by Colin Jowell

When advertising tries to pretend it's innovative and fails...

In writing marketing commentary, my general policy has been- try to say something positive, or refrain from the debate. But there’s only one thing more annoying than hearing “oh those hashtags, they are so last year”.  And that’s seeing a hashtag campaign being done so stupendously badly that it could signal the demise of the channel all together.

Seriously. Try to avoid face-palming as you watch this. American fast food brand A&W, in what seems to be an unselfconsciously desperate attempt to claim relevance in a world that has moved past them, has tried to be “post-social” by using a hashtag that could never be used on twitter. Reading through the campaign, all the “elements” are there, right down to the 1974 mascot being returned to the advertising stage, this time as an App. How novel.

The problem here is not the hashtag. It is the crass application of old school retail advertising squashed into a new context to try and make it relevant. And guess what, when an ad shouts its benefits at you, all the hashtags in the world won’t make up for its lack of insight and inability to engage with customers in any meaningful, let alone emotional way.

Maybe I’m missing the irony here- but that just highlights the branding issue: it’s probably more believable if you eschew technology from a position of genuine insight or leadership. There are a lot of adverts on TV at the moment pointing out the need to share in the real world, rather than in the virtual one. But few have done this better than Orange, encouraging people to turn their phones off for a change. So much more endearing when you talk from a position of knowledge rather than grasping at relevance.

While some of you might not mourn the end of hashtag campaigns, the principle behind them is really a good one - create a community of interest around a message that is relevant to your brand, in a really simple way. I’d still recommend them to clients when the time and place call for it. But unfortunately when campaigns like this come about, they muddy the waters for everyone and yet another way for us to make meaningful connections with customers is ruined.

There is a lot of talk about marketing responsibility - generally centred around the influence we have on people and making sure we mitigate the negative social impact of some of our campaigns and products.  What this campaign demonstrates is that actually, the greatest responsibility is to ourselves - to keep the standards of communication high. Otherwise our jobs just become harder and harder, as people justifiably stop listening.