Bob Hoffman
Mar 16, 2021

Creativity, bananas, and mouldy Whoppers

THE AD CONTRARIAN: Being creative in advertising is essential. But it's also undeniably a dangerous game, especially when the creativity veers too far from the realities of why people buy things.

Creativity, bananas, and mouldy Whoppers

As a lifelong advocate of the primacy of creativity in advertising, I find myself lately having difficulty understanding the values and judgments of our industry.

Creativity is a concept that invites all kinds of silly interpretations. In advertising and marketing, creativity contains boundaries that are not required in fine art. Creativity must serve commercial purposes. This does not make it any easier. In fact, it may make it harder. You can tape a banana to a wall and call it art, but not advertising.

Over the past several years, Burger King's creativity and the "bravery" of its marketing leadership have been highly praised and heavily awarded by the ad industry. Sadly, however, they have had very little success in the real world.

In the past few days, Burger King has been subject to a torrent of abuse for a tweet it posted supporting an ad created for International Womens' Day. The ad was promoting a well-meaning initiative in which the brand created a culinary scholarship program for women.

The ad and tweet were headlined,"Women Belong in the Kitchen," and, of course, they were meant to be ironic. But in social media, where the game is to search for things to be outraged about, there is no room for irony.

This episode highlights a long string of provocative and controversial advertising campaigns done by Burger King. This included the "Mouldy Whopper" campaign, which I ridiculed back in January in my "Top 10 Marketing Follies of 2020."

Earlier this week, Michael Farmer, a smart guy and author of Madison Avenue Manslaughter, posted a brief but devastating analysis of Burger King's results on LinkedIn. In it, he reports:

  • Burger King's sales per store are less than half of McDonald's, and the gap is widening.
  • For the past 10 years BK has been losing ground against the fast food industry. Ten years ago it was No. 10 in sales. Today it is No. 23.

The bottom line is, the world is a harsh place for marketers (I'm writing a pamphlet about this which will be published soon). It is particularly harsh for marketing leaders who refuse to be bland and predictable. Creativity is a dangerous game.

Being effective is difficult. Being creative is difficult. Being both effective and creative is more than difficult.

One guidepost I use for effective creativity (which I explain in my semi-brilliant book Advertising For Skeptics) is a lyric from a blues song. The lyric goes:

Feelin' good, feeling' good
All the money in the world spent on feeling' good

The point is this. Being creative in advertising is essential if you expect big results. But ad creativity needs to be connected to the real world. In the real world, consumers buy things because they believe they will make them feel good. That's pretty much the only reason they buy things.

If advertising veers too far from this reality, it may be innovative and creative, but it's just not good advertising.

Bob Hoffman is the author of several best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of 'The Ad Contrarian' newsletter, where this first appeared, and blog. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency.

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