The world of marketing reacts to the slow post-Christmas season like all the rest of us – by wallowing in lists. Marketing magazine has been making particular play over the last couple of weeks of its “Most Irritating TV Ads of 2006” survey. The winners are Injurylawyers4U, Cillit Bang, Picture Loans, Sheila’s Wheels and I forget the rest but Iceland featuring Kerry Katona is up there too. Last week’s mag had an amusing editorial in which the editor of Marketing got in a huff over the fact that whereas five years ago advertisers would have felt shame at finding themselves on the list, now it’s almost a badge of pride. Why, he sniffed, are we rewarding crap work simply because it’s effective?

Erm, because it’s advertising, and effectiveness is the idea?I can see the point he was making – why not make good effective ads rather than rubbish ones – but if you look at the ads praised and rewarded by the advertising community you’ll find some perennial irritants there too – Jonathan Glazer’s infuriating Guinness Surfer ad won a ‘best of all time’ gong a couple of years ago despite being a portentious slice of nothing, a bit of CGI fannydangle frothed monstrously into self-importance.

Just like a “good voice” in pop is one that fits the song, a good advert is surely one that fits the brand, no more and no less. I mentioned the poll, and the Cillit Bang placement, to our UK boss, who rightly pointed out that CB had staggering trial rates for a newly launched product – 25% of all households bought some last year, a huge amount in a moribund cleaning products sector. “The problem is,” he said, “that the ad industry has forgotten how to launch things. They can produce ads that are great for established brands but far too subtle for new ones – they don’t explain the benefits clearly.”

This is something most of the ‘bad ads’ have in common – they’re upfront, indeed in-your-face, about the reasons to buy the product. The lawyers and loans ads are simply two wooden characters talking about the product, Cillit Bang is someone shouting at you, and Sheila’s Wheels is the same plus camp. Softly softly it ain’t. Cillit Bang indeed takes the approach to mentalist genius levels – it’s the Motorhead or Scooter of the ad world, its response to the accusation that certain techniques don’t work anymore is – “They do if you’re loud enough.” It only loses points for its wacky Barry Scott character: it should just be a voice yelling.

But I digress. There must be reasons why this lack of subtlety is hated by the very public that it seems to work on: the bad ads list wasn’t some kind of industry snob round-table, it was a survey with a 1000-strong rep sample (admittedly, presumably industry snobs picked the shortlist of ads the sample voted on, but I’ve no info on that process). One reason is that presumably audiences have come to expect a certain level of subtlety and soft-sell from ads – the hectoring tone of Barry Scott is simply impolite. Another reason for the specific placements is that nobody likes lawyers and loaners, and there’s a perception that no matter how plainly they recite their benefits on TV, they’re still basically trying to rip gullible people off.

The commentary in Marketing magazine touches on a third reason, though – “None of these ads is aspirational”, one expert stated. In other words, the public seem not to like ads which are selling stuff to poorer people – a downmarket brand image makes your ad fair game for fingering as annoying. And the experts are happy to follow them in this. Take my personal pick of the most infuriating 2006 ad, the “Your M&S” campaign, in which an idly posh female voice drizzles languorous vowels over a bit of foodie porn: “This isn’t just mash, this is creamily whipped mash with a blend of matured Irish cheddar cheese” ect ect. It ticks all of the irritating boxes – it is boring, surprise-free, subtle as a hand-baked, Cotsworld limestone brick, patronises its target market something rotten, and worst of all grotesquely overclaims its mediocre product. Also like many of the bad ads, it’s been horribly successful. But the campaign is often praised in the industry press, with the number of online parodies cited as proof of its memetic vigour (or it could be they just hate it too). It couldn’t be something as simple as an ad targeted at ABC1s being judged differently to one aimed at C2DEs….could it?