In an unfashionable corner of hell, beyond the sandy pit reserved for compulsive masturbators, there is place for those who make scam advertising. They will be tormented with briefs that they almost but can’t quite crack, eternal pitches supervised by vengeful traffic imps armed with, of course, pitch forks, for a creative director who looks like a bright red Tim Delaney and who, after carefully considering each of their eight million scamps, will reduce every last one to a neat pile of ash.
Scam advertising is advertising made solely to win an award. The purest form of scam is the ad that only ever appears once, in an award submission. But shrinking or deleting the logo, only running the ad on the inside of the agency fridge, never running the ad, paying to run the ad yourself, advertising your local psychic/drug dealer/tattoo parlour, these are the sad varieties of hell.
It’s not like you can accidentally enter a scam advert, because it has to look exactly like a real advert and therefore requires an exactly equivalent investment of time and personnel. And, barring hypnosis, there’s no way you’re getting through the four page entry forms required by even the Qatar Creative Horsey Awards without realising what you’re letting yourself in for. The only explanation is venality. But, and this is what makes it really depressing, venality at a corporate level.
Nevertheless people really do this. So many of them in fact, that both the Art Directors Club and Cannes have this year issued solemn decrees deploring the practice and reasserting their credentials as excellence-metering-authorities. Both will be naming and shaming the guilty, banning them for an unspecified period dependent on the severity of their crimes, and basically not being their friend on an ongoing basis.
But maybe it’s not all the scammers’ fault. After all, advertising awards are the only kind of awards that penalise people for trying, directly, to win them. In order to win one fair and square, you must do so obliquely. They make a virtue of inefficiency.
It should be easy to know which the best adverts were in any given year, there’s a single measurement that will do it: ROI. But advertising agencies do not consider whether or not an advert sells product in a cost-effective manner to be a proper measure of merit. The problem is that often adverts that are cheap, ugly and tasteless sell lots of product. Sadly these ads, often the most strident and conspicuous ads out there, are terrible adverts for advertising. They perpetuate the notion of advertising as clutter, something that, in the pursuit of its narrow, self-interested goals, makes the world uglier.
Awards are the industry’s chance to assess itself by its own criteria, essentially art criteria – beauty of execution or elegance of idea. Since these qualities must exist in excess of requirement they are wasteful.
In this sense scamming is not so much wicked, as just literal-minded: a scam ad is wholly wasteful. It’s as though the problem-solving tendency towards simplification has misfired, Ockham’s razor has missed its mark, the advertising brief, and hacked into the awards procedure. ‘You told us that we’d win if we found a simple solution to a complex problem’ – it’s as though they’ve mistranslated the question.
So scam isn’t quite a crime, but it is utterly pointless, a waste of money, of effort, of life. Perhaps this is punishment enough. Perhaps, to paraphrase the Buddha, you are not punished for your scam, but by your scam.
If you ask me, damnation’s too good for them anyway.
This piece originally appeared in Creative Review.