The BBDO-Bayer Debacle: How Bad Was It?

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By John Barker, CEO, BARKER Advertising, New York

By now, most of the industry has heard or likely seen the Cannes Bronze Lion-winning scam ad from BBDO’s Brazilian subsidiary. And you are also probably aware that BBDO and Bayer have distanced themselves from the mess after sane people like Cindy Gallup called out their transgressions on Twitter and elsewhere.

It seems that, in retrospect, everyone suddenly agrees that “Don’t Worry Babe, I’m Not Filming This”.mov was a bad idea all-around.

And now that the mea culpas have been carefully worded and dutifully uttered, the story will quickly recede into the background noise of a uniformly terrible year in our business, one in which blatant racism, sexism, and downright creepy behavior have stolen the headlines here in the US—a year in which top executives have been fired, others have sued for wrongful termination, and clients have bolted for the door to avoid the backlash. 

But oddly enough, while a heretofore unknown outdoor ad run only once in Brazil does not seem to compare to CEOs’ heads rolling or agency-wide emails announcing “Ghetto Day,” I personally find it far more troubling. Because whereas the more publicized and ground-shaking incidents primarily involved the egregious behavior of individuals, the cesspool surrounding this scam ad is an indictment of our entire industry, and it’s impossible to escape the stench.

It’s not just that the ad is offensive, although it is indeed. At a time when our industry is actively struggling with the basic concepts of fairness, respect and equality for women, and large network agency executives have been terminated for blatantly sexist and misogynistic behaviors, this ad is essentially an homage to cretinous men and the objectification of women.

Nor is it that the ad promotes criminal behavior, although it clearly does. Aside from the obvious moral issues, Revenge Porn and other non-consensual posting of private sexual material is an illegal act in most civilized nations, subject to criminal prosecution and civil litigation. Former ESPN reporter Erin Andrews recently won a $55MM settlement in her case, and the FBI has aggressively prosecuted cases involving numerous hacked celebrities.

Nor is it that this ad also advocates a particularly virulent form of cyber-bullying, one of the most pervasive problems affecting young people in our global society, to the extent that, just last week, Britain’s Prince William made protecting people from this scourge a personal mission. In reality, sexual shaming on the Internet is a common cause of teen suicide, a fact well publicized following the tragic death of Canadian teen Amanda Todd, and since then all too frequently repeated.

Nor is the problem even the sordid history of the ad itself—that it was a scam billboard created for the sole purpose of cheating, that the agency paid for the ad, or that there is virtually zero intrinsic brand connection between the headline and Bayer Aspirin as opposed to, say, an HP computer, Tums, Expedia.com, or a Smith & Wesson 1911, just to name a few of the nearly infinite list of fill-in-the-blank possibilities that could pay off this puerile joke.

No. The problem is, that with all of those aforementioned issues so clearly evident—the offensiveness, the misogyny, the criminality, the advocacy for bullying, the celebration of depraved and despicable behaviors –that this indefensible ad was selected by a panel of the best in our business, to represent the best our business can be.

It won at Cannes.

When the advertising industry actively awards bad behavior; when it lauds churlish and callously offensive speech; when it hands out trophies for misogynistic messages with an old-boy slap on the back or pinch of the ass; when we act like insufferable boors, we cannot stand united and say that progress is being made, that we in this business of mass communications are leaders of progressive culture rather than the hypocritical oafs who drag our knuckles each step of the way. We become simply a part of the problem, not the solution. And that’s the most offensive thing I can imagine when it comes to the state of our industry.