Today I announce a Christmas competition. It is open to all
copywriters, the only judge is me and I am confident of winning.
The prize will go to the worst advertisement ever written. Entries are
invited from everywhere but by the time I have revealed my own
submission, you will know yourself beaten.
One of the first bits of business I worked on was a toothbrush
For many successful years the advertising had featured the bend in the
handle, which aided reach, torque and therefore hygiene. I found this
In my second week I went proudly to my copy supervisor. I had not only
written the words but drawn the picture. A toothbrush was shown lying on
its back, bristles upwards. It was supported along its length by the
following words, vertically arranged in the form of columns: HYGIENIC.
COLOURFUL. ECONOMICAL. MODERN. LONG-LASTING. REAL NYLON. UNIQUE HANDLE.
And the headline, as by now you will have guessed, read: The Seven
Pillars of Wisdom.
My supervisor, I could tell, was stunned and humbled by this virgin
The pause was a long one.
Eventually he said, ’It is to your credit that you have thought of both
words and pictures at the same time. And it is encouraging that you have
found room for the name of the product in the headline.’ There was
another pause. ’Everything else is appalling.’ And he went on to tell me
It was by far the longest conversation I had ever had with him.
He asked me if I had given a moment’s thought to my audience. Did I know
who bought toothbrushes - men or women - and why? Did I know what they
read? Why should I assume that they were among the 5% of the population
who had heard of T.E. Lawrence? And why would it help if they had? He
talked to me about irrelevant puns, and their powers of distraction. He
talked to me about brands - and asked what sort of brand I thought
Wisdom was. He talked to me at even greater length about the need for
single-mindedness and how the more copy points you emphasised, the more
diffuse the message became. And he talked to me about showing-off.
’I very much doubt,’ he said in summation, ’if there has ever been an
advertisement that showed less understanding of product, purpose,
audience or even the most primitive principles of persuasion. This could
well be the worst ad ever written.’
I like to think, in my competitive way, that he was right. And I also
like to think that, even in the intervening 40 years or so, no other
advertisement has come close to challenging it.
Feel free to try, however. Simple ineptness stands no chance. Evident
contempt for established principle is essential. Send them to me.
There’s a new toothbrush, in the colour of your choice, for the lucky
Jeremy Bullmore is a non-executive director of the Guardian Media Group
and WPP Group.