Preventing Fake Ads Takes a Global Village

There are many lessons to be learned from the debacle involving DDB Brazil’s ill-fated newspaper ad for the World Wildlife Fund.

The first is that these days everything is digital. A newspaper ad intended for a Brazilian audience went viral worldwide. And when it hit America people went ballistic. I was watching Keith Olbermann when he did his Worst Person in the World segment. He not only lambasted the ad, he named every person listed in the credits right up to the creative director. It was surreal — kind of an anti-award-show moment. Everyone dreams of seeing their name in lights connected to their work, but not like that.

The second lesson is when the poo hits the fan, the stained fingers start pointing. It went something like this: The WWF said it never approved the ad. DDB said something to the effect that the ad was done by a rogue creative team no longer with the agency. The WWF in the U.S. said no one in its organization would ever have approved it. DDB said, no, the ad had “really and indeed [been] approved by the local client and ran in Brazil.” WWF Brazil said it had never approved the ad, but had been in a brainstorming session with the agency where the idea had not been taken seriously.

Talk about a you-a culpa.

Which leads to the third lesson: You can’t trust the blogosphere for accuracy. It’s very difficult to sort the accusations from the assertions. One blog reported that the One Show had named the 9/11 WWF ad Public Service Ad of the Year. This went around like wildfire. It actually won a merit award.

What we know as of this writing is that DDB does, or did, have the WWF as a client. The ad seems to have run. A television version was made and entered into the Cannes ad festival. So how could it have not been backed by the agency? That’s a lot of production value for one rogue team.

So how do you get to the truth of a situation best summed up by Barbara Lippert as “bat-shit crazy?” This question gets to the very fundamentals of our business: What constitutes advertising? What’s real? What’s fake?

I’m not an apologist for award shows. There are too many of them, they’re too expensive and most of them don’t actually do anything other than let you write “award winning” on your resume. That said, there are still a few shows that I love, in particular the One Show, CA and D&AD.

As far as the One Show goes, we really do try to weed out the faux-bono. This is a common topic at our board meetings and during judging but it’s much more difficult than you think. When it comes down to it, it’s very difficult to prove something isn’t real. Someone recently said, “Fake ads are like porn — you know it when you see it.” Well, on the surface I get that, but it’s not that easy. You still have to prove it. How do you get to intent behind an ad that ran?

Let me give you an example. What if an agency wholeheartedly believes in a pro-bono cause, approaches the organization, handles it as a true client and contributes its efforts at no charge, pays for production then solicits donated media from its contacts? That’s a good thing, right? Is it something we, as an industry, want to punish? If so, then what if they don’t solicit media contributions? What if the agency only contributes most of the production costs? Where does an ad competition draw the line?

We’ve tried many things to combat fakery. We ask judges to flag things they think might be scams, we ask for a tear sheet, a media plan and/or a letter from the client. We’ve banned people and agencies when caught. Stuff still gets through.

There is a silver lining. The One Show is taking a hard stand against fake work. The details have been written elsewhere, but basically, if you cheat, you and your agency will be banned from the show for five years. We’re also working on other ways to cut off the fake work at its source at the agency level because we can’t do this alone.

I hope the other shows will follow our example. But I ask that the entire industry join us in this cause.

David Baldwin is founder of Baldwin& and former chairman of the One Club. He can be reached at dbaldwin@baldwinand.com.