Matt Williams: some uncomfortable home truths about football advertising

I’d heard about the new Sky Sports ad before I’d seen it. Which I guess is a very good start.

There’d been plenty of tweets. Friends using it to reminisce about Collymore’s late winner, Yeboah’s screamer and “Aguerooooooooo.”

Even this very website posted an article about it, asking ‘Is this the best football ad so far?”

If I’m being 100 per cent honest, when I finally saw it, I felt a little underwhelmed. That’s what hype does to you I suppose.

It’s a nice ad. Cleverly shot. Some brilliant editing. And it does indeed evoke some great memories. But it just missed a little bit of Va Va Voom to really make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.

This isn’t a slight at Brothers and Sisters, the team behind the spot. Few agencies make better football ads (you can tell it’s an agency run by football fans). Their work for Sky Sports is consistently outstanding, and this Henry ad will be a worthy addition to their reel.

But the truth is, no-one really seems to do football in ads very well. In general they’re cringe-worthy, patronising, dull, or worse. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why, and it’s proving tricky.

Maybe, I tell myself, I’m just too invested in football fandom to ever be satisfied with what’s served up. I relate to long train journeys in the rain. Anger, disappointment, and eventually gallows humour at another heavy defeat. The comfort of knowing that the enjoyment of a match day relies on so much more than what happens during the 90 minutes on the pitch.

It’s not about over-engineered fan celebrations, face-paints or supporters spending more time filming the game than watching it.

But I don’t think I’m being precious. Too often I think brands portray football and football fans how they think they should be, rather than how they actually are.

There are notable exceptions. The aforementioned Sky Sports. Barclays (surprisingly). The Umbro ‘Goalposts’ commercial from 2002 (below) is my favourite ad of all time.

Yet for every diamond there’s hundreds of duds. So here are a few tips for advertisers when it comes to portraying football fans in ads.

Goal celebrations: They’re simply not that choreographed. A last minute winner isn’t marked by every fan with a double fist pump and polite clapping. It’s mainly chaotic scenes of aimless jumping and hugging of strangers, before someone accidentally gets elbowed in the face or ribs. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, but that’s rarely the point of a last minute winner.

Flags: OK, so you do get flags in stadiums. But they’re mainly draped over empty seats and contain the words of a local pub on them. They’re never waved by fans in the stand as the game is going on, as most ads like to think. Indeed, when I did see some kid to my left try to do this during our recent cup quarter final against Bradford, within three seconds a guy a couple of rows back had threatened to, and I quote, “break his face” if he kept on waving.

Collective Groans: Something bad has happened on the pitch. Fans of course will moan in frustration. But – and I’m mainly talking about those awkward ads for cars or deodorant brands here – I’ve never heard a crowd collectively shout “Oh no”. Inaudible screams of frustration? Sure. Swearing? You bet. Questioning the offender’s parentage? Naturally. But never anything as polite and cheesy as a collective ‘oh no.’

Badge Kissing: No fully-grown adult kisses the badge on their shirt to show their allegiance to their team. This is solely the domain of footballers (most of whom will have moved clubs within the year), and children trying to copy their heroes. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s a good way to show a fan’s loyalty in your advert.

Watching the Game: I’ve been to hundreds of games at about 70 different league grounds in the UK. Not once have I or anyone I know ordered a pizza, booked train tickets, watched TV or done anything else on a smartphone in the stands as a match is taking place. Firstly, I’m there to watch the game, not complete a list of weekly chores. And secondly, it’s easier to get a 3G signal at the North Pole than it is in a football stadium, as anyone who’s tried will know. Stop trying to sell this feature to me as a genuine opportunity.

Around the Ground: The people serving in the burger vans and selling programmes are not attractive blondes willing to give you betting advice. They’re mainly sweaty blokes called Gary who spend 95 per cent of the transaction trying to work out how much change to give you after you’ve paid for a £4 burger with a £10 note.

Gastro Pubs: I know you’d much rather go to a nice gastro pub to do your filming. And sure, maybe the only matches you’ve been to before are at Craven Cottage, which is surrounded by nice bars on the river. But most stadium pubs that ‘accommodate’ football fans on a Saturday are sticky, dingy, depressing places, not comfortable gastro pubs with plenty of room and chalkboards displaying a nice menu. Be realistic.

At Home 1: The way football fans are portrayed watching the game at home is just embarrassing (I’m looking at you, betting ads). You may have mates that support the other team, but is it ever as blatant as one sofa full of fans dressed in red paraphernalia, and one sofa full of fans dressed in blue? Of course not. You’ve seen the ads. A goal goes in – one group puts their head in their hands, the other jumps up cheering, before playfully rubbing it in. Sadly, it’s never as choreographed, straightforward or, dare I say, polite as that.

At Home 2: Oh, and no one sits down at home in front of their TV watching their team, wearing their club’s scarf. They might put a club shirt on, at a push. But a scarf? That’s just odd. To be honest, if anyone out there actually does do it, then I wouldn’t want that type of person representing my brand. Why do so many ads show this, then?

The Den: I know it’s one of the nearest grounds to Soho, it’s probably quite cheap to rent out and looks fairly nondescript, but not every football match takes place at The New Den. Let’s get a bit of variation, eh?

OK, so a lot of the above was written with tongue firmly in cheek. And I get why it happens so often. Football is our national game and because of its exposure, people think they know it. But just like you’d have to do your research on a subject you’ve no idea about, do us a favour and actually spend a Saturday in the Gallowgate End, Holmesdale Road Stand or Trent End before embarking on a football ad. Then maybe we’d end up with far less cringeworthy set-pieces, and perhaps even something football fans can actually relate to.

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About Matt Williams

Matt Williams
Matt Williams is head of content at Partners Andrews Aldridge.