Review of the year 2016

On a dark and stormy night in southern England, you find yourself wandering through a faded seaside town. It's past closing time. You walk towards the empty pier and gaze out to sea. Somewhere in the vast blackness lies Europe. Then a movement in the waves. You hear screams. Two figures are struggling, naked and shouting. Migrants? It can’t be. You rush to the shore to help. As the foam sloshes round your ankles, you see the figures emerging. They are old, fat, blotchy, swaying. There's a stench of bitter and Benson & Hedges. A flash of lightning and you recognise the faces. It’s Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, the millionaire founder of Leave.EU, celebrating Nigel’s last day as UKIP leader by skinny-dipping drunkenly off Bournemouth pier. You run, stumble and scramble your way back up the beach, the two figures behind you, laughing maniacally as the waves crash and the thunder roars.

Thanks for everything, 2016.

The sooner we review it, the sooner we can move on. So here is my usual list of arbitrary awards, mostly to do with branding, writing and design.


Be Legacy. A line that set off a chain of events including the Brand Line Surgery, the taglin3r slogan generator and our Slogan Cube.


The runner-up is the new line for Nationwide Building Society – 'Building society, nationwide' – a smart, economical line, allied to a decent ad campaign using performance poets, in not too pretentious a way. All nicely done, but it could never quite shake off the feeling of being a brand exercise. 

The winner is Liberté Egalité Footé. A genius line for the BBC's Euro 2016 coverage – much better than the team bus slogans.


The Hillary campaign was excellent. Clear-headed branding by Michael Bierut, that stayed fresh throughout a long campaign...

...alongside powerful advertising by Droga5 (criticised at the time for appealing to the base, but people say she lost by not getting the base out enough)...

...and even the social media team was sharp. The mannequin challenge video on the last day of campaigning has now taken on a haunting quality – a moment frozen in time, just before the world fell apart. (And we all blame Jon Bon Jovi.)

It was an expertly coordinated campaign, and it can't exactly be labelled a disaster when Clinton won the popular vote. But it did ultimately fail. It's hard to fight your way out of a narrative of authentic (Trump) versus establishment (Clinton), where every horrendous aberration by Trump somehow confirms 'authentic' and every professional response by Clinton confirms 'establishment'.

But it was still the best campaign. 


This year should have been, but probably won't be, a tipping point for political advertising. Political parties have always pushed the limits of the truth in campaign advertising, but in a normal election there is at least a built-in check – the party that wins can be held to its promises, or slated for breaking them. In a referendum, that doesn't apply. The more extreme Brexit campaigners could promise anything, because they wouldn't be accountable for delivering it. Who knows how many votes were won by the £350m/week NHS promise? Who knows what synapse was triggered in the brain of a lonely psycho in Yorkshire by that 'Breaking point' poster?

In retrospect, Labour carving its promises in stone doesn't seem so crazy now. What will parties do to convince voters to believe them next time?


A special mention for Harold BernsteinDonald Trump's doctor, who rattled off a report on Trump's 'astonishingly excellent' health in five minutes as a limo waited outside. 

But the winner is Tony Schwarz, Donald Trump's guilt-wracked former ghostwriter, who took the money and created a monster.


Copywriters and proofreaders everywhere salute the hyphen-carrier at Euro 2016. (Fans of kerning were less impressed.)


This found cat notice is very 2016. As writer @tomcopy noted, 'When imparting bad news, say the worst thing first'. 


Three runners-up here:

Brexit was a much-used word, but as it only 'means Brexit', it's not much use as a word. (The pic above was my attempt to write a Brexit Dictionary.)

Post-truth was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, but it feels like defeatism to me. Lies and appeals to emotion are nothing new, and the truth is what it always was. Try telling the Hillsborough campaigners that we're 'post-truth'. (Theirs was a rare good news story this year, albeit not a news story covered by some newspapers.) 

I quite liked my own coinage – necrofiller – to describe the fetish for announcing any given trend 'is dead' in order to generate easy column inches. Kevin Roberts has used necrofiller for years and eventually met his end when he announced that gender bias in the ad industry is 'all over'. 

But the winner this year is 'ironicidal', a coinage by columnist Marina Hyde, meaning 'irony-killing'. We have needed that word a lot this year. 


Not a viral for anything in particular, but a lovely video of life's unsatisfying moments, by Parallel Studio. I wish it had been a promo for Perpetual Disappointments Diary – it wasn't, but this is my chance to plug it.


This is great static and even better in motion – by @desandro for RGB Schemes, a VR games start-up. More details here (spotted via @alex_parrott).


Not many spring to mind this year – the Christmas ads in particular struggled to bear the weight of the hype that surrounds them. John Lewis was more evidence of the great unspoken truth in advertising – it's basically about doing anthropomorphic animals. (On the plus side, it's worth noting that the Co-op has quietly cracked Christmas by waiting until it's December and all the PR noise has died down, then doing something normal and useful.) 

