Fake ads are on the rise – good or bad, brands need to call it out

The line between real ads and copycats is being deliberately blurred, argues Gymbox’s brand and marketing director Rory McEntee.

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That Guinness coronation advert. Nailed it right? Well, turns out it was a spoof ad by a creative and not the work of Guinness itself. But that didn’t stop it going viral and flooding social media feeds.

It got me thinking: how big a risk are fake ads to our brands? I found myself wondering how I would feel if spoof ads were doing the rounds of my brand – Gymbox – the brand I’ve been brought in to manage, build and protect. Well, it would depend on how good the spoof ad was. If it had been received positively – and with a bit of luck, gone viral – then it’d be cool, right?

But what if it wasn’t good, and got on the wrong side of the keyboard warriors? My brand would come under fire for something it didn’t even do. And that doesn’t feel right.

Sometimes, brands get it wrong. They have to apologise; I’ve been there. So, if a fake ad was to create the need for an apology, is it left to the brand to pick up the pieces, make comment or even apologise while the creative behind it disappears back into the studio and quickly deletes it from their portfolio?

I don’t think it will be that long before we see that scenario.

With fake ads doing the rounds, brands need to consider how to protect themselves from copycat efforts.

Rory McEntee, Gymbox

With fake ads doing the rounds, brands need to consider how to protect themselves from copycat efforts. After all, if any Tom, Dick or Harry can impersonate and fool even the smartest of us out there, we run the risk of losing control of what our brand stands for. The speed at which ads are now shared socially and how we consumer media is incredible. But quite often, consumers don’t know the source.

In fact, the power of social means we believe it without question, share and even credit the brand itself for the ad, where in many cases it’s not legitimate. The aforementioned fake Guinness ad, posted on LinkedIn ahead of King Charles III’s coronation earlier this month, appeared many a time on my own feed thanks to marketers applauding Guinness for its ‘genius’ work.

One creative director shared his spoof Guinness ad on LinkedIn ahead of the King’s coronation, with many believing it to be real.

Brands are becoming a victim of their own success. Some brands have such a recognisable DNA, brand look and feel, the template can be easily replicated for adventurous creatives with an idea. But as a brand owner, I don’t want to see them.

For every brand execution or campaign that hits the media, I must have over a dozen good ideas that just didn’t make the cut, whether we have done consumer research or it’s just a gut feeling. As the brand custodian it is my decision. I’ve been hired to depict our brand in a particular way, not anyone who fancies a go.

Accountability and control

Now the purists will tell us that we will stifle creativity if we put restrictions on who can and who cannot work on any particular brand’s ads. After all, if we remove the red tape and overthinking in the board room, we might actually deliver great work.

But I’ve been reminded we do live in a creative world now, one where the likes of the Chip Shop Awards are some of the most accessible opportunities to creatives of all career stages. Awards that actively encourage the notion of exploration, the beauty of an idea and (rightly or wrongly) provide that eureka moment.

I had a look at the Chip Shop Awards, hosted by The Drum, and all the judges come from the agency world. Let that sink in. No judges from owners of the brands. So maybe it’s an agency versus brand perspective here, where those on the agency side of the fence are the ones that seemingly support and champion spoof ads. I question what gain this is for.

Is it that by accepting and allowing frustrated creatives the opportunity to work on a more exciting brand than they currently get, they’re provided with an outlet and opportunity to show what they can do. Maybe they could even get a job elsewhere off the back of it.

Guinness has nailed its advertising in recent years and it’s no surprise that it recently became Britain’s more popular pint. Should the brand then be fair game to imitate for creatives who don’t work for it, or should we leave it to the brand to continue making award winning work?

There are very few brands out there who can create truly disruptive and talkable creative. These brands are in an enviable position and are hugely desirable to work on or for. But there are a lot of probably very talented creative directors and designers out there who work for less sought after brands in less celebrated categories, and they may have ambition or desire to do more. And taking a brand that has a very recognisable and distinctive DNA gives them the foundations to put their individual take on how they think the brand could be portrayed.

But it doesn’t make it right.

A spoof-ridden future

The rise of AI will likely fuel more spoof adverts in the future. At Gymbox, we have already tested both copy and images with AI and while I feel it’s not quite there yet – and we would not launch a campaign with it – there is little doubt that the speed and ease at which ads can be created will see a plethora of AI-generated ones coming through.

According to data from Frontify, a brand management platform, 93% of CMOs say protecting their brand has become even more important, and 76% say an unsolicited fake brand partnership is their worst nightmare.

For those of us brand guardians, we will test AI executions but ultimately decide if it is good enough to launch to market. Those who are creating fake adverts may be happier to share the work in progress and less crafted AI adverts to the world. Again, I question the risk to long term brand equity.

Brands’ biggest AI opportunity is in making customers believe the bullshit

AI will never replace a good creative director or copywriter who are worth their weight in gold. But it may allow some brands to become lazy in their execution, whether that’s from a financial or time perspective. But the ease at which ads can be created will only encourage more and more people to create fake adverts. This makes it harder to control and protect your own brand.

At our fingertips are AI apps that can not only create brand collabs, but can fully work up a suite of marketing assets and a campaign to support it. Having more and more fake ads and brand collabs out there shows the challenge that faces the marketing community to protect the equity of their brand – the speed at which AI is developing, and little governance around how it is implemented, is giving me some sleepless nights.

Lost in the hype

Seeing examples of people accepting, sharing and actively crediting spoof ads sets a dangerous precedent. The recent example of the Guinness ad shows we can get lost in the initial hype around what we think is a good ad.

But with that example, after you get over the initial fantastic execution, the use of an old logo and the fact that the campaign had the potential to not play well with many brand advocates, people should really take note on the impact that fake ads can have on long term brand value.

There is an internal issue that needs to be considered. There are some fantastic agencies and creative directors who create fantastic work. And as a brand owner I want to support and champion award winning work.

Now, that comes at a cost, and I value this time and work. But some might not. What’s to stop some clients by-passing agencies once the creative template has been done and going out en-masse to have a cheap alternative for creative ideas? We can just get as many creatives as are up for it sending through ideas and we’ll pay for any we use.

How Guinness became Britain’s most popular pintBrands have been very quiet on the topic with few commenting publicly. I’ve seen those on the agency side applaud the creatives behind the fake ads, saying how proud the creative director would be if other brands were given the copycat treatment.

Let me tell you, the brand director who paid big agency fees would not be happy that rogue ads are doing the rounds. Good or bad. And the reality is that there is nothing we can do about it.

The scariest thing of all is that we, as the brand custodians and should have accountability and control over how our brand is portrayed to consumers.

With fake ads sometimes even hitting harder than the real thing there is little motivation for the advertising industry to call it out. In fact it’s probably the opposite.

Brands cannot stay silent as fake ads continue to grow – they need to call it out. I’m not saying we need to mock or ridicule those who push fake adverts onto our social feeds – we might even, as brand owners, champion and celebrate the imagination of the ad. But we need to be clear when creative is the work of someone else.

The problem is that fake ads have become so common, and are so professionally produced, just like that Guinness advert, that we have now reached a point where people can’t tell the difference between real and fake advertising.

The line is being deliberately blurred. So it is up to us as brand custodians to protect our brands, even if we can’t always control what people do with them.

Rory McEntee is brand and marketing director at Gymbox.