Worst Adverts of the Year 2009

(Originally published on 29th January, 2010)

A Hate List spin-off, which I’d vaguely been thinking about doing for about 15 years before finally getting around to it. Presented in the lazy, tired format of an annual awards presentation.

The “I Want To Punch You, Not Buy Your Product” Award

Runner Up: Pringles

“Oh wow! They’re in a bag. I wasn’t expecting the bag.” Presumably because you’re a total cunt in a Pringles advert. Actually, I suspect the end of this vox pops was cut in editing: “I wasn’t expecting the bag… But I was expecting some foul, salty papier-mâché discs, and those expectations have been met.”

Winner: Envirofone

One of the worst vox pops adverts of all time. Every single person who appears in this heinous clip makes you want to kick them in the nuts or fanny as appropriate. There’s a lot more that’s wrong with this whole concept, such as the fact that the company name infers it’s a primarily environmental project, but the ad shoehorns in the issue of the environment right at the very end as an afterthought, after spending 95% of it telling you how much “WONGA!!!” and “READIES!!!” you could get. (Note to admen: try speaking to some real people. Seriously.) But mainly it’s a neck-and-neck competition to see who can annoy you the most in just a few words ham-acted to camera. For me, the “WONGA!!!” guy narrowly loses out to the chap who apparently has an orgasm at the idea of “ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS!!!”

The “CGI As Substitute For Science” Award

Winner: Lanacane

Something I hate more than anything else is the complete lack of genuine science in cosmetic research and marketing. Basically, to claim that something is “scientifically proven to reduce wrinkles”, all you have to do is get a small (ie, too small to be statistically significant – it usually seems to be about 67) group of people to test the product, and for over 50% of them to state that they think they’ve had a noticeable reduction in wrinkles when using the product. What the fuck all the chemists in white coats are doing in their labs all day, I don’t know. Then you get to use CGI to imagine what the product working might look like on a microscopic level, in a fantasy world of make-believe. Science: done. A particularly glaring example of this at work this year was Lanacane, in which a woman scratches her hand a bit, then we zoom in to a CGI depiction of the scratches as absurdly exaggerated canyons deep in her skin, and then Lanacane sweeps across it, magically gluing the canyons up again.

The “Are You Using A Professional Ad Agency?” Award

Winner: Moonpig

All the class and charm of a local radio advert, complete with annoying jingle, translated directly to TV.

The Unintentional Message Award

Winner: RAF

“You don’t have to be a pilot to fly with the RAF.” Yes, obviously, it’s a play on words, and they’re using “fly” to mean something like “have a successful career”. But it does sound a bit like they let anyone have a go.

Most Shameless Intellectual Theft Award

Runner Up: Berocca

Surely this is one of the most obvious pieces of advertising thievery of the year. Is there anyone left in the Western world who hasn’t seen OK Go!’s music video for the song Here It Goes Again, where they invented the treadmill dance? Did Berocca expect anyone to watch their advert featuring four people doing a strangely familiar dance on treadmills, and think, “wow, what an original concept, Berocca are so witty, I’ll buy their shitty vitamin supplements,” and not, “what a bunch of shameless, thieving cunts”?

Winner: Cadburys

Apparently the Cadburys eyebrow advert was one of the best-loved ads of the year, because it was so original and wacky, and followed hot on the heels of the equally groundbreaking “gorilla playing the drums” concept. But let’s look at the facts. Cadburys’ advertisers didn’t scour the country for two children with amazing eyebrow talents. They rigged two normal children up with electrodes and sent programmed sequences of electric pulses through their faces, to make them twitch in time to the music. And they don’t even get originality points for the child face abuse concept. The idea was shamelessly stolen, as usual, from a true innovator and artist, Daito Manabe, who had been experimenting with the technique on himself and posting the results on youtube (search for his name). Add to all that, the fact that this plagiarised, borderline-sick video is being used to sell chocolate – which in the words of Stewart Lee, “makes little children fat, and then they die”. (That was actually about crisps, advertised by Gary Lineker, but it applies just as well.) So, for shameless idea theft, combined with a bit of light child torture, Cadburys wins. Do you still love the eyebrow ad quite as much now?

