DDB Brazil’s 9/11 Ad: A World of Trouble

Thanks to the healthcare debate, it’s been a summer of outrage, with kooks coming out of the woodwork to issue dumb, mean-spirited attacks. I don’t want to further inflame any delicate sensibilities, but we now have a corollary batshit-crazy situation in the ad industry: the scandal involving DDB Brazil’s tasteless (yet award-winning) 9/11-themed print ad for the World Wildlife Fund.

The level of mega-stupidity the entire scenario has achieved, and the embarrassing and tortured apologies and backpedalling by agency and client, created a vortex that could swallow up half the Earth. In a slow news week, just days before the eighth anniversary of 9/11, it’s been the gift that keeps on giving for bloggers, the mainstream media and even Keith Olbermann. (And I want to point out that our sister site, AdFreak.com, was the first to report on the ad after seeing it among the work collected on Advertolog.com.)

Let’s start with the ad itself — the little pro-bono ad that couldn’t.

It shows dozens of planes flying into Lower Manhattan, with a skyline that looks like it’s from 1953 (though restored to include the World Trade Center towers) and copy that reads: “The tsunami killed 100 times more people than 9/11. The planet is brutally powerful. Respect it. Preserve it.” Pity that little black-and-white panda in the logo. (Poor, poor panda!)

It couldn’t possibly be comparing the terrorist attacks of 9/11 with an act of nature, could it? That’s like comparing dirty bombs and oranges. (Some scientists wonder if global warming might eventually make tsunamis worse, but it’s hardly an established fact.) Is the ad also suggesting the tsunami victims somehow mattered more than those killed on 9/11? The mind reels.

A friend said she thought it was a good use of Photoshop, but that’s about the only compliment it’ll get. Aside from being offensive and cringe-worthy, it’s also just an ugly and dumb piece of creative, scoring high on the “gratuitous use of tragedy to make a nonsensical argument” meter.

As the blogs started picking up the item on Tuesday, the official “We are shocked! Shocked!” responses came flooding in.

“We are utterly appalled,” said Leslie Aun, a WWF spokeswoman in the U.S. “This ad is not something that anyone in our organization would ever have signed off on.”

DDB Brazil apologized, and said the creatives who made the ad were no longer employed at the agency.

Olbermann weighed in on Tuesday night on his MSNBC show, making DDB Brazil staff his collective choice for “Worst Person in the World” that day.

DDB Brazil then, belatedly, claimed the local branch of the WFF had actually approved the ad. The agency eventually posted a statement of apology on its Web site, signed by DDB Brazil and WWF Brazil, with each taking some of the blame, and saying the whole thing never should have happened.

But of course it did happen. And just as embarrassingly, it emerged that the ad won a certificate of merit, now withdrawn, at The One Show this year for supposed public service.

“We don’t censor judges,” David Baldwin, former chairman of The One Club, told me. “We as an organization are incredibly careful in checking. We saw a tear sheet from a newspaper. We know that the ad ran.”

He added: “Somehow the blame is shifted to the shows. Do you blame the Olympics for steroid use?”

The ad did apparently run in a small newspaper in Brazil. And if it was approved by WWF Brazil, it would have been eligible for The One Show. So, what were those judges thinking? And is an ad really legitimate if it ran once? Should the awards shows maybe raise their standards in this regard?

And what about DDB Brazil’s claim that it was the fault of a few unprofessional creatives? The ad was also entered at Cannes (though mercifully it failed to make the shortlist). You’re telling me even if low-level people created the ad, the creative director wasn’t aware that it was being submitted to the top awards shows?

Ad awards are a funny thing in Brazil. I’ll never forget a couple of years ago in Cannes. I was in the press room, waiting for the shortlist to be given out, when a thundering herd of at least 30 people came crashing into the room, screaming, literally grabbing the thing out of my hands, gathering up every one of the Xeroxed lists, and thundering out. Who were those people? The Brazilian trade press. That’s the importance put on awards there.

Becoming a successful creative in Brazilian advertising is almost like becoming a rock star. No wonder judgments can get clouded. It all makes for a potent mixture that can be combustible, given how ads fly around the Internet these days.

It’s a shame, too. It’s nice that ad agencies want to give back by doing pro-bono work. Tons of time, money and effort are sunk into this stuff, and the reality is that it often pays off — for agency and client alike.

It helps underfunded public-service groups get their message out. And it gives advertising creatives frustrated by the limitations imposed by paying clients (made even worse in a bad economy) a chance to feel they are indeed creative, and doing something good with their talents, which is great for agency morale as well.

It’s also no secret that in the world of pro bono, the WWF is considered an awards factory for its emotional, Earth-saving appeals.

How profoundly stupid and sad, then, that this ad reversed that dynamic, blew up in the agency and client’s faces, and engendered nothing but hate.

It just shows how one horrible ad, these days, can do a tsunami’s worth of damage.