Technology has made it easy for activists to protest brands through hacking or spoof ads.
In light of the recent Libor-fixing scandal, Barclays’ marketing has taken a surprisingly honest turn, with the troubled bank changing its tagline to: Barclays, Fucking Barclays. The slogan features on a new and improved version of the bank’s egg timer advert and even has a mobile component, with iterations of the line recently surfacing on Boris bikes. A straight-talking poster accompanies these efforts, touting Barclays “for the best fixed rates“.
Sadly, all this is a little too good to be true. Barclays has indeed attempted to distance itself from confusing banking acronyms and jargon through “more colloquial” terminology – but this was in 2006 when the bank spent £7m rebranding ATMs “holes in the wall” and putting up signs saying “Hi”. As for the explicit new slogan: while the language is blue, it is definitely not Barclays. Rather, this recent creative work is an example of brand hacking. And it has gone viral with a speed and inevitability that represents not just the levels of public anger towards Barclays, but also the potential pitfalls of advertising in an age of digital reproduction.
Brand hacking, or subvertising, is not a new phenomenon. However, technology has made it easier than ever to appropriate and subvert a brand’s iconography. With a computer and some creativity, a company’s advertising campaign can quickly be turned into an activism campaign against that same company. And while gargantuan marketing budgets once guaranteed your brand’s message would drown out opposing view-points, this is no longer the case. The fake BP public relations Twitter handle, for example, has about four times as many followers as the official BP America account.
The reworked egg timer ad exemplifies how fast and furious editing can be channelled into creative forms of protest. Michael Spicer, the comedian behind the spoof, told me that his anger about the unravelling Barclays scandal and the growing chasm between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else led to him sitting up one night, with “GarageBand, iMovie and YouTube open and [cobbling] together the advert in about two hours”. The next morning he uploaded it and tweeted it. Within a few hours online Spicer’s spoof had been viewed thousands of times, covered by mainstream news, and re-tweeted by the likes of Radio 4 presenter Corrie Corfield and Zombie Apocalypse! author Sarah Pinborough.
Spicer’s egg timer ad was clearly a parody, and obvious to 99.9% of people. However, the growing sophistication of digital tools means the mimicry that is an inherent part of subvertising has become so pitch perfect it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s fake; to distinguish who is the ventriloquist and who the dummy. It was, for example, difficult to ascertain from a first-look that the “best fixed rates” posters were not just an ill-timed media buy. And last month, Greenpeace teamed up with “culture jammer collective” The Yes Men to create an Arctic Ready campaign for Shell’s arctic drilling project that had a lot of people fooled before it was revealed as an elaborate hoax. The spoof was many levels of meta, with Greenpeace constructing a Shell crowd-sourcing campaign, then engineering its social media savaging.
The public readiness to believe Arctic Ready was legitimate marketing is hardly surprising. It is entirely plausible Shell might have been reckless enough to crowd-source adverts using its Let’s Go line, and that the crowd-sourced efforts had included gems such as “This fox will murder you unless we kill it first. Let’s Go”. Not only is it entirely plausible, it has happened myriad times. McDonald’s recent #McDStories hashtag campaign, for example, resulted in people sharing stories such as: “One time I walked into McDonalds and I could smell Type 2 diabetes floating in the air and I threw up. #McDStories. ”
With digital tools democratising the creation and distribution of content, you no longer need to be employed by Sterling Cooper to make an ad. And this has resulted in a new breed of mad men: ones who aren’t just getting mad, they’re getting even.
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