Something I've been meaning to blog about for a while now was the Media Guardian article of a few weeks ago, entitled Death of the Catchphrase (probably worth reading first). Mainly because I found the whole thing a bit lazy and ultimately disappointing.
It was clearly playing to the gallery of comms 2.0, and presenting a pitch for the brave new world world of advertising within this. But ultimately it just rang a bit false for me. And not because I think advertising has had its day. Anything but.
Without (I hope) being a dinosaur,I do remain a champion of advertising. Albeit as just one of the many tools now at our disposal: horses for courses an all that. Because, whilst the digital zealots and experience fundamentalists may argue that theirs is now the one true way (as us ad types once did, onviously!), the fact remains that there are some things advertising, particularly of the moving picture variety, does very well (and here I would draw a distinction between tv-as-media and film-as-content: the former may well be on a big wane, but if your TV commercial appears on Youtube isn't that as 'digital' as anything else, and money well spent?).
My problem was actually that the article (for me) ended up seeming like a bit of an own goal. In trying to sing the praises of 'new advertising', I felt it came across as a bit of an exercise in fancy window dressing and Emperors New Clothes; all the ad-land wank that people hate, with the pat answer as always being that we just have to be more 'creative' (in that slightly profligate, not necessarily appropriate way was my sense). Personally, I think us practitioners would do much better celebrating what advertising is good at (and ask why we don't do it more often), rather than moan about the state of the world, and try and dress advertising up as something it's not in response.
A few choice cuts then, that I found myself taking issue with...
ART HOUSE SENSIBILITIES
The article described new-wave (i.e. its definition of 'good') advertising as "displaying an almost arthouse sensibility". And there was lots of talk of having to compete with movies etc. Whilst not untrue, hasn't it always been thus? And not always in a good sense. I remember an account director at Lowes (of all places) in the late 80s bemoaning the fact that some creatives behaved like we were a "subsidised branch of the arts council". Now there is clearly a time and a place for 'arthouse'. But my experience is still that it usually results in a 'what the f@*k' response amongst most people beyond the media industries. The danger is we just end up producing obtuse, pretentious advertising for people who work for the agency down the road.
BORED WITH ADVERTISING
Steve Henry says "people have been bored stiff with advertising for ages", but I wonder if that's simply because we have forgotten how to do advertising people actually like and respond positively to. Call me old fashioned, but I think there's something to be said for clear, simple, engaging stuff which has an obvious purpose...and maybe even does some 'selling' along the way (it's what we're still usually being paid for after all). And before anyone yells boring, simplistic and uncreative, I would say anything but. For me, a Sony Bravia or Guinness Surfer ticks all the right boxes.
DEGREES IN MEDIA STUDIES
Robert Senior claims the problem is that "consumers effectively have a degree in film studies". And such a deconstructionist mentality may be true to a point. For some people. In focus groups. But are most really that bothered? Haven't they got more important things to worry about (and isn't that the point?). I believe the real issue people have is one of truth and honesty: we don't mind being sold to as long as those selling are open about it, don't treat us as idiots, are engaging in style and deliver on their promises.
Ex-ad man and ASDA marketing honcho Rick Bendel feels "advertising has to become more complicated" given the world we live in. If he really means that, you've got to disagree. I think everyone now accepts that complexity can be a good thing. But who wants complicated? Because the two are very different (the old mayonnaise vs. Jumbo Jet analogy). And even if I'm splitting semantic hairs, and he means complex, I'm not convinced when it comes to comms.
Brands can (and arguably should) be complex and multi-dimension. But comms? The well rehearsed argument is that the modern, multi-media, time pressured consumer needs to be engaged and involved. Again though, I would say that's about the brand: we may all have our World of Warcraft moments, where we want a completely immersive brand experience. But with a specific piece of advertising (of whatever kind), is that really what we want? I think most of us are even less likely to give a brand our precious time of day if it makes things too difficult for us.
VICTORIA WOOD BAKING BREAD
And keeping with the Fallon/ASDA theme, their recently unveiled work featuring Victoria Wood is positioned as a prime example of this brave new world. Really? Or just the Emperor getting something else out of the wardrobe? I think there's lots of reasons why you can argue this is a good campaign for ASDA, and better than where they were. But a radical departure, pushing the boundaries of modern comms? I don't think so. Good as it may be (or not, depending on your POV), isn't it all rather conventional really? And aside from the fact that the executional vehicle reflects that we now like reality TV shows more than sitcoms, is what's being said really so very different to what Tesco were doing 10 years ago with the Dotty campaign? If ASDA wanted to be truly mould breaking, they would ditch the ads altogether and invite all their customers round for bread making classes (for instance).
DEATH OF THE CATCHPHRASE
And what about the titular 'evil enemy' of this piece? Cards on the table: I think there's nothing wrong with a good slogan (can't see why you wouldn't want one really). And it's illogical to conclude that, just because a style of hard sell advertising now generally considered inappropriate tended to feature them, they should be ditched across the board. On that basis, you would also no longer feature people either, given an equally strong correlation with ramming things down your throat. It's just bad statistics.
And there's plenty of neurological evidence to suggest that, if there's one thing a brand needs in our information and choice saturated world (beyond the obvious of a good individual personal experience), it's mnemonics: commonly recognised and understood elements that can stick in the brain, acting as shorthand for and shortcuts to brand meaning, helping tie together the different aspects of the complex brands that surround us. These might be music, colours, sounds, whatever. And any of these can be as much a 'slogan' as the classic bunch of words (Intel anyone).
Take the first Sony Bravia commercial. That's right: the one we always talk about in terms of the balls (a visual 'slogan') and that music (an aural 'slogan'). Or what about the Honda Diesel ad? The article holds this up as a poster child for the new way. But it's crammed with 'slogans': the music, the animation style, the animals, the engine. And what is 'hate something, change something, make something better' (or, indeed, 'The Power of Dreams') if not a good old fashioned catchphrase?
There's also much talk in the article of Kit Kat ditching "Have Break". And the tone is very much "good riddance to bad stuff". But is that really the case? Could you tell me what's replaced it, if anything (I honestly don't know). Could anyone? Stop 100 people on the street and ask about the brand, and I know what they'll say. Update and make more relevant definitely: if brands don't evolve they die. But why ditch something so inextricable linked in people's minds to the brand. It must be easier to go for reinvention in some way, and I'm sure it won't be long before a new marketing director or agency starts thinking the same thing.
WHERE HAS ALL THE TALENT GONE
To close the article gives a role call of the great and the good who have done service in advertising's ranks over the years: Fay Weldon, Salman Rushdie, John Betjeman, Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, all helped create a lot of the ideas now deemed past it. Tim Delaney "laughs" as he hears the list. And adds: "perhaps if more poets and film makers produced taglines and visual signatures, there'd be a bit of life in them yet". Which to me is a rather sad reflection of the talent in our industry for a major creative force to be making (or at least his expectations of it), rather than an excuse for getting out the smoke and mirrors.
No easy answers, I'm afraid. And do I really think all of the above? Probably, yes.
Or maybe I just fancied a bit of a rant ;-)
Anyway, onwards and upwards.