Bayer Disowns Controversial Lion-Winning Ad, Saying BBDO Made It Just to Win Awards

AlmapBBDO paid for the ad to run in Brazil

CANNES, France—In a remarkable turn of events, Bayer has now distanced itself from a controversial Brazilian aspirin ad made by AlmapBBDO that won a bronze Lion in Cannes—and which caused a stir when it was accused of being sexist.

The client now says the agency had run the ad solely to win awards. In addition, Bayer says it will not allow the campaign to ever be used again.

(UPDATE: BBDO has withdrawn all Brazilian Bayer work from the Cannes Lions and will return the bronze Lion.)

In a statement to Adweek, Bayer acknowledged approving the ad, but said it ran only in "limited placement" in Brazil and that the company hasn't done any aspirin advertising in the country for "several years." 

Bayer also said the agency, not the client, paid to run the ad. AlmapBBDO confirmed to Adweek. Thus, it appears the entry was targeted at Cannes judges and not consumers, which many in the industry might consider to be an example of "scam ads" that are crafted solely for the awards circuit. 

"The concept was presented to our local marketing team in Brazil by BBDO as one of several campaigns that the agency intended to submit for this year's Cannes Lions festival," the Bayer statement said. "In order to meet the requirements for submission to Cannes, BBDO paid for limited placement in Brazil. Bayer has not advertised Aspirin through any channel in Brazil for several years. We have asked that BBDO discontinue any further use, dissemination or promotion of this campaign."

In its own statement to Adweek, AlmapBBDO apologized for the ad.

"This was a proactive, local campaign idea that AlmapBBDO brought to and had approved by the local client in Brazil," an agency spokesperson told Adweek. "The agency covered the cost of media. AlmapBBDO deeply apologizes for any offense caused and takes full responsibility for the creation of the work." 

The ".MOV" ad was one of three ads in the campaign, which won a bronze Lion in Outdoor. A separate AlmapBBDO aspirin campaign for Bayer also won a bronze Lion this year—in the Print & Publishing category.

The president of this year's Outdoor jury is Ricardo John, chief creative officer at J. Walter Thompson Brazil. Adweek reached out to John and asked why the Outdoor judges awarded this ad a Lion, and whether they thought it was provocative. 

"We were very careful to remove any ad or campaign that was interpreted as sexist," John told Adweek in a statement. "The jury, which [included] seven women, did not feel that this campaign, when looked at as a whole, was offensive. Even so, as the jury president, I would like to apologize for those who took it as such."

The controversy is troubling on many levels for industry leaders and clients alike. Running ads in limited placement solely to make them eligible for awards is a well-known tactic that, in the modern advertising world at least, is generally seen as unethical and self-serving.

In a conversation with Adweek today about a wide range of Cannes-related issues, Y&R global CEO David Sable—a frequent Cannes Lions juror and 2015 jury president—said that while he wasn't aware of AlmapBBDO's controversial ad, the issue of scam ads is one that Cannes has generally done a good job of addressing in recent years.

"Agencies should treat the awards show with integrity," Sable said when asked about the issue. "The truth of the matter is that every (agency) network has suffered at one time or another from this. There was a period of time when there were a lot of scam ads across all the networks. They didn't view them as scam ads, because their view was that creativity was still creativity, a great idea is a great idea."

"What's happened over the past few years—which I love, by the way—is that there is a rigor here that didn't exist 15 years ago, and 10 years ago began to just show its face," Sable said. "Things are checked out really carefully. Data is important. You have to back up your claims when you submit."

Adweek has reached out to the Cannes Lions to ask whether there's any chance the festival might take action on AlmapBBDO's win now that new details about its creation have been revealed.