Three Chords And The Truth - How Advertising Is Failing At The Basics

American songwriter Harlan Howard once described great country music as Three chords and the truth. I'm not a country music fan, but it's as good a definition of music as I've ever heard. It boils country music down to what makes it one of the most popular genres in the world: the fact that people relate to the messages and stories that it tells, and that once you have that thing - the truth - that you don't need anything but a simple and honest way to convey it.

The very best advertising has always been, and will always be the same.

At the heart of all good advertising is finding something to say to people that is relevant or interesting or informative, or opinion changing - something of substance that will really help people, or strike a chord, or inform, or make them think differently about something.

As Bill Bernbach said: "Forget words like 'hard sell' and 'soft sell.' That will only confuse you. Just be sure your advertising is saying something with substance, something that will inform and serve the consumer, and be sure you're saying it like it's never been said before."

And although that was many years ago and technology has changed, and society looks different now, it's as true now as it was then. People are still motivated by the same things; to feel good, to look good, to enjoy life - all of those basic human things are still the main motivating factors in life. To me that is the fundamental of the business, finding that things that people relate to or that truth that hasn't been told. It's the real diamond, the real thing of value in our business.

It seems obvious, a basic. But why is nobody doing it? It's because it's so bleeding obvious that everyone has forgotten about it.

What's happening now in advertising and marketing is that people have forgotten to do the basics that make advertising great, and are just concentrating on the polish. Most contemporary advertising is over-executed nonsense. Highly polished nothingness. The twenty-first century version of blarney, flim-flam - talking a lot and saying nothing. Bamboozling the consumer with executional tricks without offering anything of merit.

And the thing is, people can see right through it.
People don't think any better of advertising now than they did fifty years ago, in fact the reverse is true. People find it more of an intrusion than ever before. And this is despite the fact that today much more time, effort and emphasis is put into crafting and production, and that people are much more focussed on making advertising entertaining. Why is this? Well one big reason is that most advertising is a complete waste of everyone's time and attention. It is visual and audio garbage. Nonsense that gets in the way of real life. Why do people put ad blockers on their browsers? Why do people fast-forward ads? Flick past double-page spreads? Or worst of all, just passively ignore advertising?

Because it's got nothing interesting to say to them.

Modern advertising is failing to be interesting by failing to be relevant, not by failing to be entertaining. Finding something real to say is seen by most as a bit boring, a bit uncreative - when that is the real heart of great advertising, and great advertising creativity.

All everyone is doing is focussing more and more on the smoke and mirrors, the creative fluffery, and moving further away from what would solve the problem.

A bit of substance.

The thing about finding something meaningful to say is that you don't need to have legions of young Scandinavians with funny haircuts or Latin Americans in the right trousers constantly trawling youtube for things to rip off, you don't need a resident trend watcher, or a gallery space.

You don't have to dance like a demented clown to get attention when you have something interesting to say.

Or put another way, when you have the truth, you only need three chords to make a real impact. 

Read more Sell! Sell! On Advertising posts here.


  1. Well said.

    I was burbling something along these lines the other week, regarding the use of humour in ads - how it cuts to the truth of things better than pretty much anything. And yet it seems to scare the living shit out of most clients/suits.

    It's all planners fault - trying to square the random, quantum world of focus group data with general audience relativity.

  2. Well said.
    I couldn't agree more.

  3. Love Three Chords and the Truth. Great line.

  4. As a Suit / client this is a refreshing bit of honest no BS observation. Seems whenever I make this level of comment it usually meets with that "Look", you know the one that says "ok your the boss but you no longer understand because you are over 40, and dont leave your mobile on of an evening". At least I am comforted to know its not just me.

  5. "you don't need to have legions of young Scandinavians with funny haircuts." Or "Swedish wankery", as my boss calls it. Love that. Great post.


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