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Unilever gets dressing down for smutty Lynx ads, but ASA needs to widen its aim

November 23, 2011

It’s official: we, or rather our children, have been seeing far too much of Lucy Pinder’s ample cleavage, and it’s got to stop.

That is the verdict of ad regulator the Advertising Standards Authority on the latest Lynx online and poster ads, which show the glamour model in assorted demi-nues poses.

Whether in reality La Pinder, who routinely appears topless in a variety of newspapers and magazines freely available to all, is corrupting the nation’s youth by testing the power of Lynx’s anti-perspirant control remains highly debatable. But the fact is Unilever, owner of the Lynx brand and generally deemed a responsible advertiser, has clumsily transgressed one of the great contemporary pieties: the need to protect our little ones from the merest taint of precocious sexualisation.

This was a slow-motion accident waiting to happen. Lynx is inherently laddish. It self-consciously appeals to the sort of young male (17-27 years old) who avidly devours exactly the kind of mag in which Pinder tends to appear topless. Yet the difficulty for Unilever is not primarily the positioning of the brand – although its treatment of women as blatant sex objects does sit increasingly oddly with the infinitely more respectful approach adopted by Dove, also a Unilever brand. It is in the sloppiness of the media placement: a case of creative strategy being highjacked by the media buying/planning agency.

As a result, Unilever has become the first high-profile casualty of the David Cameron-endorsed Bailey Report, which strongly recommended protecting young children from just this kind of commercial “smut”. One key proposal was that there should be a clampdown on erotically-suggestive posters. And yet Unilever and its agencies wilfully went ahead with the idea. Despite the fact that, after pre-vetting, the ASA’s CAP Copy Advice unit had already cautioned the ad was likely to be banned.

Less obviously culpable, perhaps, is the placement of the online ads. That they have also been banned suggests you simply can’t be too careful these days when posting ads in such apparently child interest-free zones as Yahoo and Rotten Tomatoes.

I won’t say the ASA zealously hit the wrong target in singling out Lynx, because it didn’t. But let’s face it, when it comes to taste, decency and the issue of inappropriate commercial intrusion, the regulator needs to broaden its aim.

Take a look at this Littlewoods Christmas commercial (produced in-house) which is creating quite a furore on Facebook:

To quote from Marketing Magazine, which ran the story:

One [Facebook] commentator said: “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it is too irresponsible to allow. It promotes copious spending, which is what started this damn credit crisis – people spending money that they haven’t got because they felt the need to compete with the Smiths, or buy love.”

Another commentator said: “What a great example to kids to know that what makes a mother a good one is how much over-expensive bling she buys them at Christmas.”

Quite. Corrupting our kids isn’t simply a matter of prematurely exposing them to seamy sex.

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Epica Awards give boost to France – and WPP

November 29, 2010

This year’s Epica creative advertising awards – the 24th in the series – sprang some interesting surprises. France was the lead country – both in the number of winners and total awards – for the first time since 2004. WPP’s Y&R was deemed the most creative agency group – far outdistancing the usual competition from the Omnicom Group. And one of the top winners was an iPhone app.

As one of the 26 trade journal editors drawn from across Europe to judge these awards (exceptionally, the winners are not decided by a jury of creatives) I can testify that recovery is definitely on its way – entries were up 10% this year to over 3,000. But it’s a patchy recovery. The year that has seen France emerge from a creative wilderness is also the year in which one of its two principal advertising trade magazines, CB News – founded by the legendary Christian Blachas, has gone into administration. Elsewhere, the quality of print work (at least, in my opinion) has improved after a long decline; by contrast this was not a vintage year for the television and cinema commercial.

A sign of the times was the ‘Streetmuseum’ iPhone’s app – devised by Brothers & Sisters for the Museum of London– bagging one of the competition’s top four prizes, the Epica d’Or for interactivity. With a museum as client, it was always likely to be a low-budget affair, but what good use it made of that budget. The app artfully exploits sized-to-fit historic photographs as overlays on present-day Google street-map technology to give a vivid impression of London’s past whenever a visitor looked up a landmark on his iPhone. The app shot up to 19th most popular free download and, so the museum reckons, has trebled the number of its visitors.

