When ads don’t work

On the left, a great looking advert. On the right, a modest looking website soliciting ideas. Which will really help solve the problems they address?

The other day, two links came into my stream at the same time.  One was for this poster to quell the violence in London. The other was for this site to solicit aid ideas in support of East Africa’s famine.

One presented a message.  One offered utility.  The ad went in one direction only. The site encouraged participation and user-generated ideas.  The one-way message seemed to scream “look at me, aren’t I clever?”  The request for ideas, which may or may not work, simply said, “we’re not sure what to do, but maybe together we can figure something out.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like ads. Including this one. I’ve spent a good deal of my career making them and celebrating their ability to inform, inspire and entertain. I admire the craft that goes into executions that are both beautiful to look and a pleasure to read.

But something about this juxtaposition dramatizes the point that ideas that say are far, far less meaningful or motivating than ideas that do.

Obviously the poster is a parody — one of many — of the famous 1939 Ministry of Information banner, which may or may not have worked to promote morale in the middle of World War I.  So yes, it’s a bit unfair using it make my point. Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that we need to build things that involve our community, invite participation and lead to action rather than simply say things. Especially in times like these.

Your thoughts?



Hi, I was sent a link to this blog as it was of special interest to me as I am the person behind the 'Calm Down' poster.

Just to clarify, the poster has never been printed and posted by the Metropolitan Police as has been reported in other blogs, twitter streams etc. In matter of fact, I knocked it up in ten minutes during my lunch break. I work in advertising and often throw together scamps as a bit of fun and mainly because I love my job working in advertising as a creative - and also, as you correctly established Edward, I'm hoping (maybe) people will look at me and think I'm clever.

However, this particular scamp went a little crazy as soon as I posted it on my twitter stream. Within an hour it was being viewed and retweeted tens of thousands of times an hour and I was being approached by the press etc looking to know it's story and seeking permission to print the image. Actually this was a little surreal.

However, regarding the main points raised in the above posting which are both valid and interesting in as much (as the reply comments suggest) they are debatable. I agree that there is some merit for advertising being a two way interactive process - and indeed, I believe within 5 years this will become a ubiquitous form of promotion as smart phone and tablet technology really come into their own in ways unfathomable to us now.

However, the message I was trying to communicate within the poster was not an instruction i.e. to those rioting, but aimed at galvanising those who looked on in despair. I designed it during the height of the trouble which was spreading and increasing around the UK - people were watching the live news feeds and worriedly tweeting with a restrained sense of fear and panic - what if they riot in my city? What if they riot in my street?? What if they riot outside my home???

I think my poster succinctly summed up the mood of the Nation at that time. Thousands tweeted, retweeted, posted and printed the picture not just because they liked the aesthetics and design - but as a symbol of unity - a secular prayer for togetherness - a sort of flag of unity. It was blunt propaganda, the classical semantics of war – tying to echo the effect of one of Churchill’s speeches or war posters like the ones shown here http://tinyurl.com/534hat and indeed the WWII poster infamous in the UK http://tinyurl.com/3fod4pf which I drew inspiration from in a big way – only updating it to the present day vernacular.

I had anticipated that some may buy into it but not that it would go viral in anyway. And this leads to my very point.

If we just look at this as a digital message that was communicated; within 48 hours it had been viewed on twitter 35,000 times, reposted on Tumblr 3,000 times, posted on blogs and retweeted around the world from Japan, to Toronto, NYC to Sweden and finally printed in some of the best read magazines in the country. And at what cost for this global exposure? Nada, zilch, zero. The only cost involved was the 75pence bowl of soup I ate while I put the design together at the office iMac before I tweeted it.

P.S. the cynical side of me recognises that the design was rather successful simply because it had a certain ‘F’ word in it. Ah, well, f@*k it.

Thank you for your attention and kind words.


Jamie V
Jamie V

The other thing to consider here is the longevity of the two communications. The poster is a relatively short-lived tactic. It's ability to communicate will end when the posting comes down, or when the media buy stops (if it were a print ad.) The site, on the other hand, will continue to provide value and allow for participation long after the media buy for the first communication ends. It's a long idea, not just a big idea.


Hi Edward:

You bring up an interesting juxtaposition between the two, but I'm not sure if the conclusion is as cut-and-dry as...

"ideas that say are far, far less meaningful or motivating than ideas that do."

I'd propose that the trick is within the idea itself (how powerful, inspiring, challenging, etc. is it?), and not how it's brought forth (whether it's by SAYING it or DOING it or other).

I can easily picture a person for whom the first poster would have a certain humorous resonance that would cause them to question the madness of the riots, and ultimately "calm the fuck down". Likewise, that same person might view the second ad and decide in 1 second that it's wordy, kumbaya nothingness. I know this because that's how I felt.

So even before the stage of "how" the idea is conveyed, or "what" it does, I'd propose we must take a step back and look at...the idea. Simple enough.

Thanks for the post!


Edward, I think the answer lies with the consumer. People don't have time to absorb or engage with the thousands of messages that come at them every day. So in terms of our communication ecosystem, there is more supply (marketers or organizations pushing content out) than demand (us wanting to listen and respond).

This is why ads such as the Calm the Fuck Down one work so well, and are so needed -- they provide efficiency, a split-second read, that allow consumers to get the message, consider it, potentially file it away and respond.

This is also why engagement missives like the website at right so often fail. They are an important response mechanism, but are much less likely to be used.

The fallacy of our golden age of Social Media is everyone wants to become the portal for engagement -- most likely to fail -- and many denigrate the old forms of push advertising -- most likely to succeed. The ecosystem of communication supply and demand decree it must be so.

Mark Nardi
Mark Nardi

This brings up an interesting point. I think the East Africa ad definitely has more worthwhile potential. But, at the same time, it still needs a creative touch to get attention, because it's pretty bland, and could easily get missed. So I think good creative can blend with utility and have a strong result. That's pretty much the goal of everything these days, right?


Apples and pears, as they say.

One is a spoof ad and one is a call to arms for good - an agglomeration of the sorts of people that leave comments on lovely blogs like this one.

Neither have anything to do with advertising.

Actually, I just don't get what your point is? When you say "we" do you mean people that work in advertising? Are you saying that we should collectively look for ways to address the structural causes of the riots/looting (a good idea). Or are you saying we should make more advertising that asks normal (non-advertising) people to do stuff?



If we're honest, most of the time ads have nothing to say but say it anyway. That's not a criticism; it's a reality of doing business. If you have something to sell you have to occasionally nudge people and say "have you thought about us lately?" Done well, it can work.

The same is true of social media. Soliciting ideas and getting participation feels great, and a big hit feels like it will change the world. But even the biggest hits in social media are ephemeral. Remember Ted Williams, the homeless guy with the golden voice who was all over Reddit and then mainstream media? (http://tinyurl.com/3av5xtv) Everyone was *hugely* interested in him... until they moved on to the next thing.

I believe modern marketing is about the feedback loop between old and new. So here are two bits of heresy for a Tuesday morning: 1) Campaigns (yes, I went there) are not only NOT wrong but are required to build and sustain interest; 2) These should be conceived and executed with the feedback loop in mind.


Nice post, Edward. You're right, both approaches, messages and utility, are valid. To me the fundamental issue is that many marketers confuse message with utility, mainly because few understand utility. We find ad-like messages in utility media and attempts at utility in the middle of ads (i.e., QR codes at the end of TV commercials). Let's keep fighting the good fight.