Ice Cream and the Infinite Mystery of Advertising

I've always thought it must be a nightmare for people trying to get into the ad industry, and for people who buy ads, that ad agency people themselves can't even agree on what makes for a good ad.

An ad currently dividing opinion is this US commercial for ice cream...

Have a watch and see what you think before you read any further.

I've seen people praise this as brilliant, in fact someone called it 'the best ad they've seen this year'.

And I've seen people criticise it, Suzanne Pope of adteachings went as far as to say "Rest assured, even if you crash and burn in advertising, you will never make anything as terrible as this."

It's one of the interesting and infuriating things about this business that we can't seem to agree on what makes for good advertising.

Can we expect clients, especially the non-marketing execs, to take us seriously when this is the case?

Someone pointed out that if the ad above wins a creative award, everyone will retrospectively agree it's good. There's some truth in that isn't there? That's part of the reason I don't rate creative awards. Even though they're judged by panels of supposed experts in the field of advertising, often they don't even agree on whether an ad is worthy of an award or not. And I see way too many things that I don't think are good pieces of advertising win awards.

Then again - we have the very robust school of thought that if an ad is successful (ie. it 'works') then it's a good ad. Hard to argue with that isn't it? We have effectiveness awards in advertising, so do we need any other kind of awards at all, ones judged on opinion?

Then again, there are sometimes other factors that mean an ad doesn't meet the targets set, aren't there? And if an ad works, is it really automatically good? What about the notion that advertising shouldn't vulgarise our world? Is a well-made, enjoyable ad that works superior to one that works equally well but is awful to see or hear?

Byron Sharp's simple recipe for effective advertising includes using clear brand links by including the brand's distinctive assets, mentioning the brand verbally and/or visually, showing the product, showing the product in use, and refreshing and building memory structures to make a brand more likely to come to mind and be easier to notice. That still leaves quite a lot of wiggle room for interpretation doesn't it?

Byron points out that although it's commonly assumed that persuasion-oriented advertising must be more sales effective, this is not true, citing decades of research that show that most sales come from people who had no intention of buying.

Then again maybe you don't agree with Professor Sharp? I know a lot of people don't. This is difficult territory because Prof Sharp always points out, his points are based on scientific research. Personally I have a lot of time for the scientific method, as I'm sure do most people.

It's sometimes difficult to reconcile when you have giants of the industry like Bill Bernbach saying things like “The purpose of advertising is to sell. That is what the client is paying for and if that goal does not permeate every idea you get, every word you write, every picture you take, you are a phony and you ought to get out of the business.” or “However much we would like advertising to be a science - because life would be simpler that way - the fact is that it is not. It is a subtle, ever-changing art, defying formularization, flowering on freshness and withering on imitation; where what was effective one day, for that very reason, will not be effective the next, because it has lost the maximum impact of originality.”

As discoveries are made in the field of neuroscience and behavioural science about how we make decisions, some in advertising advocate that advertising needs to be emotional or evoke an emotional response to be successful. Then again, it's not completely clear that emotional stimulus equals emotional decision. Nevertheless, quite a lot of ad people now argue that ads only need to be entertaining or moving in some way.

Then again Amil Gargano, one of the great admen, says "All other explanations aside, the simple, obvious, and mostly ignored purpose of advertising is to get people to buy what your clients sell. To develop advertising that does that is not an embarrassment. But to develop advertising that solely amuses or entertains, is."

Of course these days some people counter the advice of people like Bernbach and Gargano by saying that they did great work, but it didn't work the way they thought it worked.

And on top of all this, you have what I call the Talkability Jonnies. These are the people who say on twitter, or on the blog, or at a pub "Well you're talking about it, so it must be working". They don't seem to realise that it's our job to be constantly looking at, interrogating and trying to understand the work that's out there and why it does or doesn't work. Whether good or bad. Getting a bunch of ad people talking about your ad is no measure of success.

So where does this all leave us? Back at the beginning I suppose. Looking at a commercial and trying to work out whether you think it's a good piece of advertising?

What do you think?


  1. Eat the ice cream. Where's Steven? Everyone you love has gone. Brilliant. Shame I can't remember the brand.

  2. Wow, this is an awsome post, and of course, in my opinion the ad in question is just entertainment, no more, I do not even remember the brand, and yes admans are talking about it and some specialized sites or geek sites not the mass, and in any way in this fast moving internet world, today you see something and maybe tomorrow you just forget it, the trends of this right moment are already past, so the ad will not stay in the peoples mind for long time, well on the other hand the ad does not look like an ad and that gets people's attention but it does not reflect ice cream joy, it is scary ad and people on youtube are saying it.

  3. Regarding the ad, I think it's awful; but what do I know.

    It's a fickle thing advertising, and I very much enjoy working in direct response where my efforts, and the effectiveness of the work, is really all that matters and it's easy to see whether a campaign worked or not.

    It's a shame that ATL work is often harder to track in terms of effectiveness, but it's hard to argue *against* making advertising that sells the product.

    In this line of thinking, you can't fault Bernbach or Gargano.

    Your comment, "Is a well-made, enjoyable ad that works superior to one that works equally well but is awful to see or hear?" is also a tough one.

    As intuitively, I want to say, "yes", but other factors may come into play, namely time. Anecdotally, it's the 'bad' ads that my friends and I more often remember and it never stopped us from actually using the product or service.

    So, like you said... right back at the beginning!

  4. It could be a good ad if it was built around the brand. Then it would be closer to Skittles. But it's still miles away from Crest 'Bulldozer'. It's basically advertising for people who work in advertising. I wonder how successful Crest was? It's still pretty niche, even though it's a great ad built around a product truth.


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