The Non Sequitur Of The Year Award

Winner: Centrum Multivitamins

“Your body is able to tell you which vitamins you need. That’s why Centrum give you all of them in one big indiscriminate pill form.”

The Small Print Award

Winner: Munch Bunch

Voiceover: “a single portion of Munch Bunch provides the same amount of calcium as a glass of milk.”

Small print: “a single portion = 2 pots of Munch Bunch.”

Well if you’re able to define “a single portion” of your product however the fuck you like, then go ahead and eat my faeces, advertising execs, because I guarantee a single portion contains at least as much calcium as a glass of milk*. Seriously, since when has two containers of anything ever been a single portion?

*A single portion = 45 metric tonnes

The “Not Enough Vomit In My Stomach” Award

Winner: Just For Men

“Dad, it’s time… you could be a real catcHHHHEEEUUUURRRGRGRGRGHGHHHHH”

The “What Price Integrity?” Award

Runner Up: Accident Advice Helpline

Thanks Esther, you soulless bitch, you’ve just contributed to the continuing breakdown of social responsibility.

Winner: Swift Cover

Iggy, Iggy, Iggy. You don’t make car insurance cool. You stopped being cool at the exact moment you started trying to flog car insurance. You can’t need the money – you have a great back catalogue, and “The Passenger” and “Lust for Life” are played on soundtracks all the time. Why are you doing this to yourself? Plus, the ACTUAL PITCH of the advert is essentially, “you could shop around for cheaper car insurance, but that would take time. Just use Swift Cover, it’s more expensive, but you’ll save yourself half an hour of arduous mouse-clicking.”

The Useless “Innovation” Award

Runner Up: Glade fake candles which “flicker just like a real candle”

A few thoughts from James Irving will suffice: “What’s wrong with an actual candle? What’s wrong with a real candle that doesn’t smell like an air freshener? In what way does a pretend candle that smells like air freshener improve anyone’s bathing experience? And when did real candles become so incredibly unpleasant? Maybe just buy a fucking candle.”

Winner: Cillit Bang

With a revolutionary new “variable power” system. Which essentially amounts to, “if there’s more dirt, spray more cleaner on it.”

The “Best Argument For Tighter Advertising Regulations” Award

Winner: Phileas Fogg

“Made with authentic ingredients discovered by Phileas Fogg”. Note that “authentic” has no defined meaning in food marketing standards, and if this advert is anything to go by, it can apparently be stretched to encompass “entirely fictitious”.

Notable Entry: KFC

A rare counterexample to this award: the advert with the guy in the KFC kitchen (I refuse to call him a chef, or even a cook) babbling on about how great it is working in the kitchen at KFC, and how much job satisfaction he gets from working his culinary magic on all the fresh chicken that gets delivered daily. This advert was actually withdrawn by the ASA on the basis that, well, it was all lies, obviously.

The “I Don’t Even Understand The Words I’m Using” Award

Winner: Kia Cee’d

“Our four year warranty makes it completely futureproof”. Firstly, they should really add, “… for four years,” since everyone knows that warranty lengths are precisely calculated by manufacturers to end just as the product is statistically likely to start failing. Secondly, they appear to be using “futureproof” to mean “protected against what might happen in the future”, but its generally-accepted meaning is actually “high-spec enough that it still competes well against future models”, a property which a warranty clearly has no effect on.

The “Everyone Knows You’re Lying” Award

Winner: BT Broadband

The one with the guy waking up in a cold sweat, thinking, “I had to book a holiday, left it until the last minute, and then my internet connection went down,” then realising it was just a bad dream, because he has BT Broadband, which never goes down. Funnily enough, the first time I saw this advert, I was only watching TV because my broadband connection had gone down. I’m with BT.