In the hotly contested film section (TV and cinema commercials) the winner was the somewhat controversial ‘Dot’ created by Wieden & Kennedy London and Aardman Animations for Nokia N8, a smartphone. As a piece of low-budget film-making it’s masterly and involving. On brief too: Nokia has fallen behind in our perception of a desirable smartphone brand and this film, which uses CellScope technology on a bog-standard phone to achieve a remarkable piece of micro-animation, helps to redress the balance. It is one of a series that highlights Nokia’s technical competence in the smartphone arena. The (admittedly non-creative) question mark is: how much of a media budget was spent on disseminating the message? In other words, how many people have seen it?

Stacked up against ‘Dot’ in the final heat was Fred & Farid’s bizarrely amusing ‘Anytime, Anywhere’ TV and cinema ad for Orangina. A series of animals (from giraffes to bears and gay cougars – my own favourite is the iguana sketch) impersonate the actors in a range of cliched television ads, from floor-cleaner to car polish, breakfast cereal to energy drink and zit-buster. The common factor being Orangina starring as the product in every ad. Cut to bloke watching the ads on television, nuzzling up to a sheep (presumably his wife) on the sofa. Animated hommage to Disney, satire of the advertising industry? Who knows? It could only be French. Try it and see:

In the circumstances, there were other commercials that should have made it to the final cut. For example, Ogilvy’s Dove Manthem (you know the one: sing along to William Tell), which was the winner in the toiletries and healthcare category.

Just as odd was the exclusion of Adam & Eve’s ‘Always a Woman’ ad for John Lewis. It lost out at the category stage to Sapient Nitro’s ‘Sneaker Mastermind’ work for Footlocker. Not itself a great ad, but one not dogged by a plagiarism controversy.

Fred & Farid may have been pipped at the post by ‘Dot’ but they triumphed in the outdoor category with an Epica d’Or for their Wrangler Red work. The ‘animal’ theme (lots of that this year) is not new, but the photographic execution was considered outstanding.

More interesting was the final major category, the print Epica d’Or, where M&C Saatchi’s ‘The Last Place You Want to Go’ ad for Dixons narrowly beat BETC Euro RSCG’s Evian ‘Baby Inside’ work.  Evian has made the baby theme something of a trademark these past ten years, each year developing it in a new and interesting direction. This year the image was of adults with the bodies of babies superimposed on their white t-shirts: simple and effective.

But not as startlingly unusual as the Dixons ads, which appealed to the head as much as the heart. It’s good to see outstanding retail print work, full stop; but even better when it employs witty, old-fashioned long-copy which makes elegant fun of the retailer’s rivals. In the eternal struggle for mastery between copy and image, copy definitely won out this year.

So much for the work, but what of the winning countries and agencies? It was noticeable that while France was easily ahead in all winning categories – winners, silver, bronze and total awards – Britain managed to nail three of the four Epica d’Ors (film, interactive and print). It came third overall, but behind France (a long way behind) in the categories winners’ league. Sweden was number two overall, with Germany in fourth place. Far down the league table was the usually feistier Spain.

The top agency was Sweden’s Forsman & Bodenfors, Gothenburg, with 15 awards in total, four of them category winners. Serviceplan Gruppe, Munich & Hamburg – a previous winner – came second. The more important insight to emerge, however, was Y&R’s easy dominance as top network. It had 8 winners across four offices, compared with next-placed DDB’s 4 winners across the same number. Ogilvy came third with four across three. BBDO (like DDB, owned by Omnicom), often an overall winner, has drifted well down the table  (3 over 2).

Taken at face value, that’s something of a pat on the back for WPP creative supremo John O’Keeffe, whose avowed aim is to displace Omnicom as creative top dog. O’Keeffe has his eye on the Cannes Awards, but Epica winners have often proved a useful harbinger.


Debenhams brushes off the past, Burgess loses his Local Jewels, Loaded is spent and Foster’s will get funnier

August 23, 2010

Four thoughts on a week spent away:

1. Debenhams has irrevocably hitched itself to the voguish positioning of “natural beauty” pioneered by Unilever’s Dove – with its decision to bannish “air-brushed” fashion models. The department store has been making a number of gestures in this area recently – for example, using a size 16 and a disabled model. But this latest initiative looks definitive.

Debenham’s rallying to the cause raises some embarrassing issues for other elements of the fashion industry which, shall we say, have been less forthcoming on the permissible limits of artifice in projecting an advertising image both unrealistic and unattainable. L’Oréal, for instance, seems entirely comfortable with lightening the skin pigment of rock star Beyoncé Knowles. And let’s not forget the vexed case of Cheryl Cole’s preternaturally bouncy hair extensions, which featured in an Elvive campaign. The Advertising Standards Authority gave Cheryl a clean bill of health. But I cannot help thinking this was a wrong call, out of step with the times. What Dove and Debenhams are doing is the thin edge of a wedge fast being driven into a post-production fixated fashion industry.

