What Do We Mean By ‘Good’?

Art is a funny old game. Pretty much every form of it suffers from the same inability to measure its quality with any objectivity.

In books you’ll find millions who think War And Peace is a boring load of old crap, and millions who think it’s the best book ever written (and possibly millions who will claim they think it’s the best book ever written, even though they really think it’s a boring load of old crap). You’ll also find millions who love The Da Vinci Code and millions who think it’s utter trash (and millions more who claim to think it’s utter trash despite powering through it in a single afternoon).

When it comes to art you’ll find many who gaze in wonder at the work of Rothko and many others who gaze at it in equal wonder because they can’t comprehend why a few shapeless splodges came to be so highly praised. Is the Mona Lisa brilliant, or did it simply gain undeserved notoriety when it was stolen? Why can’t we all tell the difference between the splashes your child brings back from kindergarten and the average Jackson Pollock?

Cinema: some think Fellini captures the heart and soul of the human experience, while Dr Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is formulaic CGI plop. Others think Fellini is boring, pretentious rubbish, while Dr Strange is the height of imagination, writ large through the gothic perspective of Sam Raimi. I love Bela Tarr’s Satantango, the seven-hour story of exploited Hungarian farm workers, and I also love Thor Ragnarok. Then again, I wasn’t keen on Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies, and I thought Thor: Love and Thunder was shit.

You get the picture.

But what about advertising?

I think it suffers from exactly the same vagaries of opinion, but the problem is that it’s halfway between art and commerce, in that it is unpredictably creative, but it tends to have has a specific and timely response goal. It can’t find its audience thirty years after it was relatively ignored just because it gets revived by a movie (like Tiny Dancer). It can’t create a hipster late-night audience to spread its success over decades (like The Rocky Horror Picture Show). And it can’t be successful if it’s loved by critics but basically ignored by the public (see: Hurt Locker, Satantango and about a billion other films, albums, songs, books, paintings, sculptures and TV shows).

But when it comes to being ‘good’, I think advertising falls into three categories:

1. I’ll call the first category Award Good. That doesn’t mean it’s only liked by award juries; just that awards are the one essential criterion for an ad to be considered ‘good’. 

Some of you probably read my post about this year’s Cannes Grand Prix winners. I would argue that some of them are only ‘award good’, while others won awards while also successfully achieving their intended goals of fame/sales/awareness. 

But many people (ECDs and CCOs very much included) fall back on this measure because there is supposed wisdom in crowds, and the fact that several jurors collectively chose the work to represent their opinions of what is ‘good’ is the closest we can get get to objectivity. The fact that one or more of the jurors might have considered the winning work to be crap is neither here nor there because no one will ever know. Like democracy, it’s the worst system we have except for all the others.

Does an award mean the work is good? Of course not. Some jurors were selected despite having poor taste and no knowledge of what has gone before. Some judging sessions get swept up in moods that give some ads an unexpected boost. Some people judge on different criteria to others, possibly because of cultural differences or, crucially, simple differences of opinion. Awards are just what some people think on a certain day, looking at the work out of context on a computer, then in a conference room, while quite keen to get it over with so they can go and find the nearest Pina Colada. 

Clearly that’s not an unimpeachable way to assess quality, so if you think that saving a coral reef has nothing to do with selling cat food, and thus an ad that tries to do that is not good, even though it has a Cannes Grand Prix, then you may well be a better judge than the senior creative types who held the opposite view.

2. Actual Good. This is where is gets tricky. In my infinitesimally humble opinion, any ad that achieves what it sets out to do can be considered ‘good’. It might be unoriginal, obtuse, irritating, boring, poorly-crafted and million other horrible things, but if it does what it’s supposed to do, that must surely be a mark of quality.

Before I go any further, I have to point out that we rarely know what the precise aims of any particular ad might be, so we’re going to have to be a bit open-minded about this, but let’s give it a go. 

