Tom Ewing of System 1: do anti-ads like Brewdog lead to a crisis of authenticity?

Brewdog and column inches go together like a summer’s day and a pint of cold, crisp, lager. Brewdog’s latest stunt delivered again – its first TV ad, proclaimed as the most “honest” beer ad ever. Certainly it was one of the most minimal, and cleverer than it looked – a static ad is the only ad people fast forwarding on x32 will notice.

At System1 we test every beer ad on TV, asking people a simple question: how did it make you feel? The greater the emotional response, the higher the Star Rating we give it. Brewdog’s honest ad got 1-Star, which means it didn’t make people feel very much at all.

It’s hardly alone in this – in fact, a slim majority of TV ads get 1-Star. It’s also not the first recent ad to take this snarky anti-advertising tone. Corporate-owned craft beer competitor Old Blue Last rolled out a set of similarly in-your-face ads last summer in the US. They also got 1-Star, leaving viewers baffled and bored.

And it’s not just beer. At the Super Bowl, Burger King scored a coup – so they claimed – by repurposing an old clip of Andy Warhol from an art house film and showing it during America’s most expensive advertising event. “#EatLikeAndy” was adored by commentators. But for viewers, it was, yet again, a 1-Star experience.

What’s behind this anti-marketing trend? For creatives, the lack of emotional response to the ads misses the point. Brewdog, Burger King and Old Blue Last are looking to be talked about first, and enjoyed a distant second. It’s all about cutting through the clutter by being adverts that don’t look like adverts, and it’s hard to deny they’ve achieved that.

Commentators have criticised Brewdog, in particular, for trying to have things both ways – clinging to its punk image while beginning to buy into mass marketing. After all, it was only a few years ago that the brand was loudly claiming it would rather set fire to its money than make ads. Some of the respondents bored by its latest effort might well agree.

But this misses the significance of the trend and the assumptions behind it. As both Brewdog and Burger King have pointed out, a driver of their approach was an understanding that people fundamentally don’t trust or believe in ads these days.

For well over a decade, marketers have been trying to outdo themselves in achieving “authenticity” – which Millennials, in particular, are said to crave. The search for this elusive quality has brought us influencer marketing, purpose branding, careers for gurus like Seth Godin and Gary Vee, and a generation of grass roots brands of which Brewdog is one of the most successful.

Despite all this hunting for authenticity, people’s trust and liking for advertising hasn’t returned. And the Brewdog and Burger King ads are signals of the way this game has reached one obvious end point. If advertising is always already inauthentic, you might as well make ads which hold the work they share a screen with in barely disguised contempt.

Ads like Brewdog’s and Burger King’s exist only in negative – they depend on their context for impact, and depend on their viewers knowing exactly what an ad is meant to look like.

It’s an approach which has clearly worked in driving industry conversation. But our testing shows that ordinary viewers honestly don’t give a monkey’s. And it leads to two big problems. The first is – what do you do next?

The second is even more fundamental. There are, in fact, ads which people genuinely like – love, even. Burger King performed atrociously in USA Today’s much-watched Super Bowl Ad Meter, which was topped by the NFL’s celebratory birthday ad. Brewdog got its column inches at the same time as UK baker Warburtons, who released another of their warm, witty movie pastiches, getting Robert De Niro to promote its bagel range.

What’s notable about the NFL, Warburtons and similar well-loved advertising is that they aren’t pretending not to be ads. But they are aiming to be entertainment in their own right as well as ads – and succeeding. They show another way out of the crisis of authenticity – ignore the idea entirely.

Is Brewdog likely to turn to Warburtons’ De Niro and the Muppets? Hardly. But maybe an injection of populism wouldn’t be such a bad idea for a brand looking to convert cult status into global fame. A brand that knows its punk history also knows that some of the greatest punk moments happened inside the mainstream, not outside. Who better than Brewdog to create advertising’s ‘Fairytale Of New York’?

Tom Ewing is head of marketing at System 1.

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