2. Now Unilever’s “Local Jewels” really have lost their setting. The departure of Matt Burgess, UK managing director of Marmite, Peperami, Pot Noodle, Bovril and Slim-Fast, seemingly brings to a painful conclusion Unilever’s interesting Chrysalis project, which was formally dissolved last month. Like its architect James Hill, Burgess has moved elsewhere in the organisation. Details remain sketchy, but he would – lucky man – appear to be assuming responsibility for integrating the Radox, Brylcreem and Sanex brands offloaded by Sara Lee into Unilever’s skincare division. Not without a last hurrah, however. The crowd-sourced Peperami ad, described in greater detail by Louise Jack on Pitch, may not be to everyone’s taste. But it’s a wake-up call to agencies.

3. IPC’s willingness to dispose of Loaded, a nineties best-seller, is a reminder of how much the lad’s mag phenomenon has been butchered by the internet. According to the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulations figures, Loaded lost over 26% of its circulation in the last year. That may be a disaster, but it’s by no means a unique one. FHM, now owned by Bauer Media, lost about 18%; while the weeklies Zoo (Bauer again) and Nuts (IPC again) plunged 22% and 17% respectively. From Phwoar! to Uh-ah! in less than 20 years.

4. While on matters laddish, was I alone in being underwhelmed by Adam & Eve’s first stab at refashioning the Foster’s campaign? To the untutored eye, it looked very much like a seamless continuation of the hackneyed stuff that has been pouring out of M&C Saatchi these past few years. Where was the simple Big Idea the client claimed had won A&E the account?

Now we know. Simple, but brilliant. One-off remakes of some of our best-known laddish comedies – Alan Partridge and the The Fast Show have been mentioned – using where possible the original writers, producers and stars; all inexpensively posted on the internet. And all intended to build on Foster’s title sponsorship of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards and Channel 4 comedy. Let’s see how the idea catches on.


Why Don Draper won the Dove brief

August 3, 2010

Unilever has come up with a cute but controversial “hommage within an hommage” advertising blitz – featuring six of its power brands – in the latest series of Mad Men, which is now airing in the USA.

Like the series itself, the ads recreate a fictional early Sixties hot shop; in this case SmithWinterMitchell. Each episode stars two of its principals, copywriter Phil Smith and art director Tad Winter, wrestling with a campaign brief for, in succession, Dove, Breyers, Hellman’s, Klondike, Suave and Vaseline.

Neat, eh? And there’s more. The ads (devised by WPP’s Mindshare Entertainment) subtly underline the deep brand heritage. “The featured brands are prominent today and were popular in the 1960s, when Mad Men is set,” suggests a Unilever spokewoman, quoted in Ad Age.

So far, so good. The controversial bit is that viewers and the blogosphere don’t seem to like them very much. Some have deprecated the prelapsarian style of the pitch – and contrasted the first ad, featuring Dove, unfavourably with the cutting-edge modernity of the Real Women theme. Others have juxtaposed the “fake” production values of the ad mini-series with the exquisite realism of the content surrounding it.

It’s true, the ads are corny compared with the programme they mimic. But somehow I don’t think anyone at Unilever, Mindshare, or indeed AMC (the cable station that broadcasts Mad Men) will be losing sleep over the criticisms. The big irony of the ad soap opera – featuring Don Draper, Roger Sterling and sundry curvaceous size-16 “role models” – is that it doesn’t attract much advertising. In 2009, it earned under $2m ad revenue – according to Kantar – a performance barely exceeded in the previous two seasons. But then, it’s a highbrow drama that doesn’t attract much of an audience either. Some 2.4 million people tuned into the fourth-season premiere on July 25; and that’s a lot better than previous seasons’ viewing figures. Then again, each of the 12 or 13 episodes apparently costs over $3m to produce. In short, if Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce really were an ad agency – rather than a lovingly recreated fictional prism of WASP society before the Fall – it would have gone bust by now.

