A crude bomb – acid + petrol – was set off in Chennai. I read the news with some interest. But below that piece was an advertisement for a computer that could ‘pause, rewind or record’. I stopped reading the news-story.
Much before the bomb was set off, a friend asked me to write a small article about advertising. When I began to write that, I said to myself, ‘Hey, try connecting this piece up with something in the news.’
There was so much, and so little. So much, in that, advertising and advertising campaigns had become news-y material. So little, because they were already old news. Then it struck me!
The two incidents were related. Advertising is no more advertising. It is not even news. It is now as much a part of daily occurrence, as, well, terrorism. Here’s why.
Terrorism, to employ a phrase, goes for the jugular. It tries for maximum impact, least effort. Good advertising, inherently, is the same. Each advertising campaign is judged on a simple yardstick. How many people will it affect? How many eyeballs will it capture?
Terrorism is about showmanship. It is communicating your message in BIG, BOLD, STRONG LETTERS. Terrorism is telling the world, “Look at me, world! And listen to me when I speak!”
Why, advertising is that, too! Only, more so. A good advertising campaign puts the product or service being advertised on top of everybody’s minds. And when a good ad campaign speaks, even whispers, everybody listens. As they ought to.
Like show-business, advertising has glittering lights, confetti, sequinned girls and magicians pulling rabbits out of the hat. It puts a spotlight on the product, thrusting a guitar into its hand. Advertising is 30 seconds of fame, every half an hour.
To quote Luke Sullivan, a veteran ad-man,
People don’t want to see your stinkin’ ad. Your ad is the comedian who comes onstage before a The Rolling Stones concert. The audience is drunk, and they’re angry, and they came to see the Stones. And now a comedian has the microphone. You had better be great.
Given that, advertising has necessarily got to be intrusive. Like terrorists and terrorism, it needs to be more interesting than the soaps on TV, or the price of your blue-chip stock. Advertising has to be more interesting than daily life.
Terrorism is about putting a particular brand of fear into society’s head. Bombs, killer-viruses, oil spills, alien death rays and the more. It’s about getting people to throw out old fears and buy into new ones.
As for advertising – Out with the old; New Improved; ‘Bigger, Better! With 20% more!’ – We shout from rooftops. Brand X vs. Brand Y. Them or Us!
Continuing the analogy, terrorism is about a change in the way we see our world. The victims of terror are unsure about their life, about their presumptions and about the guy next door. Nothing is for granted anymore, no siree! Terrorism, at its basic level, is about destroying beliefs and changing perceptions.
That is what this column is about. How advertising challenges your perception.
A good idea, any idea, is at the core of advertising. And ideas are always destructive. They change. They bring about havoc. An idea cannot live in the ‘usual’.
The right idea, told in a memorable way to enough people is the success of an advertising campaign. This involves distilling the idea to its smallest, simplest unit, packaging it effectively and spreading the net wide, but carefully.
To distil an idea to its core requires us to change our perceptions. It requires that we let go of our prejudices and our hang-ups. Not something we all do easily, if we do it at all.
Like terrorism, ideas too create doubt in the minds of the victim. Ideas work us up to a frenzied stage. We itch for something to do, clamour for a badge to carry. The right idea is far more destructive than the best Al Qaeda plans. Even getting the right idea is a destructive process. According to James Webb Young, an idea is “nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements”. To combine two elements to create something new requires that the old ceases to exist.
Sugar-coating an idea is something advertising does exceedingly well. It packages a product enough to ensure first-buy. Glossy papers, film-stars, lights, action, money-back guarantees and NOW OR NEVER. (Here, I will state a point I believe in – good advertising kills a bad product faster. Advertising can only ensure first-buy. Repeat sales are solely on the product’s merit)
To the next point – Spreading the net wide, effectively so, requires skill. More importantly, it requires a change in the way we think of people. Not as uncles or cousins or as neighbours. Or as Abhijeet Sethi, 26, Male, Software professional. It is about thinking of people as enemies of your idea. They need to be won over, told why Us is better than Them. And why, Brand X is no match for Brand Y.
