Sometimes The Best Advertising Isn’t Advertising At All

Jim Wolff, Head of Digital at Leith, says what he really thinks about advertising…

Photo credit: Lassi Kurkijärvi

I’m going to come clean. 
After many years working in an ad agency, I’ve got a confession to make:

I don’t really like advertising.

There I’ve said it.

I’ve probably just blown my chance of a raise, 
but I can’t hold it in any longer…

I begrudge the 5 seconds it takes before you can ‘skip ad’ on YouTube. 
I don’t like the way crappy GIFs for liposuction clutter the websites I’m trying to read. 
I don’t like the way Facebook has stuffed my newsfeed with so-called ‘Sponsored Stories’ about Viagra (maybe that’s just me). 
And now my preferred socmed app of choice, Instagram, is slowly filling itself with sponsored posts that are mostly designed to plant hate in your soul (see the Instagramadsareawful Tumblr if you don’t believe me).

But I suppose what I’m getting at is that it’s not really advertising that’s the problem - it’s bad advertising. I’ve got nothing against a product trying to differentiate itself in a crowded market, or a charity trying to get people behind their cause, or a government reminding us that some of the things we do will kill ourselves or others. But bad advertising is giving good advertising a bad name.

Because when advertising’s good, you don’t even notice it’s advertising.

So here’s a challenge to advertisers everywhere: 
do advertising, without making it look like advertising.

Here’s how…

Take it back to the old, old school

Let’s start with the ancient principle of Wu Wei — or ‘doing without doing’.

Wu Wei was all the rage among Taoist strategic planners in China a few millennia back, and translates roughly as “without action”, “without effort”, “without control”, or “effortless doing”. The tricksy bit is, you can’t actively pursue wu wei, but you know it when you see it.

And that’s the annoyingly elusive quality of good advertising -
it often appears effortless.

But that doesn’t really help us much when trying to re-create it. So I’m going to make a stab at pinpointing the elusive quality of so-good-that-it’s-invisible advertising.


This is at the heart of creativity. It’s about scooping a market inside out, flipping the status quo on its head, and turning things upside down. Like this ad for Doom & Dickson has quite literally done here.

Source: Comicbase on Flickr

Rethink media

The best advertising and marketing has always been disruptive with its innovation, and this is often best seen when it breaks out of the confines of traditional media space. It’s a guaranteed way not to make your message feel like advertising. And one of the best examples I know of this disruptive thinking comes from 1810, long before advertising as we know it came along.

Pears Soup coins: a surefire winner at Cannes for Most Creative Use of Media

The president of Pears, a British soap company, came up with an ingenious ploy to publicise the brand —by making use of a media space that everyone had in their pockets: money.

Just as there is now, there was a law in Great Britain prohibiting the defacing the monarch’s portrait. But in the 1800s, French centimes were accepted as pennies in Britain, and this law didn’t apply to French coinage. So he ordered about a quarter million copper coins from France, stamped Pears’ Soap into them and circulated them widely. They were all over the place. Right up until Parliament cottoned on to his fiendish plan and had them destroyed.

Never underestimate the power of PR

It’s said that the best ideas generate their own PR, and this takes some distruptive innovation of a different kind. Red Bull’s Stratos freefall from space was a stellar example of this. And Paddy Power regularly use ballsy stunts to feed a controversy-hungry press.

Looking back to look forward again, meet the godfather of PR, Edward Bernays, who was inspired by his uncle Signmund Freud’s investigations into the underlying subconscious desires that motivate our actions. What follows is a genius example of disruptive innovation in PR to market a product — some might say evil genius (his work went on to inspire Goebbels and the propaganda of the Nazi party).

So good of Lucky Strike to remove an ‘ancient prejudice’.

Back in the 1920s, women who smoked were called nasty names and there was a big taboo in America against women smoking. This presented a real problem to the American Tobacco Company (now BAT) — they were missing out on half their potential market. So they hired Eddie Bernays to market cigarettes to women. It was a hard sell.

It was around this time that women had achieved the power to vote, and were moving into jobs that had traditionally been filled by men. But women still faced huge discrimination. It was even illegal in many places for women to smoke outside.

So crafty Eddie took advantage of the social movement for women’s liberation and associated cigarettes with breaking the shackles of masculine control. (Kind of like what Fairy Liquid are doing now when they say women doing all the washing up isn’t Fair-y.)

He arranged for a group of brave women to light up during New York’s Easter Parade, and primed the press beforehand that this was happening. The headline on the New York Times the following day? “Torches of Freedom”.

From then on smoking was seen as an aspirational behaviour for women, and BAT got their new market. Job done.

Give advertising the finger

There’s other good examples of advertising without advertising closer to the present day, and closer to home too. I love the fact that BrewDog outwardly shuns any traditional advertising, which in itself becomes brilliant advertising for them.

Image source: Marketing Magazine

Don’t buy media, sell it

But the ultimate prize for innovating how a brand is publicised goes to Red Bull. They now make money on their content by selling it to TV networks. So TV stations are actually BUYING what amounts to feature-length Red Bull ads, instead of selling them 30 second ad slots.

Breaking out of the box

As a final point, it’s worth harking back to the beginning of the year, when Nils Leonard, Chief Creative Officer from Grey London, put out a call-to-arms to advertising agencies on Campaign. The age of the 30 second TV ad is over, he said. The future lies in cultural change.

The most successful businesses will be those that remove their self-imposed shackles and aspire to make culture, not just 30-second ads… The best ads don’t look like ads any more. They look like Manhattan grocery shops that sell guns, hoverboards, buckets of ice that ease suffering, life-saving paint that glows in the dark and Kim Kardashian’s arse.

So the challenge to ad agencies, or creative agencies, or whatever we call them nowadays, is to think beyond media, figure out what the bigger (PR) story is and to disrupt the very essence of what we think of as advertising.

Easier said than done. And when it’s good, you won’t even notice.