All of which rather misses the point of the programme’s existence and what Unilever is doing advertising in it. For AMC, it’s a halo product, a loss leader that encourages advertisers to buy into the schlock inventory that attracts mass audiences. For Unilever, it’s a cut-price opportunity to get itself talked about by America’s chattering classes. Sadly for Unilever, we in the UK will never be able to judge how much of an adornment or annoyance the ads really are. TV rights over here are held by the BBC.

Here’s a link to the Dove campaign. I particularly like the bit at the end, where the two admen – having been given the brief on a platter by their “Peggy Olson” secretary – reward themselves with a round of golf. Now that really is a period touch.


Why Unilever’s Chrysalis was no butterfly

July 5, 2010

“Odd” was how one highly placed Unilever source described the food, toiletries and detergent giant’s decision to scrap its innovative Chrysalis unit after only two years. Odd indeed: its disappearance is as enigmatic as its existence in the first place.

Chrysalis was a kind of wholly-owned incubator, in which Unilever stored some of its most treasured “local jewels”, such as Marmite, Pot Noodles, Peperami, Slim-Fast and Bovril. Altogether, there were 14 of them, stretching across 3 markets: Germany, France and Britain. These brands had one thing in common. Their quirky, national character possessed almost no transborder appeal. On the other hand, put together, they added up to a £500m business – no small change.

Unilever never made the rationale of Chrysalis entirely clear, leaving journalists and City analysts to fill the vacuum with speculation. Unilever’s one categorical utterance on the subject was that the brands were not for sale. Which the City boys (such as Citigroup) took to mean the exact opposite.

Look at the company’s strategy, One Unilever, they said. It’s all about multinational power brands such as Axe/Lynx, Persil, Dove and Wall’s. What possible role could tiddly, if charismatic, brands like Marmite have in this? By way of justification, they pointed to various strategic disposals the company had been making around the world: Boursin in France, a Brazilian margarine company here and an American detergent company there. Second, they pointed to an inherent contradiction in running these highly localised brands out of a central organisation based in Rotterdam; meaning Chrysalis must be a short-term expedient. And third – the clincher – Unilever had deliberately segregated its minor brands into two categories. There were those – like Colman’s mustard and PG Tips – that remained in the main Unilever fold and then the rest – the black sheep so to speak – which had been hived off into Chrysalis.

So much for that theory: all the black sheep have now been herded back into the main fold  – under the name of Incs (Incorporated Businesses) – leading Investec analyst Martin Deboo (for one) to conclude ruefully that rumours of a sell-off were overcooked.

I’m not so sure. The obsession with a brands sale seems to have arisen from a partial misunderstanding of Chrysalis’ purpose in the first place. By the same token, its dissolution cannot be regarded as a guarantee the brands will remain in the long-term ownership of Unilever.

First, the creation and purpose of Chrysalis. Admittedly, in the past, these brands might have ended up in the hands of private equity companies. But by 2008, the date of Chrysalis’ origin, such funding was already becoming very tight. At one level, the unit was clearly intended to keep them financially afloat. It was equally apparent, however, that – put in the hands of semi-detached entrepreneurial managers – Chrysalis would serve as a nifty brand laboratory whose lessons could be imported into mainstream Unilever culture.

The man chosen to lead this alternative operating model was James Hill, who had a considerable track record behind him as first chairman and md of Lever UK, the Unilever detergent arm, and subsequently senior vice-president marketing operations Unilever Europe.

Whether under Hill’s leadership these 14 brands actually made significantly more money for Unilever I have no idea (but some doubts). More evidently, his brands did succeed in making a lot of positive media noise for big, boring Unilever and embarked on some interesting experiments.

Marmite is a good case in point. During Hill’s stewardship, the brand name has finally passed into the English language as a metaphor of sharply contrasted appeal. Marmite led the way (well, co-led it with HMV) in pioneering temporary “pop-shops”. These exploited high-profile retail premises left fallow by the recession to merchandise 100 Marmite-branded products, including food, clothes, art and even Christmas boxes.

I seem to remember Marmite also made skilful use of its brand personality to keep itself front of mind during the late, long-drawn-out, election with a “Love Party versus “Hate Party” campaign featured on a specially devised website, http://www.marmitenewsnetwork.com.

The Marmite campaign soon amassed some valuable political capital when Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, decided to do some passing off of the “Hate Party” – complete with hijacked Marmite logo – in his own political broadcast. Threat of legal action by Unilever not only forced a humiliating climbdown by Griffin, but caused him to lose his irreplaceable webmeister in the media furore that followed.

