Sep 10, 2009

Why scam ads are like pedigree dogs

Leafing through an old issue of New Scientist magazine, I came upon this op-ed column that expresses outrage at the cruelty and insensitivity inherent in breeding pedigree dogs.

It seems that pedigree dogs are so efficiently bred for narrow award-winning characteristics that as a result they often end up suffering grave ill-health and a greatly reduced quality of life.

That immediately struck me as an appropriate way to describe something closer home - a scam ad. After we are done condemning the creatives and agencies behind scam ads (whenever that would be), it isn't too difficult to see the life of a scam ad as one akin to a dog's - metaphorically, if not always literally.

And then the problems that are endemic to pedigree dogs suddenly seem widespread in scam ads too.
"Pedigree dog breeders compete to produce animals that conform to written standards, which may include traits that inadvertently compromise quality of life. These traits were included in the first breed standards set when dogs left the working arena and entered the world of dog shows in the late 1800s. Many of them were valued by early dog domesticators because they served a purpose, such as long legs for hunting dogs, or muscular build for guard dogs. Unfortunately, breeders now tend to priortise looks over function, and to pursue traits with excessive zeal."
Even a casual peruser of scam ads will notice the traits that are being pursued with excessive zeal - long copy, no copy, microscopic logo, clever visual, ambient device, etc.
"Take the pug, which is required to have eyes that are "very large, globular in shape." Breeders select for this, leaving pugs with eyes that bulge so badly their lids can scarcely meet well enough to wipe the eyeball clean. The poor dogs suffer a lifetime of conjunctivitis that scars the cornea and blinds them."

All I can say that most scam ads suffer a much worse fate. Most of them can't even enjoy a life as an ordinary ad - the one that gets run and whose existence is seen and acknowledged. They are show-freaks who have no place in daily life.

After making a case for "a new approach to dog breeding, one based on a comprehensive understanding of their biology," the above piece ends on this note:
"Perhaps one day breeders will compete in a class for "The dog with the best chance for a high quality of life.""
While the brouhaha over scam advertising usually focuses on the perpetrators accompanied by ritual condemnation (and followed by a swift return to the status quo) - approaching the problem with empathy for the ads and ideas themselves may help us see the problem in a new light. And might even change the motivations of the scam ad "breeders."

As Rory Sutherland puts it, scam advertising is not really an ethical problem at all but an economic one. In the post, Rory also proposes a market system that can mitigate, partially at least, the colossal economic waste that scam advertising results in - and give the dog another chance to have its day.

There do seem to be changes in dog breeding - the above op-ed mentions withdrawn support for dog shows in the UK and also a pilot scheme to promote appropriate behavioural traits in show dogs.

And there do seem to changes afoot in scamland too - the One Show recently announced that it will ban scam creators for up to 5 years.

While many hope that the above will end the 'scam', my worry is that it shouldn't put an end to so-called "scam advertising" - advertising which owes its existence to profligate creativity.

I only hope that the One Show measures push us to work harder to give our scam ideas the legitimacy they deserve - by selling them to clients, going beyond a single execution and release, fighting (often with our own scammy and lazy selves) for their 'quality of life' and for their presence in the brand's legitimate guard book.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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