I understand. I do. It’s not just advertising, after all: it’s everything. You want to get anywhere, you have to get noticed. And sometimes, well, sometimes, if you’re going to raise your voice above the clamouring crowd, you’ve sometimes got to make the sort of noises you normally wouldn’t.
I get that. Principles aren’t much good if all they do is make you unremarkable.
But there are other ways to get noticed. Other ways to be remarkable. Other ways to get people to talk about you. So many other ways that aren’t those used in the latest Cell C ad by 1886 – the ‘screwy spot’, as it’s been called.
I mean, good grief. Let’s pretend we can overlook the fact that the “dog humping leg” gag was overdone about a month after the Hays Code was abolished. Let’s move past the fact that, even if it were original, it’s not going to seem that way to a viewer who sees it repeated so many times in so short an ad. Let’s focus on the simple fact that this is an ad built entirely on the premise of a dog humping a man’s leg.
Come now, Cell C. Is that really the sort of image you want for yourself?
Sure, Cell C still isn’t on MTN’s level, but they’re far from a fledgling company. They’ve been with us for years, and while they’ve never reached the level of South Africa’s older telecommunication companies, they’ve proved a force to be reckoned with. And more importantly, in this context, they’ve attached their name to a number of wonderfully original ads. Many of us still remember those baffling ‘Cell C is coming’ preview ads, atmospheric shorts featuring little more than some object resembling the letter C, and a voice cryptically whispering “Cell C is coming”. Masterfully vague and tantalising, they were the sort of ads that invoked a sense of intriguing mystery, and inspired people to delve into this new company that would otherwise have had little foothold in an already solidly dominated market.
Or perhaps one may recall the “Cell C for yourself” lady, a mysterious, faceless woman who repeated the slogan in her impossibly alluring voice. These ads, while certainly light-hearted where it was appropriate, were crafted with a degree of subtlety and mindfulness that assured viewers that Cell C, relatively new though it may be, took its role as a telecommunications provider reasonably seriously. After all, for most South Africans, telecommunications are a major aspect of everyday life – not something, in short, which one would generally be inclined to entrust to a company with an overly lighthearted attitude toward the services it provides.
In short, even if the ads in question were for a new company, they’d only make any sort of sense if it was the sort of company that wished to ensure that its public image was a thoroughly non-serious one right from the get-go (which, overly daring marketing tactics aside, isn’t the sort of image one would traditionally associate with a telecommunications company).
With Cell C, well, it simply makes no sense whatsoever. It completely jars with the tone of past ad campaigns by the company, and while the controversy of the ad has certainly earned it extra attention, I can’t see it making much of a positive impact on the Cell C brand in the long time. Certainly, Cell C, by now, is too solidly established as a brand to be brought down by any single misguided ad campaign; but still, I find it difficult to conceive of any considerable benefit to the brand – at least, none that couldn’t have been attained through other, far less crude means, and with far fewer side effects.
Of course, there was a half-decent idea under all of this: speak to the average customer’s sense of being “screwed”. Everyone has something they overspend on, and everyone has someone they blame for it. By playing on the familiar frustration of being deliberately drained by greedy service providers, these ads could’ve solidly promoted Cell C by tapping into a familiar issue faced by almost every modern consumer. Unfortunately, rather than speaking to the customers in a way that suggests a solid understanding of this issue and a desire on the part of the brand to offer an alternative, the ads instead opt for reducing the consumer’s frustrations to a tired and juvenile gag.
1886’s executive creative director referred to the ad as “cheeky”. I disagree. “Cheeky” implies a certain subtlety – a measured degree of raunchiness that invokes defiance and boldness. This ad has none of those qualities. It’s simply vulgar, and vulgar in a clichéd manner, at that. And certainly, it got attention for that; but the day we reduce advertising to nothing more than “getting attention by any means” will be a sad one indeed.
Review by Simon Hyslop – copywriting student, Red and Yellow School
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