Advertising changes our perceptions. And changes stereotypes. It takes a well-recognized stereotype – the Punjabi, the Tam-bram – and twists them to package a message. In the process, changing the way we look at them. (Remember the ad for a plywood brand?)
Further, it changes our tastes and preferences. Advertising creates a need where it doesn’t exist. Or, desire where only interest existed. And it does so, by playing on our fears, on our insecurities and even our strengths.
In doing this, advertising is perceived by those outside it with a certain level of contempt, and fear. (Just like the terrorists.) For you see, it is not always a good thing to change the way the world runs. It throws people out of the well called familiarity.
Note: An edited version of this piece was first published in the Sunday Express Magazine section, under the title – It all ads up
Earlier, I talked of owning a product versus owning a brand. A product story is never as interesting as a Brand story. Two TV Commericals I saw recently, for two brands – both in the same category, the same product, even. Highlight the difference.
Dish TV (Handled by Lowe) has been around for a while now. They are the first DTH operator in the country. Their latest TV Ad tells you the benefits of going Dish – pause live shows, get the language of your choice, movies that you like and so on. While the ad itself is executed well, good production values and so on, there is no major idea to it. For they are only highlighting product benefits. In other words, the product idea is the TVC Idea.
Tata SKY (handled by Rediffusion Y&R) is the latest player in the DTH sector. And what an entry. While the basic proposition is pretty ordinary – Entertainment will never be the same again - the way they have built on this to make a TV commercial is fantastic. Having found one little emotional/non-rational hook, they exaggerated the benefit – by dropping old TVs, Music systems, and even eye-wear from high-rises. The TVC grabs attention as well as communicates the idea and the product story well.
After seven years in the advertising business, my flirtation with the industry has been far from satisfactory. Nonetheless, like good old Indians would like it to believe, I’m working on this relationship and trying to understand this gorgon called Indian Advertising.
But let me warn you, the picture doesn’t look too rosy.
Here are some questions that I’ve tried finding answers to. But no, none of them seem to convince me. Here we go.
1) Why can’t an industry like advertising have a body like NASSCOM or INS which can lobby with the government, regulate remuneration, stop undercutting and make the industry as robust as IT?
2) Why can’t we have one national award ceremony celebrating great creative?
3) Why can’t one agency respect another agency’s work?
4) Why can’t agencies have a pitch fee? (At least the AAAI have woken up on this. It remains to be seen how they implement it.)
5) Why can’t agencies come up with a remuneration system that’s better than the 15% commission or the retainer fee? (If the software guys have done it, we can do it too.)
6) Why can’t agencies stop undercutting?
7) Why can’t agencies do work for clients abroad and spread their net globally? (Again, some skeptics have told me this is not possible because we are not aware of the local idiom abroad. That, I consider is whole lot of hogwash. If that were the case, agencies like W+K, BBH or KesselsKramer wouldn’t have been successful at all.)
Why can’t agencies operate like brand specialists and work like Investment Bankers commanding the same respect? (After all, an advertising agency is supposed to shape the destiny of brands with clients. So how come agencies get treated like suppliers and Investment Bankers like Gods?)
9) Why can’t agencies attract and retain good talent?
10) Why can’t agencies stop pleasing clients with unnecessary speculative work and do 80% more than what is needed, every single time?
11) Why do I have this fear that I wouldn’t find conclusive answers to any of these questions?
One of Neil French’s best ads, and probably the best in the world of Long copy advertisment.
From the Neil French Site
Long time readers, (hang on a mo…are there even readers for this blog anymore?) will know of my fascination with the word, technique and magnificence that is the FLIP.
A simple method that opens up a world of ideas for the starved writer.
