Is Advertising Ready for Satire?

Dear Graduates,

There is room in admaking for far more than you’ve seen done.

I put before you today a tactic hardly anyone uses but which seems to me ripe for exploration.

–I’ve used it but couldn’t sell the work. That means nothing, though. Many times I have tried approaches that weren’t wrong,  just out of sync with the times–

So I suggest it now. In these newer times. To younger & more brilliant minds.


The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices.

Is how the Oxford Dictionary puts it.

Also helpful is the American Heritage dictionary: A literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit.

So many ads fail to touch us because they make no effort to reach us.

The real human us full of folly and vice.

Most ads stay too close to the brief.

Which is to say they stay too close to what the client wants said.

Which is BUY MORE.

The audience quickly identifies a voice that issues from a greedy wish to profit from the actions of others. And refuses to be either moved or listen further.

But they are moved by having what’s inside of them exposed. And they will lean in to listen when something they see unfairly held above them in the world is skewered.

Satire is great for this.

Because it gives you a chance to say out loud what the true problem is that your ad is about.

Let me give you two examples which differ from each other not only in tone but in format. They are not from advertising. Ads are a lousy place to look for inspirational help in making ads.

Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal that hunger in 18th Century Ireland be abated by the eating of children was probably the finest use ever of satire.

It caused wonderful ruckus in its time.

The opening few paragraphs of Wikipedia’s entry on the essay describes it well. When it points out that “Much of its shock value derives from the fact that the first portion of the essay describes the plight of starving beggars in Ireland, so that the reader is unprepared for the surprise of Swift’s solution …” it sounds like it’s describing exactly what an admaker hopes to accomplish in an ad–shock value to draw in a reader, followed by an unpreparedness that allows what one says to the audience to accomplish the feat of surprise.

A second example is from a pop singer who mostly appeals to folks my age but whose work you would do well to examine:

Randy Newman.

He has had hit songs more famous, but this one, to me, is his best:

The way both Swift and Mr Newman are able to straight-facedly say what the audience knows they don’t mean is both powerful and unexpected.

But, better, it accomplishes what few communications from companies ever accomplish.

They treat the audience with respect.

They’re daring you not to get what they’re saying.

It is disarming to an audience when someone talking to them drives directly at their sore spot at top speed. And an audience disarmed is an audience not ducking out of the way.

It seems to me an admaker might be able to make work that satisfies by examining satire the way these two have used it.

No, you’re right, it won’t work for many clients.

Brave companies.

Or companies forced by falling sales to behave bravely.

Just a thought. Best of luck with it.

FOR PRACTICE: Write ten true statements about life and the project you’re working on. Let the statements get crazy if your mind takes you that way, or more truthful, or expand into other subject areas. Generally, by the end of a page of fast thinking I’ll have written something I wouldn’t have dared say. Which is a good place to start constructing satire. If nothing else, you’ll have a new view of the product.

Dear Public, We Think You Are Stupid. Yours Truly, Netflix and Google.

What makes most clients so bad at advertising isn’t that they’re cheap, or corrupt, or ignorant, or don’t pay attention, or have bad taste, or any of the other character defects we all of us share in.

What makes most clients so bad at advertising is a fundamental belief they seem to hold in common.

They think people are stupid.

It’s doubtful anyone has said this thought aloud. Folks smart enough to run a company are rarely inept enough to insult the family of man.

But how they act tells us how they think.

Out of a hundred thousand examples that rush to mind, let us examine merely the most recent.


… has run 16 times tonight (June 4th) during a 3-hour broadcast of the White Sox vs Dodgers baseball game I have been watching on (update: It has continued to run at virtually the same exact schedule for the last 12 days also)

The point of the commercial confuses me.

But that’s made irrelevant by what the companies’ choice to run the commercial this way suggests is in their minds about us, the audience.

What do you imagine I and the rest of the audience watching baseball think of Netflix and Google and Chrome after being importuned so repeatedly and so clumsily?


We are bored.

We are annoyed.

We have even gone beyond boredom and annoyance to remembering who it is that has so bored and annoyed us.

And a place has been created in our brains where the memory lives that the names Netflix and Google and Chrome go together with the kind of annoyance and boredom that cause anger.

It’s not news that the quality of advertising creative is down.

It’s not news that a ton of companies spend a great deal of money on advertising that makes them look foolish.

But these are two companies born in the 21st Century.

They’re not the packaged goods marketers that have treated us as if we’re imbeciles for 50 years.

These are the new guys coming at us with this crap.

Dear graduates.

What most clients need from you even more than the ads you can make is the sense you can make.

The truth you can tell them.

The attention you can get them to pay to the difference between what they are doing and what they think they are doing.

If they treat people as if they’re stupid, their business will not grow.

Does Apple treat people this way? Nike?

And in what direction have their sales been going?

All ads tell the audience who a company is and what that company thinks of them.

Even bad advertising works that way.

Start thinking about opening your own agency. Part 2

There has never before been a time when so many people–clients, agencies, the press, the schools, your friends–were willing to admit they have no idea what’s going on in advertising. Which means you’re more equal to the best in the business right now than you may ever be.

The cheaper you can live, the higher you can afford to set the standard of what you won’t do.

Nervy work gets noticed, not over-planned work. Nerves die in the presence of responsibilities. Age also doesn’t help.

The most necessary person in an ad agency is the one who can get new business. If you start thinking of opening your own agency now, you may know enough to take the opportunity to meet one of these rarities should one come along. Instead of blowing them off to play pool with your buddies. You need a partner who can make you jump. Start looking. Looking is thinking.

The time to think about doing something is before you have to, not when you have to. When you get fired your address book shrivels just as quickly as your heart does. At least start the thinking from a position of strength.

If you think about opening an agency now, when you come to actually do it you won’t have quite as stupid a look on your face. Like I did.

Until you start your own agency you will never do your work, only someone else’s. If you need a better reason than that to start an agency don’t do it.