Fear of backlash and detrimental impact is leading the advertising industry into a very dull space, writes Kirsty Hathaway, Executive Creative Director at JOAN London, but it’s not too late to turn things around.

What do we consider to be a good ad? Is it something with a CTA? Does it have RTB’s?

(Acronyms, anybody?!) Is it beautiful storytelling, a healthy budget and a famous director? Or perhaps it’s something with a great media buy, where the work is cross channel and appears everywhere? Or maybe, just maybe, it’s something different all together?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am certainly not advocating against hard-working advertising. Communication of message and product is vital to any brand’s success.

What I do know, however, is that compared to the 1991 data – where people looked forward to the ads coming on the tele – they are now actively trying to avoid them. People pay their actual hard-earned money to avoid ads. Adverts are in negative equity!

Jon Evans, of System1 and the Uncensored CMO podcast, looked into the impact of ‘dull’ ads on his episode with Adam Morgan and Peter Field from The Challenger Brand. And interestingly, System1 found that 48% of emotional responses to TV adverts they tested over the last five years are ranked as neutral. So, viewers watched an advert and felt nothing.

Nilson has identified that this 48% is valued at $68bn advertising money in the US and the UK over the past five years. So, that is a LOT of money wasted on creating forgettable ‘dull’ ads.

The takeaway: we need to play it less safe.

But, as we know, not playing it safe isn’t that easy in today’s landscape. Fear of offending people and triggering social media backlashes is a legit concern. There are brands out there suffering the consequences. And sometimes, they haven’t necessarily been that controversial, which is driving us into this paradox of bravery.

We know we need to be brave to have cut-through in an ever-evolving and busy landscape. But, fear of detrimental impact and backlash on the brand is leading us into the, evidently, very money-wasting, ‘dull’ space.

But all is not lost. Oh no. But, we maybe need to look at doing things a little differently.

At JOAN, we believe in ‘diversity of thought’ to lead us to the new path of advertising.

We are creating adverts for a nation. And in the UK that is over 67 million people. Surely it isn’t right that the people that are creating these ads all come from similar backgrounds, with similar views on the world, with similar experiences?

We believe that bringing together, under one lovely JOAN-shaped roof, a plethora of brains, minds and experience that are different to one another. So, our lens isn’t so single focused. Instead, it is nuanced and full of different lived experiences.

Yes, there is healthy debate. Yes, it isn’t the most linear straight route to finding the right creative solution. But our ambition is not to make the easy option, it is to challenge ourselves. Be empathetic. Be impactful. Be real.

We are not alone, there are some great brands and some GREAT ads out there to take note of.

At JOAN, we have our Rules of Rebellion that we live by when it comes to how we work, what we make and how we look at creativity. Here are but four of them and some examples of brands and campaigns that are leading the way and turning their back on ‘dull’.

Be you. Everybody else is taken. Be confident enough to be unapologetically you – understanding your strengths and what you’re known for.

One brand that does this is Ryanair on TikTok. With their self-deprecating humour, it constantly pokes fun at itself and its customers, it’s always quick to provide their take on the news agenda – driving their cultural relevancy. It even shared the picture of its CEO being hit with a cream pie on X (Twitter). Ryanair isn’t trying to pretend it’s anything other than a budget airline – you get what you pay for. Ryanair have been brave in their strategy, knowing that there were obvious risks that could spark potential backlash, yet it just makes them a little bit more real. 

Choose the red pill. Brands must ask ‘why’ endlessly. And when you falter on the ‘why’, ask ‘why not?’

Aldi did just this when it leant into the cultural currency of dupes as opposed to the expected (and dull) ‘lower price’ angle. And now, I would say, they are synonymous with lower-cost dupes allowing them to have a lotta fun in their comms. We all know the genius advert in response to the Colin the Caterpillar lawsuit, but a personal favourite of mine was the launch of their sportswear line ‘Aldidas’. Now, they didn’t ever say ‘Aldidas’ (not their first time being faced with a lawsuit), but others did…

Risk it for a biscuit. The biscuit being lovely work that blows stuff up and the world following suit. Faint heart never won a fair lion.

The quite literally beige breakfast cereal, Weeabix, garnered some serious talkability with this picture of Heinz baked beans on Weetabix. Was it divisive? You bet. But, with over 120,000 likes and 20,000 replies on the post, it was effective. You can imagine there were numerous conversations that would have happened internally at Weetabix to make this. But it begs the question ‘why not?’. Sometimes you really just need to risk it for a biscuit, or a brick of wheat!

Make lemonade. Optimists make life and work tastier by ignoring the ‘impossible’.

Nobody is watching TV. AI is taking over advertising. Average view time is sub three seconds. We have heard it all. But that doesn’t stop an optimist. No, an optimist sees nothing but opportunity. And that is exactly what Belvedere Vodka did with their Taika Waititi directed ‘Presents Daniel Craig’ film. 2.35 mins of pure entertainment. Surprising, funny and highly memorable.

Farewell dull. I think I like this new era of advertising.