A case of doh! for the brains behind the kingsmill creative

It’s a back-handed compliment to advertising that when an expensively mounted campaign achieves the exact reverse of what is intended it makes headline news. The latest agency to receive this rare distinction is that gilded veteran J Walter Th

While Elvis fans got all shook up over JWT’s ‘The King’s Mill’ ad, the rest of us were plain stupefied – and stopped buying the bread. Needless to say, JWT was dropped

It’s a back-handed compliment to advertising that when an expensively mounted campaign achieves the exact reverse of what is intended it makes headline news. The latest agency to receive this rare distinction is that gilded veteran J Walter Thompson, now known as merely JWT, whose work on behalf of breadmaker Kingsmill resulted in a sharp decline in sales and a dent in the first-half profit of parent company Associated British Foods.

The campaign that flopped was an extraordinary piece of work which sought, for reasons that remain a mystery, to associate the brand with Elvis Presley. A clue can be found in the misbegotten slogan “Kingsmill – By appointment to the King”.

It’s easy to picture the creative team at JWT scratching their heads, chewing their pencils and waiting, the way creative people do, for inspiration to strike. And when at last it did, it came not as lightning but as a brickbat. They went ahead anyway. The name Kingsmill must have been tossed back and forth across the table until Creative A broke the word into its component parts, and, after biting the top off his pencil, asked, “Anyone know what a smill is?” Creative B looked up from her half-drunk macciatta, eyes shining, “No, but how about mill? You know, King’s Mill”. “Wow!” exclaims Creative C, his pigtail oscillating with excitement, “that’s it! The King’s bread! Bread by appointment to the King!” Whoops and high fives all round.

Seven million pounds later, the campaign hits the small screen. It’s a story related by master breadmaker Eddie of how Elvis arrived at Prestwick Airport – in reality the only time that he set foot in the UK, en route home from Germany – and stayed behind to set up a bakery. The ad includes a scene in 1960s Las Vegas, where Presley is performing and shows Eddie providing The King and his entourage with a spread of Kingsmill sandwiches, rolls and muffins.

And what, you may ask, is wrong with that? Many viewers slumped semi-comatose, their minds adrift on the boundless bilge issuing forth from the set, will have seen nothing incredible in Elvis setting up a bakery in England. After all, on TV all things are possible, even Anne Robinson. But the ad failed just the same. It failed because there lies, somewhere admittedly close to infinity, a point at which the credulity and patience of the most stupefied viewer is tried beyond endurance. It was JWT’s misfortune to hit it.

There is of course nothing wrong with fantasy in advertising. It is a frequently used device and it can work. However, to be effective it must be either completely beyond the realm of feasibility – breadmaker to the King of Mars for example – or rooted in our common culture. That Elvis Presley should found a bakery is not fantastic or amusing, it’s simply silly and rather irritating. That he should do so in England is daft beyond belief.

And even supposing the viewer went along with the joke, what marketing purpose was served? Were shoppers expected to switch from Hovis to Kingsmill prompted by a weak pun and an ad whose conception is weaker still? Was JWT hoping to lure bread-eating Elvis fans? (The answer, as we shall see, was no.) What did the campaign tell us about the product? As with too many ads the singular purpose seems to have been to make the brand name stick and trust the rest to luck.

The campaign did more than merely irritate. As is only to be expected when countless thousands start the day in the hope of being made indignant, some found the ad offensive. These were Elvis fans, a broad and diverse universe whose inhabitants include the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, zillions of dreadful impersonators, and crackpots who believe that Presley is alive and well and living in Luton. Their objections were twofold. First, the King’s death, if indeed it happened, was hastened by a fondness for deep-fried peanut butter sandwiches. To associate Elvis with bread, said the scandalised critics, was akin to using Buddy Holly to promote air travel. Second, they were beside themselves with indignation when it became known that Kingsmill planned to produce loaves with slices in the shape of Elvis’s profile, a kind of doughy silhouette. One outraged fan wrote on his website, “I cannot think of any advertising campaign as sick as this atrocity…it insults millions of Elvis fans, Elvis’s family and his memory.” To which Victoria Wilkinson, account executive at JWT, replied with a toss of her curls, “I don’t care what Elvis fans think”.

Here at any rate was a persuader who gave not a jot for the dark art of crisis management and still less for the outmoded convention of politeness. Pity she lost the account. â¢

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