Sep 29th 2020


How do I describe the now infamous ‘back to work’ ad from Dettol? Copywriter schadenfreude – the guilty glee of seeing a first-grade misfire, which, thank the Lord, had nothing to do with your agency.


If you somehow managed to miss it, the ad – in fact, two ads – in question, were odes to getting back to the office, and the joys of commuting, as lockdown began to lift. These adverts somehow missed the mark so entirely, that the Twitterati (sorry, I hate me too) initially assumed they came from the Government. 


So, where did Dettol go so terribly, terribly wrong? I could give you 100 reasons, but let me start with five.


1. Choose Life


Anyone who went to college, university, or generally had a bit of an edgy phase between 1996 and now, will recognise the iconic Choose Life poster – grim staccato sentences lifted from cult classic Trainspotting. Now imagine taking that genre defining, ground-breaking style, and applying it not only to a disinfectant, but to a celebration of office work and the daily commute. The copy, and the sentiment, are bad enough, but, couched in a format made famous by an unrepentant heroin addict, it feels almost dystopian.


2. ‘Proper Bants’


In recent years, the ‘chatty’ tone of voice has dominated professional copywriting. In fact, I’m doing it right now. I’m talking to you, like a person. Except, I can do that, because I am a person, not a billionaire multinational corporation. Not to say that the GloboGyms of this world can’t pull off chatty, just that it’s harder, and there’s more scope for catastrophe. ‘Proper bants’ as used by a disinfectant brand is the perfect example of this. It’s as though they hired David Brent as their copywriter – nobody is having ‘proper bants’, Dettol, not in a pandemic, and especially not in a stuffy, socially distanced, office building.

3. ‘CC-ing. BCC-ing. Accidentally replying-all.’


Let’s leave for a moment the idea that anyone, ever, desperately misses ‘accidentally replying-all’, and consider that Dettol seems unaware that half the nation has been working from home for six months. Is it that they think we’ve all been saving the CC and BCC buttons as a special treat for the office? Do they not know that email works outside of a corporate environment? Surely they realise that, were someone to truly crave the rush of replying-all, they could simply do so from their private account? This particular section, for me, is less bad writing and more complete madness.


4. ‘Those weird carpets’


The backbone of copywriting – especially ‘chatty’ copywriting – is relatability. We should get the references, feel included, and subconsciously warm to the brand behind the words. On this, Dettol yet again falls short. The ad fondly recalls, ‘those weird carpets’, ‘watercooler conversations’, ‘plastic plants’ and ‘caffeine filled air’. Whose office does this refer to? What year are we in? All of these references suggest eighties to me – I’m not even clear on what a watercooler conversation actually is. There’s a whiff of desperation in these lines, as though the writer has never actually visited an office, and is hoping that select scenes from Parks & Rec and Office Space are representative of the real world. Is this what AI copy looks like? Probably.


5. It’s just really, really insensitive


Aside from the terrible copywriting, awful choice of layout, bizarre references and unforgivable use of ‘proper bants’, this ad is tone deaf in the extreme. Not only does it ignore those key workers who never left the office, it smilingly pretends that going back to work is not a scary, anxiety-inducing experience for a lot of people. It glosses over the employees living with vulnerable people, forced back into the office despite fearing for the impact on their loved ones. Nobody is celebrating, not even those most excited to return to the office, because it isn’t over, people are still dying, and a disinfectant brand should be among those brands taking it most seriously.

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