SA’s digital ad campaigns need work

It took a flood of insults to point the way to a new trend in digital advertising. A campaign featuring supermodel Gisele Bundchen won a Grand Prix, the premium award, in the Cyber Lions, the digital category of the annual Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

The campaign began with the announcement of an unlikely partnership between Bundchen and macho US sports clothing and accessories brand Under Armour. It sparked a flood of subtle as well as outright sexist insults in conventional media and on social networks.

And that’s when the campaign truly kicked in. Real comments were used in TV ads featuring Bundchen working out. Under Armour’s website used a custom “engine” to scrape the internet for insults and projected them on the site in real time – all accompanied by videos and images of Bundchen in action.

The message? Bundchen had the physical and emotional strength to block out even the worst insults. Not only did it send a message of empowerment, it also combined numerous platforms, sources and technologies.

Most importantly, it delivered results: 1.5-billion media impressions and a 28% increase in sales. The campaign won another two gold Lions and four silver awards for its various achievements.

No one is suggesting that an equivalent campaign could have been created in South Africa. But it is noteworthy that our country barely features in the Cyber Lions, while having a proud history across the rest of the competition.

South Africa took 16 out of 58 awards this year in the radio category, which it has dominated over the years, proving there is no shortage of advertising creativity in this country.

So why does it fall so short in digital? One answer was suggested to me two years ago during judging of the annual Bookmark awards, which recognise excellence in digital creative work and execution in South Africa. Some of the best work on show was brilliant in its execution, but clearly followed in trails blazed by digital pioneers elsewhere.

While such works were not necessarily derivative, they were not particularly brave, given that they were built on well-established foundations. And they barely left a mark in the collective South African psyche.

The best of South African radio advertising, on the other hand, tends to be bold and memorable. One senses creative decision-makers ready to stick their necks out, which is a sign not only of courage, but also of confidence. They know what they’re doing and are always ready to try something new.

In the digital category, on the other hand, we tend to be led by what is happening elsewhere and what has been made possible by others. It’s a matter of limited technical knowledge and failing to appreciate the boundaries of digital creativity – or rather, the lack of boundaries. Globally, it is a medium that is being reinvented every day and is slowly becoming more important than most other traditional forms of advertising.

Eventually, all advertising will be a sub-category of digital. Digital was the poor relation of TV, radio and press advertising until a few years ago in Cannes. In South Africa, it still is.

Arthur Goldstuck has been a judge in the digital category of local and international advertising festivals. He is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and subscribe to his YouTube channel

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