Ads that bring fame to their clients, even the ones we think are crap, tend to fall into this category. But I’d like to include a sub-category of work that manages to persuade you to do something, even if it’s not as jaw-dropping as Guinness Surfer or as cool as the Levi’s ad where they run through walls. Here’s an example from my own viewing experience:

I’ve never seen that ad before, but it contains something I always love to see in a toothpaste ad: the bit at 0:07, where you get an animated representation of the  gunk being washed away by the magic toothpaste. Is that ‘good’? Not in a Cannes way, obviously, but that was the kind of thing that actually persuaded me to do something. It’s unoriginal, on the nose and a cliche of the genre, but it always pulled me in. The creatives and post people should be commended for doing their job in a way that achieved their desired result (I can’t remember if I bought the toothpaste in question, and you might suggest that I may have confused brands of toothpaste because all these ads are so similar, but at least I noticed and thought about the ad, which is more effectiveness than most. And maybe I did buy that brand of toothpaste).

In the UK this ad used to run during weekday afternoons:

Literally everyone in the country knew it, and could sing the song. Did it win awards? Of course not. Did it impart information in a clear and memorable way, conferring fame on its client? Yep.

On the flipside of those examples, I’m going to use Fearless Girl as an example of what does not fit under this definition of ‘good’. No one knows who it was for or what it was supposed to communicate, then it turned out that the company responsible acted in a way that was the opposite of the supposed message of their lovely sculpture, so even if anyone had known who was behind it, it ended up as a cynical exercise in subterfuge. Yes, it was famous, but if that were the only criterion for success, The Queen’s funeral queue should win all the awards going.

3. Finally we have Good That’s Been Graded On A Curve. For those unfamiliar with the American school system, ‘grading on a curve’ refers to the practice of finding a normal distribution of results (a few crap, a lot of mediocre and a few excellent), even if the work doesn’t accurately reflect that. Which is a long way of saying that we might well be praising work that isn’t so much ‘good’ as ‘good for an ad’, or even ‘good for the ads of a certain year’.

When we see a ‘really good’ headline, is it really good, or just a good ad headline? I understand that the two things have similar meanings for most people, but why are we OK with implying that ads are a worse art form, judged to a lower standard than books, films or music?

You might say that the very best advertising sits equal to the very best of other art forms. Unfortunately that is not the case. Dumb Ways To Die is not The Apartment. Honda Grrr is not Up or Inside Out. It’s harder to compare print advertising to other forms of the written word, but suffice to say, VW Lemon is easily surpassed by thousands of novels, magazine articles, newspaper headlines and political slogans. 

Yes, the best of advertising is a long way from the best of Other Things, but perhaps you think I’m unfairly pitting them against each other.

They don’t have to answer to dozens of clients. 

Ever tried getting an original film through the studio system, or convincing a record label to release something edgy?

What about the budgets? 

Minute for minute some ads have more production money than Avatar. Radio and print work has far more money than its non-ad equivalents.

They’re not long form, so how can we judge them in the same way?

Michelangelo’s single-image art was effectively advertising for the Catholic Church, as were all the requiems and speeches that moved countless millions to believe in something that doesn’t even exist. 

Religion is far more compelling than soap powder.

Sure, but we make ads for charities all the time, and there’s nothing to stop us persuading people to reverse the Climate Crisis or stop the worst consequences of wealth inequality. We literally need no brief for those movements, so we have no excuses.

I once wrote a Creative Review column about my Weekend At Bernie’s theory. It states that it would be better to have been responsible for a mediocre film such as A Weekend At Bernie’s, than the very best advertising. More people care about the movie, it’s more famous, and has caused millions of people to part with money to experience it and spend hours to see it. What ad can make that claim?

So we don’t really create anything that’s world-class ‘good’. We do the best we can within our industry and media, but we are given plenty of money, the opportunity to work with great artists (eg: Jonathan Glazer, the director of Under The Skin, a work of art far better than any ad in history), and often work on compelling briefs.

So how good is our good? 

When we move three frames here or there, are we making an ad 2% better, but still miles below the standard of Wedding Crashers? 

When we celebrate our ‘best’ is it any better than the blah stuff we skim past on the Netflix menu?

Why isn’t our work on that same plane?

Is this why a TikTok or YouTube video can often be so much better and more culturally relevant than our best, even when it’s been done by a 15-year-old kid in their bedroom?

If you disagree with this point, name the most recent ad that has had the cultural impact of this zero-budget soundbite (IYKYK, IYDK that might be the problem): 

I’m not saying that the very best of advertising has not been impressive, but I wonder how out of whack our judgment has been. Do we unwittingly participate in a collective acceptance of the relatively so-so? What effect does that then have on the quality of the work, the people who are inclined to join the industry, and its standing in culture and society?

And what would happen if we demanded and only accepted much, much, much better?