When we pretend we’re not influencers.

In our work as brand builders, there is always a line drawn somewhere between good taste and bad taste, and always this line is arbitrary. But is there also a line between right and wrong when it comes to our work for brands? Can a brand message be more than just in bad taste, but to actually cross a line and reside in the vicinity of culpability for the behavior it claims to celebrate in the name of sales?

I think the answer is “Yes.” I also think some of my fellow advertising practitioners are willfully blind to their contributions to not merely bad taste but to bad behavior. And they hide their culpability behind the thin veil of creativity and fun. No one seems willing to acknowledge, much less take responsibility for, our role as influencers. We may not be recognized public faces in the way that professional athletes or Hollywood actors or other banal celebrities are when they shill for products, but our messages are as powerful, perhaps more so in their ubiquity.

People may claim to hate advertising, but they listen to what we say. If you pretend not to believe this, you need to find another line of work.

Case in point: The new outdoor campaign by DDB New Zealand for McDonald’s whose tagline is, “We speak late night.” In it, a series of short headlines over blurred images of McDonald’s burgers, fries or chicken sandwiches hit the reader first as garbled typos but then, if you’re viewing as a practitioner, not a consumer, you scratch your head and at least try to give this mess the benefit of the doubt. Some of us, I noted, do what I think most regular consumers will do: Move on.

But according to the article in AdAge, McDonald’s had a specific audience in mind and created this campaign for them. As a teacher of creative briefs, I admit they did that much correctly. But as a thinking, feeling human being, I believe they fell down on their faces.

I noticed with sadness that the comments I came across on social media were gleefully laudatory for the creativity behind the billboards. But, thankfully, not everywhere. Some who paused and give these incoherent messages due diligence came away, as I did, not only confused but also repulsed.

Then I read more of the AdAge article and discovered that the DDB team claimed to have done its homework. Well, ha ha. They sure did. They all got wasted at the local pub and, one hopes, took an Uber or public transport or walked to the nearest Micky Dee’s and tried to order some late-night munchie-sating fast food.

Here’s an extended quote:

“We conducted a ground-breaking experiment that we all agreed was very sciency—at the pub,” the agency told Ad Age. “After precisely a randomly large amount of swiftly consumed units of alcohol, our expert opinion was that we were sufficiently liquidated and had entered a temporary state of alcohol-induced dyslexia. We were ready to move to Phase 2: the McDonald’s restaurant down the road. Our early attempts to communicate our orders were met with blank stares and puzzled expressions. Potentially we had done too much prior research. But then suddenly, a breakthrough. Fortunately, the attentive staff were well versed in various dialects, including ours. They were able to skillfully decipher our confusing efforts to acquire sustenance, and in no time our respective orders were delivered to us. As the burgers and fries were inhaled, inaudible grunts were accompanied by newly discovered words such as “durricious,” “groood” and “naaarm, naaarm.” Our overwhelming conclusion was that McDonald’s undisputedly speaks late night. And it’s yummy.”

Any reasonably sane person reading this tale and the accompanying billboards would be hard pressed not to see past the “research” and to conclude that DDB, in cahoots with its client McDonald’s, has committed not a crime, not a sin, but a failure to act as…ahem…sober advocates of responsible behavior. Instead, they are giving permission to the late night revelers to continue breaking bad, and worse, to encourage others who may not consider such behavior to give it a try. Why not? McDonald’s will be there to satisfy you and dry you out.

I see this as an example of moral hazard. In economics, a moral hazard is a situation where an economic actor has an incentive to increase its exposure to risk because it does not bear the full costs of that risk.

Here, the risk of being held responsible for its culpability in promoting bad behavior is minimal, perhaps non-existent. On top of which, the players are too busy patting themselves on the back for being so clever that they have failed to see what they are doing.

When we do not recognize, much less govern, our role as influencers, this is what happens. I’m sure the partiers at Cannes will eat it up.

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