Last night on Seven’s Today Tonight, Normie Rowe was fuming over claims that he’s sold out to big business” by appearing in the now infamous “no added hormones” meat ad for Coles supermarkets.

But it’s not clear whether anyone ever really accused Rowe of selling out. If you want to see a real social media frenzy about a pop star selling out, check out the Twitter reaction today to a column by Alex James, bassist for Britpop band Blur, cheesemaker, and now food writer for the Murdoch London Sun. In a truly bizarre puff piece, James compared the kitchen of a McDonald’s he toured to a Michelin-starred restaurant. He gave a similarly glowing review to KFC (music newspaper NME neatly summarises the piece and the response).

No, the real story of the reaction to the Coles ad is that it’s just so awful and mystifying: a bizarre choice of song that seems irrelevant to the tagline, lyrics that don’t scan, tuneless singing and a weird, undignified and almost incoherent performance from Rowe. No-one would accuse Rowe of selling out if he revived one of his classics in a way that was dignified and relevant to the advertised product, its message and the audience. And even moderately tuneful.

A crew from Today Tonight interviewed me on Monday about the marketing strategy behind the ad — and about bad ads in general — but I wound up on the cutting room floor after they managed to get an interview with Rowe and the focus of the story shifted to the manufactured “sell-out” claims.

I find it hard to accept that any agency or advertiser would deliberately make a bad ad or would be so clueless as to fail to recognise a shocker before putting it to air. But it’s just not true that “any publicity is good publicity” or that any ad that gets people talking has done its job. In fact, the vast majority of comments on advertising industry site Mumbrella are scathing about the ad. Even those who try to be balanced recognise the challenge Coles faces in trying to break the traditional retail advertising mould but conclude that the ad is “just awful”.

Coles is a huge and powerful organisation with access to masses of consumer data, and veteran adman Ted Horton, whose Big Red Agency is behind the campaign, is too smart to make an almost unwatchable ad with a dodgy presenter just to get “cut-through”.

Coles’ advertising over the last two years have been on a deliberately down-market and daggy trajectory with “down, down”, “ta-dah” and big red hands. Coles has increasingly focused its attention on a demographic where it is most at risk. Aldi has taken small but significant share from the big two supermarket chains among those who buy primarily on price, especially pensioners and partly self-funded retirees whose superannuation was hit hard by the stock market downturn following the GFC.

And who better to front an ad aimed at these Aussie battlers than a peer like Normie? He’s a superannuated ’60s pop star known for fighting his own battles, but remembered by older Australians as the young PMG technician from Northcote who made it big. Let’s face it, there’s no point resurrecting Rowe and reviving a hit from the mid-1960s if your target audience is under 40 and has never heard of him or the song.

But the focus on “no added hormones” in meat as the key proposition of the ad seems even more bizarre if older people are the intended target audience. Those most concerned about hormones in meat tend to be younger female consumers, especially those buying with kids in mind.

Sadly, Normie himself doesn’t seem to have been clued in on Coles’ strategy, either. According to Today Tonight: “Normie says he signed on for the ad to catapult him back into the spotlight and compete with his younger counterparts.” Based on this performance, Normie should revise his aspirations and stick to the hormone replacement therapy crowd.

Peter Fray

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