Enough of Marmite. Let’s also consider Peperami. The sado-masochistic salami brand created a bit of a sensation last year when its group marketing manager, Noam Buchalter, fired Lowe – its agency of 16 years – and solicited members of the public to come up with ideas for the next ad campaign. Crowdsourcing, as it is called, is increasingly trendy these days – a kind of marketing analogue of social media. Walkers used it to some effect recently when coming up with a new crisp flavour. What’s far less usual is to fire one’s ad agency in the process. This heinous act sparked an explosive debate in creative agency circles, the gist of it being that Unilever is a cheapskate, seeking to circumvent agency fees with inexpensive ideas sourced through the internet which achieve, at best, tepid success. We have yet to judge, in Peperami’s case. More importantly, however, the Peperami crowdsourcing episode was a first for Unilever which succeeded in capturing the attention of new chief marketing officer Keith Weed. One of Weed’s first initiatives on taking over from Simon Clift earlier this year was to approve a crowdsourcing drive for 13 of Unilever’s biggest brands, including Wall’s, Lynx and Dove involving the same $10,000 “bounty” for the lucky winner.

Weed has subsequently felt the need to back-pedal, and reassure agencies, on the issue of crowdsourcing. In an interesting and wide-ranging debate with WPP ceo Sir Martin Sorrell at Cannes (where Unilever was declared Advertiser of the Year) he had this to say:

“In general, I’m not going to use crowdsourcing as a substitute, with the exception of Peperami.” Consumer-generated ideas, he added, are merely a way of allowing Unilever to “pilot and test things”.

Which brings me to why Chrysalis was eventually ditched. At the beginning of this year, James Hill moved to another Unilever job, that of chairman of Italy. Buchalter has also quit, to become a consultant. It would be easy to surmise ‘writing on the wall’ here. I doubt that is the case, however. There is an exactness about Hill’s two-year term that suggests this was a valued Unilever “lifer” taking up a new turn of duty. More likely the closure has come about because the new top management team, led by ex-Procter & Gamble executive Paul Polman, couldn’t see Chrysalis’ long-term relevance. Indeed, Weed specifically referred during the Cannes debate to Polman’s decisive influence in making lines of communication with the consumer simpler and more direct. A complex hybrid operating system, and a business culture licensed to be irreverent, may have had no place in his thinking.

Does the dissolution of Chrysalis matter? In the short term, no. Matt Burgess, formerly managing director of Chrysalis UK, remains in charge of the Marmite, Bovril, Pot Noodle and Slim Fast brands as md of the new “integrated” unit Incs. I suspect, however, that some of the fizz has come out of the laboratory idea, that the future of the brands will be more pedestrian, and their value more meticulously cost-accounted.


The truth about Simon Clift’s exit from Unilever

March 23, 2010

We all know that Simon Clift, chief marketing officer of many years’ standing at Unilever, is stepping down. What’s less apparent is whether the imaginative, regenerative campaigns associated with his tenure are also on the way out. Clift inspired or was responsible for, among others, Dove Real Women, the award-winning Axe/Lynx campaigns and Persil’s Dirt is Good.

There are some reasons for supposing campaigns such as these may be casualties as new Unilever chief executive Paul Polman tightens his grip on the organisation and cements in place a new top team. Polman, in a move unprecedented in Unilever’s history, was parachuted in over stiff internal competition to fill the role somewhat over a year ago. Immediately he came from Nestlé, but the important thing to remember is his 27 years of experience at arch Unilever rival Procter & Gamble. He’s a marketer, Jim, but not as Unilever knows it.

Some commentators see the hidden hand of P&G training in accelerated product extensions and more emphasis on “moment of truth” style promotional advertising since Polman’s arrival. They surmise that action-oriented Polman – who has had a fair degree of success so far – was unsympathetic to Clift’s subtler, slow-burn approach. They detect a more dictatorial, metrics-driven attitude to agencies, which bodes ill for “open source” creativity.

But that view is by no means universal. One former Unilever employee (who will remain nameless, but spent 15 years at the company) sees Polman as a breath of fresh air, sweeping away the cobwebs of “nepotism and empire building”. “The fact was,” the source tells me, “Unilever never was a meritocracy and every move had to be ‘sponsored’ by a corporate elder. Clift epitomised this culture more than anybody.”

So two very different perspectives on the Clift era. Further insights (on a strictly confidential basis) very welcome. In the meantime, there’s more on Polman cracking the whip and changing the guard in this week’s magazine column.


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