More generally, this recent IKEA campaign stands out – renaming products after popular Google searches to increase traffic and reflect a product truth (IKEA solves everyday problems, and has always had weird product names anyway). More on Creative Review


Scam awards entries have been around for a while, but has it ever been worse than this year? As hundreds of migrants lost their lives in the Mediterranean, champagne-quaffing crowds on the shores of the same sea at Cannes handed an award to an app that supposedly crowdsourced the search for capsized migrant boats, but which (under the slightest scrutiny) turned out to be a paper-thin, unworkable ‘proof of concept’ that wasn’t acknowledged as such in the entry, or tested in any way by the judges or awards organisers. The agency involved eventually withdrew the work with a sniffy non-apology, casting itself as the victim of online harassment (otherwise known as 'someone writing honestly about what you did').

The bigger point is that, if awards shows are serious about awarding social good, they need a different and more rigorous judging process – not just a procession of case study videos with no context or analysis. 


In previous editions, this Review of the Year has had plenty of fun with bad packaging copy, so let's celebrate a good one for a change. 'Deliciously squidgy energy' is a magical line. It combines three benefits – taste, texture and nutritional value – in one evocative phrase that sounds like something NASA has just discovered. Yes, 'squidgy' is one of those infantilising, wackaging-y words, but it's justified in this case. Good work, Soreen.


That said, let's have some fun with bad packaging copy. 

First, this water is definitely from the tap, isn't it? (via @jntod)

... while this upmarket water is ideal 'on its own, with food or as a mixer' (via @madsyork). This reminds me of the heroic filler copy for IKEA curtains from 2014.

These fruit-flavoured milks have been the subject of several restraining orders (via @mangmangmang).

But the most punchable line in packaging goes to Dorset Cereals, for this 'Design a typeface' moment. Why do makers of cereals, yoghurts etc take it upon themselves to be our crap life-coaching gurus? And why don't they do the obvious thing and give us something interesting to read with our breakfast?


When your pharmacist actually wants you to die (via @dochackenbush)


This was an interesting year for Budweiser to rebrand as America.

The full label reads like a bleak work of art, maybe a Banksy.

On a lighter renaming note, this was also the year when Sam Allardyce, during his brief reign as England manager, found time to rename the office WiFi network 'Big Sam's Office'. 


The Greggs Nappucino zone. Because there's nothing more conducive to sleep than downing a cheap coffee before shutting yourself inside a giant Greggs coffee cup with a glass door, in the middle of one of London’s busiest tourist locations.


There's a growing trend for passive-aggressive 'No thanks' options that you have to click to close annoying pop-up ads. Julia Phillips has listed 35 of them here (spotted via @ArwaM). Here's the top ten – it reads as a healthy list of life goals.


Chatbots are the main obsession of brands right now, and that will probably continue into next year. There are some interesting possibilities, but as Tom Goodwin pointed out on Twitter: "We desperately hope that 'people want conversations with brands' and then the fragile, rare moments they do, we're going to pass them onto a bot?"

Earlier in the year, I wrote about bots and copywriting, and did an interview on the same subject with Creative Review. I also created @botconference, which tweets quotes from an imaginary conference – it's been good fun watching it unfold over the year.  

Tangentially related, I enjoyed this story about a grandmother typing 'please' and 'thank you' every time she uses Google. It reverses the polarities of the usual chatbot dynamic. While bots do their best to appear human, humans have mostly learned to talk like robots – we instinctively search Google using the minimum viable words and phrases that we know will work within the algorithm. I'm not sure we want or need a conversational interface, but it seems we're going to get one anyway.  


Yeah, no. (via @marketinguk)


This Sure Deodorant Twitter poll closed two days after opening, without a single vote cast (via @oliverburkeman). I think the second option is meant to read 'Time with a friend', but it doesn't really matter. 


David Cameron’s goodbye hum. Some theorised it was the West Wing theme tune, others reimagined it as the evil Tory theme tune

Also on a musical theme, the BBC briefly found its mojo with this Newsnight play-out. 



'We’re here because we’re here' by Jeremy Deller was a stunning commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. With no prior publicity, groups of volunteers in uniform ghosted their way into locations across the UK – stations, shopping centres, tube carriages – and sat quietly, or occasionally bursting into song. When approached by a member of the public, each volunteer would hand out a card, with the name of a soldier who gave his life in battle. No technology, no gimmicks, no preaching, but a reminder that, for all the 'worst year ever' talk, 2016 wasn't as bad as 1916. 


The year began with the release of Black Star by David Bowie, which foreshadowed the most graceful exit from life any artist has managed. Jonathan Barnbrook's artwork was a key part of it, a monumental expression of absence and a case study in the primal power of graphic symbols. 

In a poetic touch, the album sleeve revealed a glittering starscape when exposed to sunlight.

There were too many other exits to mention this year. But as valedictions go, Garry Shandling's last appearance with friend Jerry Seinfeld was pretty good too. 


There’s no cheerful note to end on. It’s been a dark year. But to close on something seasonal and thematically appropriate, here's a study showing every teardrop is unique, just like snowflakes. 

Happy Christmas.