The flip can be used in two main ways
- On a problem – Flip your problem around, flip the brief, flip the before in the before and after, flip a case study, flip the time lines, flip the servicing guy. Apply the flip on the problem or the message you need to communicate to see if you can get that idea. Look at the whole thing upside down and right to left (left to right in the arabian countries). Flip popular perceptions, flip research findings, flip social taboos
- On the solution – Flip your idea, turn it upside down, flip the headline, flip the visual, play with the order of the words, take the logo up and the headline down, flip a previous ad, spoof, spoof yourself, does the ad work better with an after, before the before? Flip.
Some recent campaigns that Flipped– Surf Excel: Daag achcha hai / Stains are good (Flipped a perception) – Adidas: Impossible is nothing (Flipped a line, flipped a positive line and made it more powerful)
For a long time now, I’ve been following I have an Idea – a blog/website/resource-centre for advertising professionals. And for a while atleast, I was cursing everybody in Canada and the US who could walk (or drive or train or ship or fly) to any of their special events. I soon overcame the jealousy and wished them all the best.
But no, jealousy doesn’t die. As I’ve already said, Jealousy is the definitive emotion. And now, it has come back to haunt me. For IHaveAnIdea has just announced its popular Portfolio Night.
Portfolio Night is a special I Have An Idea event where aspiring creatives, juniors and other professionals take part and get their portfolios reviewed by industry veterans. Here’s more information
Portfolio Night is not an event. It is advertising history in the making.
It all started four years ago when a group of unemployed juniors with absolutely nothing more than a dream took it upon themselves to unite the industry and to break down the wall between advertising hopefuls and advertising leaders.
We believe that it is the responsibility of the leaders of this industry to make sure that the next generation becomes the best generation.
Everyone that participates, everyone that sponsors, everyone that reviews portfolios, everyone that works on this night is taking the future of advertising into their hands.
On May 4 we will make possible the impossible.
What’s more, they have goodiebags and stuff. Plus the big-cheeses from the industry come around. And bless random creative people with a job. Or a calling card. Oh man! I wanna go!
But since I can’t, I will spread the word. I am not sure how many of you are in the 9 cities of San Francisco, Vancouver, Calgary, Chicago, Toronto, New York, Montreal, Boston and Halifax. More importantly, I am not sure if you are in advertising. But if you are, and if you are. Go! like immediately.
Jim Aitchison’s Cutting Edge Advertising.
Ever wish for somebody who’s made it big in your field of work to come home one day, give you some tips and pointers to you over a cup of hot coffee? Ever wish to get into the brains of the top pros and see what gets them kicked? Well, with this book you can.
That’s so not a cutting edge beginning for a review. Let’s see if I can better it. Here goes.
Throw out every damn thing you hold dear! Throw out everything you’ve ever learnt. Throw it to the ground, stamp on it and grind it into dust. This, and this is the only way will you be really creative. Learn things anew. See things from a different perspective. Learn to love what you do. Learn to love words and what they are capable of.
That, folks, has been my takeout from by far the best book on Advertising. Or as David Abbott says, by far the best book on print Advertising.
Every page filled with heavyweights in the industry, from Indra Sinha and Neil French to David Abbot and Bob Barrie. So much so, turning a page is a real pain. So much to learn, so few pages. A little tip here. A big idea there. A fantastic way of looking at things everywhere else. Combined with neat little examples and you have a book that will practically sell itself. And it has. Incredibly well, too. They even came out with a second (Cutting Edge Commercials) and third (Cutting Edge Radio) and a revised edition of the first. In short. A brilliant book.
Nah! This still isn’t a good enough review to call cutting edge. Let’s see. Get out! Get out and buy this book if you want to be in advertising!
So there’s a new fairness cream for MEN. Would you believe it? Fairness cream for MEN! Whatever happened to playing fair and square? Weren’t women supposed to be the fairer sex? Weren’t the women supposed to be all dark and ugly at the first meeting with the man and magically transform in just 4/6/x weeks into film stars and get the male all tongue tied?
But no! It seems men should go through the torture too. Of listening/watching lousy, derogative ads. Exploiting the Human Male’s weakness for the fairer sex, playing on insecurities to sell a product. Use this cream and get called “Hi Handsome” by half a dozen women and choose the one you most like.
