September 4, 2009

In Defense of the WWF 9/11 Ads: Good Ad, Wrong Client

This is terribly offensive, unless you happen to think it’s true. If it is true, the only offensive bit is that anyone would think that Tsunami deaths are okay. The problem isn’t the content of the ad: the problem is who paid for it.

This is not a great ad for an established organization like the World Wildlife Fund. The minute it came out, the story went from the content of the ad to the controversy over it.

If the ad had been released by a smaller organization, it might not have gotten so much attention—but people would be talking about the message, not the person who funded the messenger. It would have been a cheap way for a small organization to get people talking, both about the environment and about them.

The right client for this ad is the one you’ve never heard of.

This is the inverse of Paul Graham’s argument that big companies impose unwiedly checks on their own behavior:

As companies grow they invariably get more such checks, either in response to disasters they’ve suffered, or (probably more often) by hiring people from bigger companies who bring with them customs for protecting against new types of disasters.

It’s natural for organizations to learn from mistakes. The problem is, people who propose new checks almost never consider that the check itself has a cost.

I always thought this had an obvious explanation: as companies grow, they accumulate potential downside. If a company has no money, no reputation, and no customers, they don’t lose any money, reputation, or cusotomers by doing something ridiculous. If they do have established values, they need to spend more time preserving them. The World Wildlife Fund obviously realized that making a 9/11 reference would cost them more than it benefited them. A smaller organization can round the costs down to zero, and figure that the chance of a huge benefit is enough to justify the ad.

That’s the problem with chasing controversy: if you’re enough at it, then after a while, it’s not worth the risk.

(I guess there’s one other problem with this particular ad: during the last 20 seconds, when the picture fades to black, they should have cranked up the sound, and included more explosions, sirens, screams, etc.)