Amid the last gasps of summer, fall semester, freshmen year, I wrote my first ad: “Fall into savings!” It was magnificent. It worked on so many levels, like, two. Over the following years I read T.S. Eliot, Churchill, and Pablo Neruda, and felt really bad about what I’d done.
What’s worse? After years of studying the discipline of advertising, plenty of client meetings start something like this: “You know, there’s a new concept we’re excited for you to play with: “Fall Into Savings!!!” (fingers the shape of a frame). “It works on so many levels…”
“Yes! Two levels!”
This is a story about bad advertising, and where it comes from.
It starts with the intense pressure to move product now (now!), an expression of the short-term thinking that is arguably the cancer of our time. An abundance of information fosters ambivalence over understanding — a sea of survey data, path-to-purchase diagrams and sales analytics. Soon our clients stop seeing their customers as people, their friends or their wife. But, in the end it all comes down to risk.
Imagine each fortune 500 company is a tween at a never-ending Junior High dance, and it all starts making sense. Being different is scary. It’s a lot easier to stand against the wall. You would too if getting turned down by Abbey Bernstein meant missing your 2nd quarter by $2 million.
The reason bad advertising exists is because good, creative advertising is perceived by many clients as “too risky” — and because lackluster advertising “works”, to varying degrees, whether consumers like it or not.
Familiarity alone makes some impact on sales. The mere existence of advertising provides the familiarity and signals a “healthy brand” (i.e., effort and ability). Our brain tells us a company that wants to advertise, and can afford to do it, likely has a decent product.
Awareness is, of course, the bare minimum. Advertising sends signals; by simply existing it says something. But it can speak on many more levels (more than two!). And the most important, most unappreciated, and misunderstood signal is creativity.
(Ugh, I’ve been tricked into reading an article about the power of creativity…) You’re right, these are the worst! Creativity, disruptive innovation, storytelling — all buzzwords drained of virtually all meaning in the ad world. Let’s reject the conventional talking points for a minute.
Unpacking why anyone should value ads that are fresh and funky requires a look at the mechanics of signals.
Creativity has a signaling affect. Its very existence, the quality of being creative in and of itself, implants information in your brain. Like obscenity, it is easily recognized when seen. You know. There’s really no need to define it beyond newness and differences for this discussion. Because the whole point is, you know the signals—we all do.
First, novelty has a measurable, positive influence on “advertising outcomes”. This isn't my opinion. Numbers back this up*. It holds your attention longer, enhances your evaluations of products, and you’re more likely to remember it tomorrow and two weeks from now (An ad people like to watch. What a concept!!).
Difference is taken as proof of a brand’s smartness, ability to solve problems, and develop valuable products. As a result, consumers express more interest in these brands and perceive them to be of higher quality.
Finally, creativity does not need to be award winning-level to be effective at sending these signals. Thus, the high risk often associated with highly creative work is not essential, rather it may be viewed as a spectrum that offers increasingly positive results.
And again, not my opinion. Science*.
The truth about life behind the curtain is that adland is far less sophisticated than most people believe. The zeitgeist holds an OZ-like image of the ‘marketing wizard’ but really, the scene is usually a handful of anxious brand managers arguing about the size of the logo in a poorly lit conference room.
Copywriters and art directors have spent a lifetime studying their craft and perfecting their skills. But there’s a lack of trust in the power of creative advertising.
Advertising doesn’t have to suck. If I could change anything about this industry it would be for clients to trust their agency more. They’re loaded with vitamin C, an essential part of this balanced breakfast.
“Advertising Creativity and Repetition: Recall, Wearout and Wearin Effects.” International Journal of Advertising 32.2 (2013)
“Effect of Ad Novelty and Message Usefulness on Brand Judgments.” Journal of Advertising 40.3 (2011)
“Advertising Creativity Matters.” Journal of Advertising Research 48.3 (2008)