But then, that isn’t what I really want to talk about. I want to mention two things I have learnt in this last 3 years as a Junior copywriter. (which I ain’t no longer. YAY!)
Point one. If there’s a need fill it. If not, invent a need and then fill it. Which seems to me what Emami is doing with their fairness cream for men. I have never wanted to look fairer. And I reckon, 90% of the men you ask the question will say the same thing. But here is a product that is made for men who want to look fairer. Would this need to look “whiter” have existed among men before this product debuted?
Or take a better example. Whitening Toothpaste. I have it on good authority (my dentist) that Indian teeth have traces of yellow in them and are not pearly white. But the last time I checked, Pepsodent Whitening was in the shopping bag of 3 of every 4 shopper, including mine. A product that exists solely by filling a need. And, might I add, a need created by the product itself. Other examples of inventing needs to fill: Mouthwash, Anti-dandruff shampoo (This one’s extreme. A dermatologist I went to says that 80% of humans have dandruff at least for 20% of their lives. It’s not a killer disease, nor was it a social one till recently), Car cabin fresheners (any one deciphered the AmbiPur commercial yet?)
Point two. Find a hook to hang your product’s promise on. Translated, it means play on people’s emotions/fears/insecurities. Playing on these emotions guarantees first sale. And sometimes, repeats too. After all, if I were afraid of dogs, and somebody sold “a dog repelling apparatus”, I would be the first one to buy it. Even if I know it is nothing but a stout stick.
Fairness creams almost always play on emotions and insecurities. I-am-ugly-and-won’t-find-a-husband-anytime-soon or I-am-dark-and-won’t-find-a-job-soon or My-husband-is-cheating-on-me-because-I-am-ugly. In comes the fairness cream. And Voila! My husband has resigned his job to be with me 24×7.
Playing on emotions/fear also means you have a perpetual appeal. A joke is only relevant till the joked upon exists. But fears, they are here to stay. Each generation pretty much face the same kind of problems. And the same kind of fears. Will I live to pass my genes on to somebody? Will my daughter/son settle down in life? Will I be able to retire with pride? Endlessly ad nauseum. So the more your advertising plays up on a fear and presents your product as the solutions, the longer it will sell your product.
One question I’ve been asked is why are advertisements often very misleading, or something like that. My answer is that advertising is just a reflection of the society – and if the current society is false and superficial in nature, advertising will be farcial too.
All performing, commercial and other art forms are a reflection of the society they are in – if they didn’t, the art form would be shallow and meaningless – advertising is just the truest – cause it is able to show the society as it is – like holding up a mirror at us – so we can see us as we are – and not as some abstract concept on a canvas or a 35mm screen of moving images – advertising is, and this point bears repetition – the truest barometer of any society
The question arises – how can advertising be the truest – and why not
the other forms?
Other art forms such as paintings, movies, dance etc have an individual’s imprint in it. It has been created by one person – or a group of very likeminded individuals – a painting has at its core, the painter’s life and ideas- the painter leaves her or his signature, an imprint on the painting.
The same is true of movies and dance – a movie, even though worked on and created by many individuals – the final product has the strongest imprint of one individual – the director.
But Advertising – commercial art – is unlike the others. Because it is a truly anonymous art form – in that sense it is the entire society’s creation –
It doesn’t have the imprint of just one creator – a copywriter, an art director – the agency management – the client – the ad film maker – the director – the actors – the press – the censor – each and every one of them shape and craft the ad – leaving behind their own prejudices and likes and dislikes – often mutilating the ad beyond recognition – just like in everyday society – where a million people leave their imprints on it –
Also, one of the most important requirement of a good ad is that it be
relevant and topical – in that it shows what’s current – and if the current hot news is pornography – you can bet your ass that advertising will reflect it – if only to ride on porn’s popularity.
There is a saying in the agency circles – clients deserve the advertising they get. Be it good or bad. I also believe that the society too gets the advertising it deserves.