James Thompson
Aug 4, 2017

Bravery in advertising is a relative concept

One of James Thompson's ads was praised for its boldness, but here's the true story.

James Thompson
James Thompson

I like it when people call me brave, mainly because it isn't true. Few people can turn greener than me at the first signs of vertigo, enclosed spaces or physical discomfort. In business, when I've placed bets on brand investments or creative ideas, it's because I believed in them based on evidence and/or excitement rather than overcoming any sense of impending career doom or embarrassment potentially involved. Courage requires the knowledge that one is facing at least one degree of peril and proceeding anyway. My response to peril is typically to indulge in some comfort eating.

Nevertheless, "brave" is one of the kind words being applied to some work our Smirnoff brand team recently placed in the New York transit system. Within four days of former FBI Director Jim Comey making bombshell statements to Congress about the Trump administration's links to Russia, and President Trump's own statement that he would be prepared to testify under oath about said links, Smirnoff posted the following copy: "Made in America. But we'd be happy to testify about our Russian heritage under oath." This caused something of a stir. It was reported in many countries and languages, appeared on both news and late-night comedy shows and had us wondering for a few days if the US president would fail to see the funny side and start to get biblical on us.

In the end, the world's most powerful government decided not to mess with the world's most popular vodka, and the calls from worried colleagues and texts from gleeful "friends" subsided—we were brave and principled, bold in judgement and fearless in purpose. As it happened, sales jumped around a bit perkily too, in a heartwarming kind of way.

But when you learn that we approved this execution some six or seven weeks before Comey's testimony, at a time when the idea seemed strategically solid and mildly topical in a fairly neutral sort of way, we don't look quite so brave. As a matter of fact, I had almost completely forgotten approving it, having done so along with a number of other ideas from our agency, 72andSunny, and I had certainly forgotten when we were going to run it. The posters went up over a weekend, and I was strolling home in the Connecticut sunshine having enjoyed a most relaxing Sunday afternoon in bibulous company when our talented brand leader started texting me excitedly about how we were "all over Reddit." I was putting his weekend enthusiasm down to sunstroke until I vaguely remembered what we'd done.

What's the lesson from all this, apart from the fact that cause and effect aren't always as close cousins as we sometimes protest? It seemed a shame to waste a topical story, but also I suggest that boldness in marketing is something other people see more often than those doing it feel. If you believe in what you're doing, based on something more than narcissistic megalomaniacal zeal, that often counts for a lot and there is likely to be very little risk involved in getting on and doing it. But if it is based on narcissistic megalomaniacal zeal...well, maybe that's the subject of another ad!

James Thompson is global managing director of Diageo Reserve (Diageo’s luxury portfolio).

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