Sometimes The Big Idea is The Bad Idea

If the 20th century did nothing else, it can claim to have produced and given a warm howdy-doody to more of mankind's monumentally bad ideas than any other century in history. But from communism to marching on Moscow in winter to...

If the 20th century did nothing else, it can claim to have produced and given a warm howdy-doody to more of mankind’s monumentally bad ideas than any other century in history.

But from communism to marching on Moscow in winter to running ads in Strategy using bloody-baseball-bat humour, bad ideas have a maddening way of only showing up in retrospect.

Bad ideas are a feature of The Human Condition, of course, as a few hours sitting around in small claims court will confirm. Furthermore, most humans get to exercise their bad ideas more or less in private, except in the case of particularly messy divorces.

But if you’re the kind of guy or gal who gets involved in major land wars in Asia, or winds up having your bad ideas shot on 35mm film and run on television till the cows come home, you’ve got to exercise particular vigilance. You gotta spot those questionable calls and crush ‘em before they turn really ugly and bite you on the ass.

Here’s an example. A few years back, I was working with a guy who’d made millions by taking small, mom-and-pop operations and growing them into profit-spewing powerhouses through the application of sound business controls and disciplines.

He rang me one day and said he figured he’d nailed the next grassroots industry, and a candidate company within it, that could be turned into a bonanza with one wave of his business-acumen wand.

The industry was catering trucks. A bunch of lonely guys who peddle coffee and sandwiches and Export As on construction sites and plant parking lots until they run out of stale doughnuts and go home around three and watch All My Children. But he’d found a catering guy in a small Ontario market who was really gung ho about growing his business. The guy had a fleet of trucks that ran 10 or 12 hours a day with on-board computers and freshness controls and menu management and whatever. Simply buy into the outfit, infuse capital, roll out the concept internationally and springboard to success.

There’s only one small problem said my friend. What’s that? I asked. The name he replied. The guy won’t change the company name for anything.

So what is it? There was a pause on the line. ‘Stomach Man’ he said.

So there it was. The bad idea. The small, raging tumour that was bound to rampage into some ghastly dog’s breakfast of Crotchburgers and Armpit Salads before you’d have known what hit you. Sadly, but I believe wisely, he threw Stomach Man back.

You flip through the channels, and there’s just so much stuff that sets off your alarm bells these days. Like the Domino’s Pizza spot. The Meatsa Trio! Three fat guys in tuxedos doing cheesy impressions of The Three Tenors and bellowing A-SPICY-PEPPERONIIIIII!!! with their bulging eyes and wet, gaping mouths a few inches off the surface of the product. Yuck!

There’s a spot running where a slightly fey cosmetic dentist admonishes us to inquire about having work done by dialing 1-800-NU MOUTH. The teeth are fine, but the mouth has to go! Ha Ha!

I guess if it really turns your crank, you can duct-tape a 65-pound dog around your neck and pull your clothing up over your head so somebody can button your shirt collar around the dog’s neck and, if it doesn’t scratch you to death or pee itself, you can run around the living room yelling LOOK I’M A DOG I’M A DOG! I am not kidding, somebody talked Honda into doing an Odyssey spot where people with dogs strapped to their heads sit in the car, wave from the car, read books in the car, drink pop in the car, and you sit there astounded and go what could they have been thinking?

I’ve given it a lot of thought for a commercial, and frankly I think it was a bad idea to bring Colonel Sanders back as a cartoon. Even if it was a good idea, it’s the wrong cartoon. I mean he was a pretty weird old buzzard in the flesh, with the wispy Fu Man Chu beard and the cane and everything, but the cartoon version is a travesty. An unctuous, blustering hick! A pushy, corn-pone huckster. Would you buy a chicken from this cartoon?

You know, there used to be a chicken chain called The Red Barn. They had a cartoon spokeschicken. A rooster, in a tux. Why? Because their chicken was dignifried, that’s why! But I’ll tell ya, compared to this pallid, obsequious cartoon Colonel, the Red Barn rooster was Alistair Cooke.

If I told you that the makers of NyQuil had come up with a line extension called DayQuil, would you believe me? Yes? With that, I rest my case!

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to blow off steam, and as a thinly disguised lure to attract clients who may imagine working with him could be a productive and amusing experience. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group