Gordon Comstock

Oxo and their agency MCBD are exploiting your weird-looking offspring to sell gravy. Unlike agencies, user-created ads can express real emotion. But such tactics don’t work for everyone

Advertising is getting silly in its old age. Consider the current trend for whimsical verbal play: the Drench spots from chi, or the meerkat from vccp. There’s something perverse, daring even, about spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on a baroque realisation of a geography teacher’s pun. These ads are a logical next step for an industry that has always taken trivial things seriously, a business where men cry salt tears over typos and a cat’s tone of voice is considered a proper subject for adult discussion. No surprise then that it’s ended up sitting in a damp armchair, giggling at its own jokes.
But even in these conditions an entire ad campaign based on the verbal similarity between the X Factor and the ‘Oxo’ Factor, wasn’t, imho, exactly crying out to be made.

Everyone remembers the original Oxo family: there was the swotty girl, the two indistinguishable lads, the bloke who looked like that cricketer and the actress off Strictly Come Dancing. Perhaps there was something about them that was quintessentially Oxo. What was that indefinable ‘factor’ so redolent of a powdered meat by-product?

Come now Oxo, we’re not idiots. The thing that distinguished the original Oxo family was that they were five actors capable of giving a passable read of a piece of dialogue written for a family and featuring stock cubes. How hard could it be then, to find a real family capable of filling their shoes?

Well, if the videos showing on theoxofactor.com are anything to go by, very hard indeed. If this is an earnest attempt then Oxo must be disappointed. Not wishing to be too much of a Simon Cowell about it, these families are the worst Oxo families I’ve seen in my life. They can’t act, and they look weird.

Of course, when I say ‘weird’, I mean normal. The humans we see on tv are uniformly gorgeous specimens. In fact, the important bit isn’t their gorgeousness but their uniformity. This is necessary so you can engage in the mental behaviour of insertion. Watching tv you can savour the illusion that you live in a world in which everyone is good-looking. This illusion is relatively easy to maintain since, when you’re looking at the TV, you’re not also looking at a mirror. And it works just great, so long as you are never ever on TV. Think of the poor Oxo children, innocents for whom this illusion has been shattered, perhaps for life. To their parents let me state unequivocally: Oxo and their agency mcbd are exploiting your weird-looking offspring to sell gravy.
And here’s how: most advertising has one thing in common, it’s made by ad agencies. These function as powerful normalising cultures, they prevent esotericism. Quite simply, if you put a small boy with the face of a frowning old man in your script, a creative director will remove him. If you cast him, the brand will complain.

Allowing the public to make the ads therefore, earns you instant cut-through. These ads don’t look like ads. They have the patina of reality. They get special treatment. They’re like the toddler who presents a parent with a pink mess on paper and says “Mummy”. You’re not going to take them aside to discuss perspective.

Fallon’s work for the Wispa Gold relaunch operates on the same principle. “As a thank you for helping to bring Wispa Gold back,” the website gushes, “we decided to give you our advertising space.” Billboards are used to broadcast messages of love. It’s disarming, it does something no agency could ever do – it expresses real emotion. The brand doesn’t do any selling, the act of selling, it says, is so much less important than whatever you have to say. “After you,” it says, “please.” It is the apotheosis of the trivial. Clever, but not quite true. It’s purpose, after all, is to sell chocolate.

The trick is to frame the public in such a way that your brand doesn’t suffer. Consumers must not confuse these adverts for ‘real’ adverts. A
user-created ad is only possible for a big brand with an established history. A YouTube ad for a local roofers firm featuring a poorly written script, read by a fat man with terrible timing looks like a cheap advert. The same advert for a major brand looks smart and modern. Oh, and the whole thing will cost you a million pounds.

Gordon Comstock blogs at advertanon.blogspot.com

What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

Buy the issue

The Annual 2018

The Creative Review Annual is one of the most
respected and trusted awards for the creative
industry. We celebrate the best creative work from
the past year, those who create it and commission it.

Enter now


South East London


Burnley, Lancashire (GB)