An Ode to Bad Advertising

10 Nov,2022



By Ashoke Agarrwal


Ashoke AgarrwalImagine a world without bad advertising.

Where else would 80% of the advertising and ad sales world find gainful employment?

Furthermore, research has proven (sort of a la BARC) that bad advertising causes channel switching that contributes to a more equitable distribution between cable channels. And equality, as the pundits tell us, is not something to be sneezed at, market economy or not.

In his masterpiece “infinite Jest”, the much-lauded and laudanum-loaded David Foster Wallace posits that bad advertising sublimely promotes sales. He hypothesises a kind of mental jujitsu in the viewer’s mind that transfers and transforms the effect of bad advertising into a compensatory admiration of the brand’s gall leading to sales – a result of the Stockholm syndrome transported to the marketing world – a coping mechanism to a captive or abusive situation.

Mr Wallace’s insight has helped me resolve a professional puzzle. Why do big, successful brands that control 80% of advertising put out advertising that is 99% bad? Now I know marketing and brand managers are much wiser and more insightful than I thought. So perhaps there is a case to be made for making “Infinite Jest” required reading in marketing and advertising courses. After all, we want to propagate and nurture the proliferation of bad advertising well into the future to keep unemployment in check, equity in the media world and market leaders in the gravy.

This brings me to advertising awards and the worthies who judge them. Imagine their plight if bad advertising ceased to exist! Not only would their load increase, but it would rob them with the opportunity to reward and award their core fraternity – the confederacy of the mediocre and the smug.

Let me take a broader societal view. In the doom and gloom of the post-pandemic, on the brink of World War, inflation-ravaged, crime-infested world, bad advertising allows us to think – “Ah! Here is at least one insufferable thing I can easily switch away from”. And that’s why society needs more bad advertising to offer more frequent relief to its suffering people.

To dig a little deeper, is there a degree of badness in advertising?

For example, it is the kind of advertising that damages the family relationships of the creative hack who acknowledges creating it worse than the insidious, long-running campaign that has haunted the world for years.

Is a case to be made for Razzies in advertising to counter the usual annual awards to mediocrity? Usually, the world thinks of countering mediocrity with excellence. However, shouldn’t we, in our admiration of the all-around utility of lousy advertising, focus on countering mediocrity from the aft?

Bad advertising has a love-and-hate relationship with the digital and social media world. Digital and social media allow advertising to work with not the Big Bad Idea and Small Bad Ideas. And as digital and social media continue their march to dominance, advertising might soon proclaim, “The Big Idea is Dead! Long Live the Small Big Idea!!”

However, while digital and social media have made the purveyors of bad advertising that much more productive, they have also created intense competition. A whole army of content creators is now competing with bad advertising regarding the degree of badness and flow intensity. Bad advertising has, to some extent, sought to co-opt this trend with (bad) influencer marketing.

Finally, here is a word of advice to the millions of young people seeking to make a career in advertising. Go right ahead. Some among you, the truly creative and passionate kind, will fight a righteous battle until you leave with honour intact for other worlds. Others, savvier and flexible, will find their niche in the big, bad proliferating world of advertising. Either way, you are in for an exciting time.

PS: I have been in the world of advertising now for decades. I have seen it change from being a field of creativity to being a business vendor. This article is a satire that allows me to vent as I continue to fight the good fight to get advertising back to its core function – to build lasting brands that increase the sum total of happiness in the world.


Ashoke Agarrwal writes on the confluence of technology and marketing. He writes on MxMIndia on alternate Thursdays. His views here are personal


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