Ad of the Day: How an Ad Agency Made Up a Word to Sell Thousands of Them

Are you phubbing me?

Phubbing. It's not a dirty word—or at least, no more so than any other word created by advertising.

To illustrate the importance of having a current dictionary, McCann Melbourne (the agency behind the superviral, Cannes-conquering "Dumb Ways to Die" video) orchestrated an elaborate scheme to invent and disseminate the word "phubbing"—a gerund meaning snubbing the people in one's presence in favor of one's smartphone. The goal, hidden during the early portions of the campaign, was to sell more 6th-edition Macquarie print dictionaries.

McCann used a social media and PR strategy to spread the sniglet-like word, quite literally, around the globe—all without any mention of the product. (It doesn't appear in the case study until the final seconds.) And therein lies the rub. The marketing of the dictionary feels like an afterthought. Welcome as a crusade against bad smartphone etiquette may be, the paradox inherent in the strategy—proving how digital tools are making print products obsolete, then in the same breath trying persuade consumers to buy the print product, even one that claims to be forward-looking—is ultimately disingenuous and self-defeating. It's clever, but it's not persuasive. Why buy a hard-copy book that will soon be out of date?

Sure, that's a shortcoming of any print dictionary, and the beauty of a digital alternative. Maybe the campaign is effective, but only for a certain type of old-school, anti-technology target—the kind of people who like to curl up by the fire and read a dictionary.


Client: Macquarie Dictionary

Agency: McCann Melbourne

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