2014 Blog Greatest Hits: Let's Talk Advertising

Continuing our reprise of this year's most popular posts with Let's Talk Advertising...

There's an interesting conversation (argument, debate, call it what you will) taking place in advertising at the moment. And the great thing is, it isn't about holding companies or digital versus traditional or any of those boring old things, it's about advertising. And how advertising works best.

I''ve worked in the business for quite a while, and I can't remember a time when this was the case, so I think regardless of where you sit in the argument (debate?) it has to be a positive thing, doesn't it? (Okay, let's put aside for a moment that it does seem a little crap that after probably 150 years, we still can't agree on what makes for the best advertising.)

I've got to get my cards on the table early here, I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all, one-way-to-do-advertising that is right for every product, brand, category and business problem. And I have a problem with those people who insist there is. I don't think it's very smart, and it makes the advertising industry look a bit stupid.

I think you should start with the business problem, the situation of the client, and what they are trying to achieve, and let that be your most important jumping-off point. Not your own ideology that you force the problem to fit into. It's tempting for agencies to have a dogmatic approach to problem solving, because it gives them something interesting to say to clients - but as the saying goes the hammer always sees the nail.

Having abstract debates about advertising ideologies can be a bit, now how can I put this… boring and pointless? So I'm going to use an example to help.

Hopefully the example is a piece of work that we've all seen and know of, the Volvo Trucks Epic Split ad...

I think this was one of the most highly awarded ads of recent times. Most people I speak to agree that it's really good, but, interestingly, don't necessarily agree on what makes it good.

That's a strange situation right? We all agree it's good advertising, but we don't all agree on what makes it good advertising.

Maybe that shouldn't come as so much of a shock? One thing I've noticed over the years is that there are quite a lot of people out there in advertising – talented, clever people who do good work – who don't even get what makes their own work good, so why should we be surprised when they can't agree on what makes someone else's work good?

There's a school of thought that says that this Volvo commercial is good because it's entertaining - we want to watch it because Van Damme is a funny/weird bloke, and he's doing the splits, and there's a funny voiceover etc. That we should just do entertaining, funny stuff that people like, and that will make ads good. That the job of the ad is simply to be noticed and enjoyed. They tend to think that the rational message in the ad is unimportant – in fact often gets in the way. That an ad that is entertaining and enjoyed is a good ad. We like the ad, therefore we like the brand, therefor we are more likely to buy from that brand.

There's another school of thought that says what makes this ad good is that it makes us feel something. This notion is very fashionable at the moment in advertising. Some recent, very compelling, theories in human psychology and neuroscience suggest that humans make decisions largely for emotional reasons, that rational thought plays very little part in the process, at best that we post-rationalise decisions largely made emotionally. This approach to advertising says that you only need to make people feel something. Again, to these people, product and benefits don't come into what makes it good, in fact they are superfluous. This theory says that because the ad makes us feel fear for Mr Van Damme, this makes for effective advertising because that emotion will affect our decision making when it comes to buying a truck.

And there's another school of thought. That what makes this ad good is that it takes something that is a genuinely important, relevant feature of the product, and demonstrates it in a way that is entertaining, makes you remember it and distinctive. That what makes the ad so good is that it does two things well - it communicates a piece of information of value to the watcher or potential buyer – and it is unexpected, entertaining, fun to watch and memorable in the way that it does it. These people would say that the product and the rational message is key to what makes it good, without that, it wouldn't be a great ad.

I have to say, when it comes to this commercial, I am firmly in the latter camp. I think the product feature being dramatised here is important to truck drivers, and important to truck buyers (these people might not be the same).

Let's think about someone about to make a decision about buying a truck, or trucks. They are likely to be either an owner-driver or a fleet buyer. That means that either way, this purchase will be a huge investment with a lot riding on it. Either possibly the second-most expensive thing the person has ever bought, that they will use every day of their working life, or a massive investment for their company that they will have to justify.

Either way, regardless of the fashionable thinking, I don't think that will be a purely emotional decision.  Can you imagine the fleet buyer of a haulage or logistics company saying to his CEO that he spent 1.5m of that company's money based on a feeling? I doubt it. The emotional camp might say to us that he's just post-rationalising to his boss. But that would mean that having a rational point to hand to use post-decision would be important to his decision. Which means that the rational point was important to communicate in the commercial.

I don't think the commercial would be anywhere near as good if it didn't communicate that rational product point.

But I don't think it would be anywhere near as good if didn't do it in a way that's unexpected, entertaining and memorable.

A straight demonstration of the truck's reversing capabilities would have shown what it could do. Say, a truck reversing down between two lines of road cones - that would effectively be demonstrating the same thing - it's easy to reverse in a straight line and control going backwards.

But that wouldn't be interesting enough to keep the viewer's attention, and it wouldn't necessarily stick in the mind of the buyer (unless that reversing capability was of particular interest or importance to that person).

The jeopardy of Van Damme's crotch being at the mercy of the truck's reversing capabilities does these things brilliantly - it brings the benefit to life, and it's an image likely to stick in your head (and an image with giant products in it too).

This is an old commercial that does a similar thing...

It takes the benefit of the product (a rational point) but it demonstrates it in an arresting, unexpected way. It uses jeopardy - we worry about the wellbeing of the chick. It wouldn't be anywhere near as effective if the ad had just shown a thermometer being placed in the canister.

So the jeopardy is clearly important to the Volvo ad being great - but on it's own jeopardy wouldn't make the ad great.

Let's imagine it for a minute without the product benefit. What we have is the fear of Van Damme falling or hurting his famous crotch. So we could have him say, doing the splits over a ravine, or doing the splits over two concrete blocks in mid-air. Then just stick a Volvo logo on the end. That would be an ad that had the famous bloke, and the splits and the fear of him falling or hurting himself. It would do what the feelings people think is the important bit, it would make us feel an emotion.

But it wouldn't communicate anything about the truck, or the what makes it a good truck. Thinking back to our truck buyers above, I don't think that would make it anywhere near as effective a commercial. So that makes the rational part of the ad, and the product, important to what makes it a great ad.

And I'd say the same to our first group – they think what makes it a great ad is how entertaining the commercial is. They don't think the product point is important. They think us liking the ad is the important bit. You have Mr Van Damm dancing around maybe, maybe throw in a CGI animal or baby, use a funny or catchy song. Then stick the Volvo logo on the end. That would probably be a hella entertaining ad. But it would be a highly entertaining, not very useful, not very good, ad.

What is pretty certain is that this debate, in the broader sense, will rage on, not least because people have their own biases.

Some would rather be doing work that is just entertaining, after all it is fun – and it's hard to find genuinely useful things to say about a product, let alone then make that interesting.

And some people no doubt would rather feel like their work is more clever than simply letting people know why a product might be of benefit to them.

And some, quite rightly are just trying to work out what is best to do for their particular client, in their particular category.

So I think it's a positive thing for the business to have these debates out in the open, and it's important for creatives, especially young creatives, to get involved in these discussions (creatives – don't leave it to the planners, you are the thinkers of the business).

In general I'd say be wary of anyone who tells you there is one right way to do all advertising.

What do you think?

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