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Three well-intentioned advertising campaigns that just didn’t work

Man watching TV

Three well-intentioned advertising campaigns that just didn’t work

The internet is rife with articles about disastrous advertising and marketing campaigns. These tend to focus on cases like Hoover’s horrific miscalculations when offering free flights in 1992, or the US ‘New Coke’ fiasco of the 1980s, which some believe was actually a clever attempt to give Coca-Cola renewed popularity.

Sometimes, however, an advertising campaign might be memorable or even funny, but just not right for the brand or product behind it. Here are three well-known advertising campaigns that missed the beat, and what we can learn from them.

1. Vauxhall – Griff Rhys Jones

Around the turn of the millennium, a campaign for the Vauxhall range of cars featured comedian Griff Rhys Jones playing the role of a “boffin” performing various tests on vehicles. In one particularly infamous ad, he appeared sporting an unflattering pair of shorts and an electronic piece of headgear as he tested a car’s “sexiness”.

The campaign was blamed for falling Vauxhall sales, and Rhys Jones was axed as the manufacturer’s ambassador before his three-year contract was up. It was hardly his fault – the character and adverts were kind of funny. They weren’t right, however, for something as associated with self-image as cars and driving. Car owners want to their vehicles to make them feel cool and in control, not nerdy and ridiculous like Rhys Jones’ “boffin”.

2. Sainsbury’s – John Cleese

Around the same time, another example of comedy falling flat was when supermarket Sainsbury’s enlisted John Cleese to be their face of advertising, basically in character as Basil Fawlty.

Again, it’s quite amusing, but it’s not in keeping with a mainstream, family brand like Sainsbury’s. As Cleese marches around in an empty store shouting and having awkward exchanges with staff, it paints a picture of Sainsbury’s being some sort of offbeat, rebellious indie store rather than the most upper market of the supermarket big four. The ad was reportedly unpopular with both viewers and Sainsbury’s staff, and the company’s chief executive admitted sales during the campaign had fallen short of expectations.

3. Creature Comforts

Now, this is a controversial inclusion, because these early 1990s ads were much-loved and fondly remembered as the public’s introduction to Aardman Animations, which would go on to produce the British institution of Wallace and Gromit.

The only problem is, what were they advertising? If you said British Gas, you’re wrong – it was Heat Electric. Somehow, the ads have become widely associated with a different brand, with gas being a rival form of heating to electricity.

What can we learn from these?

The first two advertising fails can be put down to the brands not developing a target persona, or if they did, it wasn’t reflected by the faces of their campaigns. If Vauxhall had put together a “pen pic” of the typical Vauxhall driver, it’s unlikely they would have come up with a badly dressed, socially awkward scientist, and nor does a shouting John Cleese make us think of shopping in Sainsbury’s.

The third case is a little harder to diagnose, although it’s notable that when ‘Creature Comforts’ began to screen as an ITV series in its own right, British Gas got in there quickly enough to sponsor it. Perhaps the humour and animation of the ads were so touching, the actual message of them was lost and the brand identity was not strong enough.

At Engage Web, we know that clever advertising and online content is only of value if it leads to brand recognition and sales, which is why we always encourage clients to clearly identify their target audience. For more on how we can work with you to develop an on-point content brief, why not speak to us?

John Murray

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