OpEd: The Good and The Bad of Banned Ads

By Matt Van Hoven 

We asked a number of people a bunch of questions about the Super Bowl. Here is Peter Groome, Co-founder and president of Fathom Communications on the methodology/strategy behind banned ads. They’re good for free press but bad for the brand, sometimes.

Reading all of the stories on this year’s “banned” Super Bowl ads, I am reminded of a similar debate about ethics in advertising I experienced first-hand a few years back.

It began with these words uttered by broadcast legend Peter Jennings on World News Tonight about a marketing program our agency had developed (the kind of coverage we had only dreamed of)…”And finally this evening, we report on one of the most ingenious…or insidious…ways to push a product”. Insidious? That word hit home. The tactic in question was deploying paid actors pretending to be real tourists—a.k.a “Fake Tourists”—who asked people to take their picture with the camera phone.

Then, as now, these “banned” Super Bowl ads remind us of the question we should probably always ask ourselves when we develop ideas that test boundaries—Does the benefit of exposure outweigh negative or skeptical coverage? Is this idea “ingenious” or “insidious”?

My answer today hasn’t changed as a result of the “Fake Tourists” dust up—I say “yes” to both—it’s ingenious now and will probably be insidious very soon.

My experience taught me that there are always new and smart ways to get a message out there, especially during an event like the Super Bowl when ads themselves get the spotlight and all that free viewership that comes along with the coverage.

The “banned” ad genre is ingenious because it is so effective at achieving what all of us in the agency world work so hard to create—relevancy and talk value for our ideas and our clients’ brands.

It’s ingenious because: it exploits human nature—people desperately want to see stuff they’re told they shouldn’t see; it makes the most of the relative freedom and connectivity the online world provides marketers; and creating content “too hot” to see on CBS but that can be viewed, voted on and shared easily online is just smart in many ways.

As with almost anything, however, what is fresh and smart can become old and dumb fast and a good idea becomes insidious when the creativity runs dry and the tactic becomes a default for every brand trying to get a little free publicity.

So what to do when the big game is over? What’s next?

I suggest a continued investment in original, inspired ideas rather than relying on others’ “proven” tactics and running a good and novel idea into the ground. This holds true for the “banned ads” genre and we should do our part to ensure we don’t reach a tipping point where the bad and many outweigh the innovative and few.

We will know that day has come when the people stop watching…my guess is it will come sooner rather than later.

Rather than dismissing it entirely, though, let’s acknowledge the inspired creativity that led to this new genre of advertising and treat it with care to avoid an idea that started out as ingenious becoming something insidious.