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Has Advertising Jumped The Shark?

Usually when I write an essay like this I try to make a point or an argument about an issue facing the advertising industry. More often than not the issues I address are something that’s been on my mind for a while, something that I’ve been trying to come to terms with and reach some kind of conclusion. Not this time. This time I only have questions and the answers are simply not to be found.

Are we trying too hard? By “we” I mean creative executives in the advertising industry. Are we trying too hard to entertain our audiences (and maybe our clients)? Are we so desperate to win new business, engage audiences and get consumers to pay attention that we’ve lost sight of our primary responsibility?

I know the ad industry has been trying to entertain audiences for a long time using a toolkit that includes humor, sentiment, drama, pathos, et al. But at the same time, we’ve also been diligent about trying to inform and, ultimately, sell something.

But I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore. My fear is that too many of us are acting like screenwriters and television showrunners. The endgame now seems to be to entertain above all else, even when it comes at the expense of delivering impactful messaging about a brand.

This especially came to mind recently as I watched the Super Bowl. In the aftermath of the game, industry pundits lionized the Tide spots as amazing work, but I beg to differ. Entertaining, yes, to a degree. But effective and commercially impactful? I think not.

Why? Because when we have to mock the very concept of advertising in order to advertise our client’s products or services then I think we’ve gone off the rails. And that’s what the Tide ads did. Make fun of beer commercials and then launch into a jarring segue about Tide. Mock traditional car ads before an awkward push into a Tide message.

Here’s the key question I want to ask: Have we, as an industry, jumped the shark? For those of you who don’t know (or forgot) what that phrase means, here’s what Urban Dictionary has to say:

“Jump the Shark: a term to describe a moment when something that was once great has reached a point where it will now decline in quality and popularity. Origin of this phrase comes from a ‘Happy Days’ episode where the Fonz jumped a shark on water skis. Thus was labeled the lowest point of the show.”

From where I sit, the Tide ads were little more than a horribly snarky and sarcastic shot at traditional (and effective) advertising. They made fun of some iconic marketing and laid to waste decades of solid strategy and creative work.

This happens because agencies and creative executives get cocky after they enjoy some degree of success. They think, like the Super Bowl spot for Febreeze, that their “bleep” don’t stink. So they cross a line. It’s happened a few times before and will doubtless happen again.

The influence of this kind of advertising can be pervasive, but it doesn’t do our industry any good. In fact, it can cause enormous damage because it’s not doing what marketing is supposed to do—sell products.

And that’s the bottom line. Yes, advertising should entertain, but that is not its first (and foremost) responsibility. And that’s especially true when your client is paying $5 million for 30 seconds of precious airtime like the Super Bowl LII advertisers.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I’ve just been in this business too long to appreciate newer trends that younger audiences not only enjoy but genuinely want. As I said, I just have a lot of questions that I find difficult to answer. But they bother me.

The trend on this year’s Super Bowl was to make fun of marketing, and it reached its zenith with the Tide spots. But I know our industry can do better. I know because one marketer actually delivered great advertising, and they did on the Super Bowl. Which one? This one.

Now that’s classic good work!