Bill Hicks, the iconoclastic American comedian, now sadly dead, had a routine about marketing. He would ask if anyone in the audience was from marketing. Someone would answer yes.
BH: Kill yourself.
BH: There’s no punch-line. I’m serious, kill yourself.
With that routine replaying in my head, Steve Smith, the garrulous host for the evening, welcomed his particular advertising hero onto the stage, Sir John Hegarty (Sir? What did he get that for?).
A lean Mr Hegarty looked comfortable in his cardigan, jeans and sneakers and proceeded to give us, Ten reasons why this is the best time to be in advertising.
He showed us how he utilised the power of social networking and the phenomenon of viral marketing. His agency, Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty, created a You Tube ad for an alcoholic tea drink (I think it was alcoholic, the ad was not very clear on little details like that). The concept for the ad employed a familiar technique often used in comedy – the one of ‘reversal’ where a cliché is taken in the opposite direction. In this instance they applied the genre of gangster rap to rich, white, American socialites. The lyrics, delivered in the song by the socialites, described how they liked partying with this tea as if it was a class A drug. The images on screen portrayed them playing crochet and sailing.
To be fair, it was a good joke, brilliantly executed, which drew a huge round of applause from the audience. Mr Hegarty proudly boasted how popular the joke was and how it achieved a front page mention in the New York Times newspaper. What he failed to mention was if it actually sold any tea.
Another ad depicted a young couple at the bottom of a stairwell about to have sex. As they ascend the stairs these sexual stereotypes reveal to each other that they have in fact lied about their names and jobs. As they enter an apartment she reveals it’s not even her apartment. Although it is not mentioned in the ad, if we follow this stereotyping to its logical conclusion, presumably both have sexually transmitted diseases and regularly use class A drugs as well. Oh, and they wear a particular brand of jeans.
What followed next in the presentation was simply bizarre. Mr Hegarty proceeded to inform the audience that the government was one of the biggest buyers of media space in the country today. He then described, in a less confident tone, how the government was trying to correct some social evils (encouraged by whom?) by putting out its own ads. This was ‘good’ according to Mr Hegarty. Then without missing a beat he showed a Barnardo’s ad that he had proudly worked on.
This showed a young girl leaving her home and going on a sexual adventure – a bad one. It briefly described her spiral descent into the hands of unscrupulous men who lied to her and used her as a product (you see where this is going?). It was not evident from the ad if she was wearing the appropriate brand of jeans for this evil to happen to her but my best guess is that she must have been for it to happen.
The sheer hypocrisy of juxtaposing this ad with the previous one made me think that he was either totally oblivious to the moral dissonance of it or that he was having a private joke with his audience and proving to himself – once again – that the consumer really is that stupid.
It reminded me of a brilliant Viz cartoon I once saw which showed a bus with advertising on it. It said, “Smoke Fags.” Then underneath was the government health warning which said, “Don’t Smoke Fags.” It’s no wonder Mr Hegarty thought that the government advertising spend was ‘good’.
The other issue I had with the Barnardo’s ad was that it used the visual palindrome trick. The scenes from the first half of the ad were repeated but the meaning of them was effectively reversed as we become aware that the story is being told backwards. It’s a clever trick. Unfortunately for Mr Hegarty, I had seen this same trick performed a couple of times in the past on video sites (here is one of the examples). Someone in his team must have ‘borrowed’ the idea from there. Advertising has always had a reputation for plagiarism and parasitism but with the advent of You Tube, the opportunities for such vices are limitless. Equally, the opportunities to spot the plagiarism are also increased; you can run but you can’t hide.
Worse was yet to come though. Not content with advertising some of the dodgy merchandise that amoral people spew out into the marketplace, he then showed us some dodgy products that his agency had created all by themselves and put into the marketplace. Is there no limit to this man’s hubris?
In conclusion, the evening was like watching a slick, forty five minute ad. Nicely presented but underneath the speciousness it was just about a man selling stuff – any stuff. I for one, didn’t buy the hyperbole.
Don’t kill yourself Mr Hegarty but you might want to consider beating yourself up badly and reflecting on your chosen method of earning money.