Villing & Company

Advertising creativity: The road less taken.

“Human nature, especially in this business, tends to foster taking a nice, safe, middle-of-the-road position. But think about it. In this high-speed world, is the middle of the road really the safest place to be? Seems more like a recipe for road kill.”

The above quote appeared in this space about five years ago. It was a powerful statement that captured the essential premise of an article written by a very talented art director who worked for Villing & Company at the time, Mathew Siecker. 

I was reminded of Matt’s words recently when I read another opinion piece about the increasing aversion to risk-taking in advertising these days. Entitled “No laughing matter: Why advertising isn’t funny anymore,” this article by Paul Burke, laments the perfect storm of dynamics that have conspired to discourage the use of humor in advertising. Burke blames this phenomenon on everything from marketing department legal teams to former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.  (Space does not permit me to explain the connections, but the article is good reading and you may want to check it out.)

I disagree with the premise of Burke’s article and more than a few of his conclusions. To me, advertising has not suffered from an unwillingness to use humor to communicate key marketing messages. Rather, humor is not only over-used as a creative strategy in advertising, it is often inappropriately and ineffectively used. One need only look at the TV commercials that appear in the Super Bowl broadcast every year. Three quarters of them are typically based on some attempt at humor. The problem is that humor is in the mind of the viewer. What a twenty-something male thinks is funny may seem lame or sophomoric to a middle-aged woman. For most copywriters, myself included, humor is hard. Very hard.

It’s even harder to write humor that effectively delivers a relevant marketing message. I will concede that some of those Super Bowl commercials are clever. But after the punch line has been delivered, does the consumer remember who the sponsor was – much less the point of the ad?  Sadly, not very often.

I did agree with several of Burke’s assessments of the state of contemporary advertising. His opening statement is “Whenever we create a commercial, we’re asking people to either buy something or do something. But, in return, we’re supposed to wrap this request in an engaging mini-piece of comedy or drama.” He’s absolutely correct in that regard. Consumers respond to messages that make an emotional connection and both comedy and drama can do that far better than a rote presentation of facts and figures. I just don’t think comedy should be the default strategy as it often is.

So why are we in this position where so much contemporary advertising fails to deliver messages in compelling and effective ways? Sadly, I believe the ad business no longer attracts the best and brightest young talent. These emerging stars seem to be increasingly drawn to other professions ranging from big-name consultancies to obscure software development firms. Appealing to the creative inclinations of young people is no longer the sole province of the ad industry.

Burke also makes a very telling point about the institutional environment of creative departments these days. Commenting on the inhabitants of those departments, he notes “Instead of collaborating freely with their colleagues, many people just plug in their headphones and retreat into silent solipsism. It’s hard to imagine an environment less conducive to creativity.”  I don’t know if it is fair to blame this on the millennial generation but it is certainly a sign of the times.

Another societal factor is the constant pressure to do more work with less people. Economists may say that the ridiculously high level of productivity generated by U.S. workers in recent years is a good thing. I say that high productivity comes at a cost. And one of the victims is the quality of the advertising creative product.

The pressure to perform also takes this discussion full circle. Creativity requires a degree of experimentation and risk-taking. Neither marketers nor their marketing services providers are as willing to push the envelope as they once were. So playing it safe trumps taking risks.

Filed Under: Advertising

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