Like their pig skin plundering counterparts in the field, history is littered with the corpses of the nearly men, lying prostrate at the feet of the gods.
For every Pele, there is something as stunning as Nike’s "Write the Future" campaign. And then you’ll stumble over the clawing corpse of Joe Hart, erstwhile England keeper, late of this parish. He not only fumbled a Head & Shoulders ad in 2014 but he palmed a Doritos campaign in the general direction of the net and was nutmegged by a Vauxhall car spot, too. Poor Joe.
The cream and the drivel
But all is not lost in a World Cup year. He might yet be offered a Pepsi contract – and they can save anything, even their terminal second place to their cola giant rivals. You’ll struggle find anything as wonderfully uplifting (and baffling) as the Pepsi "Oktoberfest" ad from Germany 2006.
As with everything in life, however, the cream floats to the top leaving a murky curd of ill-conceived advertising drivel in its wake. Twin that with irrational media spends, shareholder pressure and a general hype vacuum of over exuberance and you’ve got what amounts to an advertising tournament being played in tandem with some errant ball dribbling.
Bad World Cup ads are as predictable as a Gary Neville platitude, so to help you spot the dogs from the diamonds, here’s what’s likely to be turning up for Russia 2018:
Being realistic, the hallmark ads will come from the stable of Nike or Adidas. They spend big and they spend well, and being actual sports brands they can legitimately feature the greats of the current game without looking desperate. Nike will likely feature the hairier Ronaldo, the greatest player in history (over 5 foot 8) doing something epic while resembling a slightly concerned Action Man. Adidas, meanwhile, will probably go for a more moody, team-based effort. Both will be brilliant, both will win awards and plaudits, neither will be anything we haven’t seen before. They’re almost clichés in their own greatness with "rinse and repeat every four years" instructions on the label, but I s’pose if it ain’t broke…
The Tone Deaf
A lot has happened since the last World Cup in Brazil. Globally, women’s rights have been rightfully (if very belatedly) high on the agenda, latterly manifested through the #MeToo movement and it seems likely that this social media friendly hashtag will unfortunately prompt at least a couple of brands to leap on the feminist bandwagon.
It’s a tricky issue to support legitimately through advertising and unless your brand positioning is appropriate, it’ll likely end in teeth-sucking failure. That doesn’t mean some brands won’t give it a go, so expect women’s football teams doing something empowering while fuelled by something powerful.
If anything, the inevitable backlash should be a fairly impressive firestorm to witness.
The ‘Designed by Committee’
You know the one – all the money in the world and that’s the best they could come up with. It’s usually Ford or Hyundai/Kia - but at least they have the stones to back the game in the off season.
For any other car brand with a World Cup ad it’s going to be business as usual. High production values, little or no engaging story and a football or stadium image slapped onto the background in post. Turgid, dull and irrelevant - but being car ads they’ll be no worse than the putrid crap we have to sit through for the other 3.9 years in the cycle.
The Official Sponsor
FIFA’s brand protection guidelines are a wonder to behold.
Those guys take IP pretty seriously, meaning those that hand over the requisite coin to become Official FIFA™ WORLD CUP® Partners™ Russia 2018© can at least relax in the knowledge that FIFA will protect their interests, Sadly, the big global players such as McDonalds, VISA, Hyundai/Kia Motors and Gazprom (I know, right?!) spank all their cash on the rights - leaving precious little space for any actual creative advertising. Expect big logos, big stars and big headlines featuring the words the rest of us aren’t allowed to use™ - and very little else.
"Yee Haaa British kin folk! It's World Series Cup time." Bud is backing up its long-term hugely under-appreciated support of the beautiful game (if not the beautiful planet) with eight million beer cups that light up when they hear a noise. So far, so Bud. Promoted via a drone invasion ad, this is just pure cash cow hyperbole, but kind of wonderful in its own "devil may care" way.
Bud has laid out its stall – they are the beer of soccerball. Where others are just "probably", Bud is definitely "the King of beer soccer spenders" - and in 2018 they want everyone to know it.
The Gambling Ad
I ought to be careful here as this is my bread-basket of potential clients, however it’s such a rich seam of crapidity I simply can’t ignore them.
All World Cup gambling ads are the same.
Seriously, even with a cursory look, they are.
Once you skim off the colours and the generic former player’s face, they come down to one of two things:- a welcome bonus acquisition offer (with extraordinary play through redemption requirements that all but 1% of customers will fail to qualify for) or odds boosts – the kind that offer you 50 to 1 on Brazil beating Burkina Faso (except once you read the Ts & Cs in 0.04-sized font you’ll see you can only bet a quid and you can collect your winnings in Malaysian Ringgit in 2084).
Bet Stars has gone for the "Ludicrous Prize" route. Open to anyone over 18, they’re offering an oligarch pant-wetting £100m if you can pick the winner of every World Cup match. Promoted with a very costly media spend and fronted by one Frederick Flintoff, this is a post-GDPR exercise in collecting new registered players. If not immediately, they’ll gather the data of others who have to opt in to enter the competition.
There are a total of 64 matches played in 12 venues located in 11 cities this summer. Even if every match had odds of 2 to 1 (they won’t) and ignoring draws you bet £1 on each, doubling your money with each win that comes to a hell of a lot more than a hundred million. Now, I’m no Stephen Hawking, but luckily there is a famous maths problem that shows just how little chance there will be of Bet Stars having to pay a penny to anyone:
A subject who does a favour for his queen. The queen asks how she can reward her subject; she is asked to place one grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, two grains of rice on the second square, and so on for all the squares. How much rice will the subject receive?
There are 8 x 8 = 64 squares on a chessboard, so here we have the equivalent of doubling pennies for 64 days. The subject receives 2^64 - 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.
That’s odds against anyone winning a hundred million are eighteen quintillion, four hundred forty-six quadrillion, seven hundred forty-four trillion, seventy-three billion, seven hundred nine million, five hundred fifty-one thousand, six hundred and fifteen to one, or about the same as José Mourinho ever admitting he’s wrong. I’d suggest buying a scratch card instead. (Caveat alert - there are a billion ways to calculate this so my result could easily be contested!)
My perennial favourite – the brave marketing folks nurturing UK brands who, despite significant evidence to the contrary, still think that one day we’ll recapture the magic of ’66. Think Carling, think Vauxhall, think M&S. When Gareth and his lads inevitably spoon a backpass into their own net against Belgium, thus ending our nation’s chances for another four years, who’ll be there to pick up the pieces? Who will count the advertising cost of a team that is already on the morose flight to Gatwick?
When Engerland get home before the postcards (©Guy Wootton, circa 1994) who will support the supporters? The glass is half full, absurdly optimistic marketers, that’s who - they are the tournament’s true MVPs.
All that spend and with absolutely zero chance of ever seeing a successful return – that’s the measure of a truly legitimate England fan.
Harry Lang is the founder of marketing consultancy Brand Architects