The “Stop Trying To Make Adverts, HM Government, You’re Shit At It” Award for Public Service Broadcasting

Winner: Driving On Drugs

In an extremely hotly contested category (basically, every single government information ad deserves it), the ultimate winner is this desperate, pathetic piece of horseshit: “We can see it in your eyes”. Despite the sinister overtones of a police state implicit in the slogan, this advert fails spectacularly to provide a convincing deterrent. What it’s saying is essentially, “We don’t have a breathalyser test for drugs. You know that. We know that. BUT WE’LL STILL CATCH YOU ANYWAY.” As such it reeks of desperation. And with that in mind, the advert’s gimmick is a good example of a point being made by exaggeration, but the exaggeration backfiring badly. It depicts drugged-up people with comically huge, bulging eyes, implying that when you’re on drugs, it’s that obvious. But we know that when you’re on drugs, you don’t really grow comically huge, bulging eyes. So it’s not THAT obvious. How obvious, we don’t know, because the advert has failed to provide us with any plausible information. Just a pitiful attempt at scare tactics.

The “You’re Not Nice People, Stop Pretending You Are” Award

Winner: Shreddies – “Knitted by Nanas”

This whole advertising ploy is false and misleading. Not in the obvious way, but in a much more insidious way. It’s evil marketing lies, disguised as cheeky harmless marketing lies. Of course Shreddies aren’t knitted by nanas, and they don’t expect us to believe that. But in presenting a lovable lie, they’re still sincerely selling the idea that Shreddies are made of wholesome good stuff, and disguising the fact that the whole grain wheat is actually held together by a mixture of rather less healthy ingredients including sugar, malt extract and salt. OK, so Shreddies aren’t that bad, relatively – there are a lot more unhealthy cereals out there – but it’s still an industrially manufactured, processed food, of the sort which is causing widespread health problems in modern society. You’re not knitted by nanas, fuck off.

The Most Gratuitous Use of Female Nudity in an Unrelated Product Award

Winner: Corsodyl mouthwash

The only possible link I can see to selling mouthwash is that, when the ending reveals the naked girl’s mouth full of rotten and missing teeth, you might be so traumatised you have to go and buy some mouthwash to scrub into your eyes.

The Cheesy International Advert Award

Winner: Mr Muscle

Most adverts made for a British audience have a degree of irony about them. We get so used to this, we only tend to notice it in its absence: when you see adverts abroad, or a company misguidedly decides to show its European/worldwide standard advert in the UK, with an English voiceover, and it seems so cheesy you can’t quite believe it’s serious. What’s even more noticeable is when a company decides to cut costs by switching from a UK-specific campaign to an international one. Remember the old Mr Muscle adverts, where the main character was the distinctly un-muscly wimp, who was nevertheless able to clean his house without breaking a sweat thanks to the power of Mr Muscle cleaner? Not the cleverest bit of irony, but see how glaring its absence is in the new version, where Mr Muscle is (see if you can get your head around the complex analogy here) a big muscly CGI superhero who flies in to rescue a poor helpless woman by cleaning her house for her. Bonus points for patronising misogyny though.

The “WTF, That Doesn’t Even Make Sense” Award

Winner: Disaronno

Look past the whole cheesy interplay between the swarthy barman and the girl he’s serving, and ask yourself, what the hell kind of bar is this, that apparently ONLY stocks Disaronno, in huge quantities? It’s all there is on the shelves behind, and it’s the only thing anyone’s drinking. There aren’t even any mixers for it. If you visit this bar, not only do you have no choice of drink other than neat Disaronno, but you have to put up with the creepy bar guy flirting with you, then trying to steal a swig of your drink – as if he doesn’t have access to enough Disaronno already, the cheeky git.

The Laziest Adverting Cliche Award

Runner Up: Glade Sense & Spray.

