It’s the post I know you’ve all been waiting for – as ads have gotten milder the last few years, each season, I wonder whether there will be any commercials worthy of the “ugly” moniker. This year, we had three!

Before we dive into the ugly commercials, there is one interesting choice I want to discuss – Skittles’ decision this year to forego a Super Bowl commercial in favor of a one-time only, thirty minute live show in Times Square to 1,500 people, with proceeds going to the nonprofit organization, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Mars Wrigley also planned to donate up to $50,000.

In an industry where companies are spending obscene amounts of money on (for the most part) lackluster commercials, this is really a standout. I generally don’t like Skittles commercials, I’ll admit. They’re a bit on the weird side (and I’m a bit on the weird side, so that’s saying something). So to instead create buzz around an event starring a celebrity (C. Michael Hall), make it exclusive, donate the proceeds to charity, and in the end, spend less than you would on a Super Bowl commercial, while probably getting more views and interest for it, is really brilliant. Hats off to them. What can lawyers and law firms learn from that?

  • You don’t have to follow the crowd. I know the running joke in the legal industry is that lawyers love to be first to be second, but what if you DIDN’T do what everyone else was doing? A crowded playing field is just that – crowded. What if you found the way to stand out and did it?
  • Be true to your brand. This is definitely unusual for a brand, to have a Broadway-type show instead of a Super Bowl commercial. But Skittles is an unusual brand, so it fits with who they are. Unlike what Verizon did, trying to shore up their image with first responders, Skittles stuck with their brand message. Who are you as a firm? Don’t just say that with your marketing – DO it with your actions. The projects that you engage in, the charities that you supports, the innovations you embrace – let them all reflect who you are as a firm.

All right, now let’s jump into this year’s spots.

Audi | Audi Presents: Cashew

I know there are people out there that liked this commercial, but it’s a big no from me. I knew as soon as he said “Grandpa?” in a surprised voice, that he was dead. While I like the idea of seeing my loved ones when I die, for me, that felt icky. It felt even MORE icky when it was revealed that he was choking to death, and was then brought back when he got some air. I just felt that it wasn’t a very funny thing at all.

And also, this car doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s because I’m not exactly a car gal (don’t get me wrong, I love a good car), but if I see a car commercial, I want to know it’s a car I could go and test drive or buy – in theory anyway. This is a commercial for a product that they haven’t even made yet. We’re supposed to imagine along with them.

Imagine if your firm did a commercial for clients that depicted a firm where innovation was happening, the billable hour was extinct, basic functions were handled entirely electronically, and then turned around and said – sorry, we’re not there yet, but just picture it for now, and we will be, someday. No client is going to cross their fingers and hope for that. They want to know what’s available now.

What are the lessons for lawyers and law firms?

  • I say this every year, but it bears repeating – don’t be icky. What seems clever in discussions may not work in execution. While you might think this doesn’t apply to you because you’re not producing commercials, let’s consider the number of times someone has written a “clever” tweet that’s come back to bite them, or some other type of “funny” message that sounded good in their head, but the execution of which leaves much to be desired. Some things are best left unsaid, and in the rush to be funny, clever, or to jump on a trendy bandwagon, you might forget to be thoughtful about your audience. This commercial wasn’t particularly icky in the way that some others have been in the past, but for people who have had scary experiences, or lost loved ones, I felt it really wasn’t that funny.
  • Stick to promoting what you’re ACTUALLY doing. While it may be okay for car lovers to dream about the cars that *may* be, based on the scenario I described above, I think we can all agree that it’s not okay for law firm clients to dream about the law firm that may be. Don’t get me wrong – they’re doing it. But they want you to get there, not just think about it. So show your clients what you’re actually doing to be innovative, and not what you want to do.

Cure Auto Insurance | Screw in the Head

At least they’re consistent?

Every year, I include Cure Auto Insurance in the Ugly list. They’re a local ad, because they service only New Jersey and Pennsylvania, so be grateful if you didn’t see it the first time, and my apologies for showing it to you here.

It’s not as bad as some of their ads have been, but it’s still terrible. There are a million ways to draw the analogy that using this car insurance is easier to use than trying to fix your life – this was not an effective one. We could focus on it being gross for this woman having a screw in her forehead, or that it reinforces stereotypical gender roles of women complaining that men want to fix things, and men wanting to fix them, but either way, it’s bad.

What are the lessons for lawyers and law firms?

  • What is your firm experience really about? Whenever I see these commercials, I wonder about the real message of Cure Auto Insurance. Their point is that they’re a low cost, easy to use auto insurance. There are a million, strong ways to express that, which are more effective than their ads have been. What is YOUR practice, YOUR firm about? We’re not talking about creating a commercial for your firm here, but when your client or potential client walks into your office, or calls you, or emails you, what is their experience like? Is working with you matching up with how you want to be perceived? Does everyone they engage with at your firm give them the same feeling? It’s worth considering these questions, because that client experience is part of the relationship process that helps clients decide if they will remain with you and the firm or not.
  • Let’s be a little more thoughtful in what we say and do with respect to diversity and inclusivity – and this is across the board. Gender, race, ethnicity, religion, ability, sexuality – you name it, I’m talking about it. It may make you a little bit uncomfortable, but that’s okay. It requires leaning into discussions that your colleagues are having around these issues, sitting back and letting people with firsthand experience decide and define the discussion around them and both not making throwaway comments and not accepting others’ throwaway comments when you hear them. It’s each of our responsibility to stand up to make the workplace safe, diverse, and welcoming, and to help the generation behind us to succeed.

TurboTax | RoboChild

TurboTax is another repeat offender in the Ugly category, with this creepy ad (remember their monsters under the bed ad from last year?). I get what they’re trying to do here – they’re taking the idea that robots are replacing everyone’s jobs and poking fun at it, as well as reminding everyone that they’re staffed with human CPAs. But it’s a miss.

The RoboChild is creepy for one – I’m not sure if it’s the background music, or the sad look on the child’s face, but something about this robo-kid gives me the creeps. I’m expecting it to turn into a horror movie at any moment. The mismatch of emotional response at the end only adds to that feeling, and isn’t a humorous punch at all.

What are the lessons for lawyers and law firms?

  • Don’t do this. Yes, automation and AI are real, they’re here, and they’re replacing certain job functions, but it’s not some creepy robot baby that’s doing it. That’s not really how technology works. I know that TurboTax knows that too, and is just trying to be funny, but they’re failing. It’s weird. I know corporate law firms aren’t jumping into commercials anytime soon, but don’t let the message of this deter you either – there are two things that this says to me:
    • Embracing technology is key. We’ve talked about this ad nauseum here on Zen, so I won’t delve into too much detail. But tech is here to stay, and we don’t need to be afraid of it. When you consider how the telephone has improved over the last 100 years, you’ll realized that there used to be operator jobs that have also become obsolete. But other jobs have developed as a result of technology – so rather than being afraid of it, we have to look at what it improves in our jobs and lives, and how we can best use it to make our time more efficient. The sooner we do so, the less we let it drive us, and the more we drive it.
    • People and expertise still matters. Lawyers and their relationships with clients will still be essential, and finding the specialized work that allows you to add real value to your client relationships is what will make the difference. Although TurboTax does it in a creepy way, their message is in there somewhere – when it matters, we still staff our product with real people you can talk to. And that’s the same for law firms. Your in-person expertise is still there when clients need it to help run their businesses successfully. They just also want the ease and efficiency of some technological solutions where it makes sense.

With only three”ugly” commercials on the list, are there any that you think I missed? Are there any other commercials that you would have liked to have seen spotlighted that weren’t mentioned this year? Let me know in the comments!