Unlike most of the panellists on The Gruen Transfer, I still make ads for a living, and try to exercise restraint when asked to give an opinion about a competitor’s work, even if I think it is second-rate. I do this because I know that even the dullest, most instantly forgettable ad must have been approved by a client, and that however badly it performs it will always be, to some extent, his or her baby. And that just as the mother of a real baby wouldn’t thank me for pointing out that its eyes are too far apart or that it bears an uncanny resemblance to Benito Mussolini, there aren’t many clients who’d thank me for telling them the last ad they approved was ill-conceived and badly written, and then pay me to create their next one. But very occasionally I am asked to talk about an ad which is so incontestably, irredeemably awful that not acknowledging as much would be to leave serious question marks over my own standards. So when a friend called to tell me she was going on the radio to talk about the federal government’s multi-million-dollar small-screen assault on sexual harassment, and to ask me if I had any criticisms she might quote, the fact that the fed. gov. probably employs more ad agencies than any other institution did not deter me from rolling my metaphorical sleeves up, taking my metaphorical gloves off, and opening a fresh can of industrial-strength vitriol. Because if the awards-obsessed industry I work in ever decides to recognise incompetence, the now notorious ‘Milkshake’ video would be a shoo-in for a Golden Turkey.
So conspicuous and numerous are its flaws, in fact, that it had been running for only a matter of days before it was pulled. But unlike a novel whose author is discovered to have once used the word ‘niggardly’ in a Year 11 essay, online content cannot be pulped. And before anyone in Canberra could get to the kill switch, many baffled and outraged taxpayers had downloaded and shared the ad, and three weeks later you only need to google the words ‘cringeworthy incomprehensible government consent video’ to see what all the fuss was about. I won’t spoil your fun by listing here all the reasons why the management of the ad agency responsible should be stripped naked and thrown into a tank full of piranhas. Suffice it to say that while the ad failed completely to increase my concern about a serious problem faced by many women in many workplaces, it made me empathise very strongly with one particular woman in one particular workplace. Because thanks to the quality of the lines she had to deliver and the way she was directed, I doubt whether the female lead in this epic fail will ever be cast in anything else. Indeed the script is so bad that after forcing myself to sit through it three or four times I began to suspect that an agency creative department might not have been involved at all, and that the writing of the script might have been farmed out to the teenage son or daughter of some Coalition lackey. And then it occurred to me this might not have been done to save taxpayers’ money, but because by engaging the services of an advertising agency the government risked being accused of perpetuating the very problem the campaign is meant to address. And that this view of the advertising industry had been formed not by watching reruns of Mad Men, but by following the Twitter account of one of Australia’s most respected feminists. ‘If you even smile, meet the eyes of a bloke, or call a boss by his first name, that can be read as an invitation,’ Jane Caro tweeted recently. ‘So, we don’t smile, and keep our eyes down, and never use the man’s first name until we know him really well.’ While this is a criticism of all Australian workplaces, we can assume that the lived experience it draws on could not have been gained in the ABC green rooms or university campuses which Ms Caro frequents these days, but in the Sydney advertising agencies where she worked for many years previously. So as the creative director of more than one of those agencies, I can’t help feeling lucky never to have worked anywhere where I was called anything except Simon (to my face, at least). And even luckier that, while I did know Jane socially, I was never sufficiently impressed by the ads she wrote to employ her. Because if I had, and then our eyes had accidentally met across an empty lift or layout pad, I might have found her extra-curricular charms irresistible.
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