Pig Lipstick and the idea

If you work in an advertising agency, chances are most of your time will be spent trying to differentiate your client’s product from its virtually identical competitor.

Thanks to free market capitalism, if anyone comes up with a great innovation for their product that people like, it will be replicated by a competitor as quickly as possible.

Think about how much difference there is between a Nike trainer and one from Adidas. Or the distinction you have managed to perceive between the acceleration of a BMW and an Audi. The cleaning power of Persil versus Ariel. The taste and nutrition of Yeo Valley and Rachel’s Organic. The benefits to your cat of Whiskas over Kit-E-Kat. The refreshment of Becks and Kronenbourg*. The facilities and interest rates offered by HSBC and Nat West. The ease of use of Go Compare and Confused.com.

In the public’s eye there is no real difference between the products themselves, so people in advertising are employed to take something which doesn’t really look good to a consumer and make it look much better. Or, to put it another way, they have to spend their days putting lipstick on a pig. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s actually very helpful for the consumer to have something with which to differentiate the almost-identical things he or she wants to buy (the alternative is to be paralysed by the tyranny of choice). But for most days of an ad agency’s life it will be doing the equivalent of setting fireworks off near its clients’ products and shouting, ‘Hey you! Look over here!’ at passers by.

I can’t help wondering if this is what has given rise to the supremacy of the creative ‘idea’. Long before I started in advertising, creatives would be encouraged to look somewhere around the product for something distractingly entertaining to elevate it above its peers. Another breakfast cereal? Better invent a Honey Monster. Another pint of bitter? Better attach it to a no-nonsense person. Bar of chocolate? Drumming gorilla.

Perhaps advertising ideas are just necessities born from homogenisation.

Some brands create moments of utter beauty to take the lipstick to a whole new level of exaggerated distraction (how safe is a tiny little Polo?):

Of course, this is why we have brands, those formless, abstract essences of one company that supposedly distinguish it from another. But it’s funny when you think about the extent to which billions of pounds and millions of people are employed in the art of applying make-up to farmyard animals.

The very rare times that a product is amazing and persuasively attractive in its own right, as well as somewhat unique, you’ll most likely see that reflected in advertising as a form of well-crafted product demonstration (e.g. Dyson). Everyone else proves the maxim that if you don’t have anything good to say about yourself, say it about something else (that’s not really a maxim; I just made it up).

*Of course, there are slight differences in taste between beers and between chocolate bars etc., but I would argue that the taste must be incredibly close, otherwise the ads wouldn’t concentrate so much on anything but the product.