There are so many things wrong with this advert that it’s difficult to know where to start. Firstly (though it’s slightly outside my scope here) the pointlessness of the product itself. An automatic air freshener which sprays when it detects motion in the room, and then times out for a certain period so that it’s not always spraying. And also has a manual spray button. Is using a manual spray button so difficult in the first place? What if you’re always in the room and it’s still spraying too much? How much constant scenting do we actually need!? Secondly, it’s the best example I saw this year of the “idiotic men outclassed by sassy women” motif which is common to much mediocre adverting and television. I don’t think this is a feminist conspiracy. Most of it is probably written by men. It’s just stupid and lazy. In this case, the man is seen dancing around in front of the air freshener, trying to trigger the motion detector, and not realising (until his wife points it out) that a) the motion detector is in its temporary shutdown period, and b) there’s a manual button. Not only is it an old, cliched scenario, it’s also completely implausible. In reality, most people (men and women) would simply take a quick look at the thing, immediately notice the button, and press it. Actually that’s wrong, isn’t it? Most men wouldn’t give a toss about using a bloody air freshener in the first place.

Winner: Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

Advertising executives: +1 point for referencing Battleship Potemkin in the baby carriage down the steps scene. -50 points if you’ve never seen Battleship Potemkin, didn’t realise what you were referencing, and were just lazily copying a cliched scene you’ve seen again and again in countless other adverts. -1000 points for also lazily recycling one of the commonest advert themes of all time, “I love this product so much I’d sacrifice things of much greater apparent value to have it”. +2 points for pushing that theme to its possible all-time extreme, by suggesting that it’s an actual baby’s life that’s worth less to the character, than a box of cereal which he could have easily purchased for a few pence from any food shop. Total score: -1047. FAIL.

And finally, the “What Kind Of Idiots Do You Take Us For?” Award

Winner: Aviva

Basically, I can’t say it any better than Aviva’s nominator, Ben Ross:

“There’s currently an advert that’s totally getting my goat: namely the cuddly ‘Norwich Union has decided to rename as ‘Aviva” ad. Following a long line of adverts in which local companies (c.f. Midlands Banks, Abbey National) pretend that some cheeky-chap down in marketing has suggested a new name (which would be a cynical, uber-marketing act in itself, even if it were true), when what has actually happened is that they’ve been subsumed by a huge multi-national, and have finally received the diktat from Central Command that they must adopt the group name. I don’t know what’s worse: that they seem to honestly think we’ll fall for this crap, or that, no doubt, many people do.

“Suggestion for a better ad: akin to the ‘Hot Picks’ lottery game advert; we see a group of people ‘brainstorming’, thinking up new names for the company. This ad relies on them coming up with good ones. They come up with interesting, challenging, exciting new names for the company, that would clearly enthuse customers. But the last name that someone comes up with is, frankly, shit. For example ‘Aviva’. Everyone turns round and looks at the moron that thought of that. Quick cut to card saying ‘Norwich Union is now Aviva’, with voice-over that says ‘Okay, we wouldn’t have gone with this name on our own, but we’ve been bought by Aviva Group, so have to’. You can even add a totally worthwhile, might spark interest, advertisingee bit, where you say, for example, ‘Who are a secure, well-established group with resources across the globe, so you can trust your money to Aviva: we’re just sorry about the boring name’. Just as long as you don’t pretend it’s all because you liked the name!”

I think it’s also worth noting that within the space of half a dozen or so examples of other inspiring name changes, such as “Leningrad to St. Petersburg” and “Peak XV to Everest”, the advertisers manage to either completely run out of ideas, or just forget the difference between changing a thing’s name, and replacing something with a totally different thing. So, “Brosnan to Craig” and “Rooster to Ox”. But wait, Brosnan hasn’t changed his name to “Craig”, nor has the Chinese year formerly known as “Rooster” had its name changed to “Ox”. They should follow those examples with the punchline, “Aviva to Cheltenham and Gloucester”, as customers switch mortgage providers.

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