It feels like the last five years have given us a constant stream of binary opinion. From Leave/Remain in the UK to Trump/No Trump in the US to Masks Are An Evil Infringement on Freedom/Masks Save Lives Everywhere, the division of complicated issues into right/wrong, good/bad and them/us appears to be the order of the day.
But even within supposed two-horse situations, there are often many other horses involved. Take the 2019 UK General Election, in which the Conservatives beat Labour in a landslide. If you read the media coverage you might have missed the fact that 3,500,000 people voted Lib Dem, and 850,000 voted Green. And that doesn’t even take into account the many shades of difference within the two big parties: Brexiteer Conservatives, Fiscal Conservatives, ‘I Hate Corbyn’ Conservatives, All Of The Above Conservatives etc.
It’s the same with the Republicans in the US. They may seem like one homogenous mass of dumb, uncaring racists, but they are made up of all sorts of groups: Qanon nutjobs, law-and-order Miami Cubans, Christian Conservatives who are just taking the shortest path to the outlawing of abortion, Moderates who want lower taxes, a smaller homogenous mass of dumb, uncaring racists etc.
You might also have heard about issues such as ‘Cancel Culture’, where defenders of ‘free speech’ suggest that it’s bad and wrong to demonise people for their incendiary opinions. But if you scratch beneath the surface you’ll soon find that every one of them has something they too wish to ‘cancel’.
For example, here in America a TV host called Bill Maher continually goes on about how corrosive Cancel Culture is:
But he also goes on about hating many of the ‘oppressive’ elements of the Islamic faith, suggesting that they should be… um… canceled. Maybe, like him, you think that these are two different things, and that demanding that women wear burkas or banning homosexuality is a false equivalency when compared to Kevin Hart losing his Oscar hosting gig for being homophobic a decade earlier. But here’s the problem: plenty of Muslims would disagree with you, and that’s because there is no right or wrong here; only opinions. The problem is those opinions are often presented as hard fact, with a dash of straw man nonsense and some pejorative terms such as ‘woke mob’ (by the way, a Twitter user recently accused me of being ‘woke’ because I suggested Margaret Thatcher sometimes did her job in a way that not exactly compassionate. Subjectivity, eh?). I think Bill would be considered to be part of some kind of woke mob if he expressed his opinions in Saudi Arabia. And then he’d probably be murdered. Cancel culture indeed…
I get it. Bill is a comedian who exaggerates to make jokes, but he also uses double standards: he later concedes that people shouldn’t hold a ‘dress up like we’re in the Old South’ party. Is that cancellation? Political correctness gone mad? Where do you draw the line? How do you know? So I suppose he agrees with Cancel Culture, except when he doesn’t… The problems of binary expression.
Have a look at 2:30 in the above video. Bill takes a statistic that ‘80% believe political correctness is a problem’ (quite a vague assertion) and exaggerates it by listing demographics that cover everyone in America and saying they ‘all hate the current atmosphere of hypersensitivity’. Then he asserts that ‘everybody’ hates it, so it becomes even blacker and whiter, and less accurate, but at least it supports his point a bit more forcefully.
So cancel culture is complicated. It’s subjective. It’s contextual. Pretty much everyone wants to cancel something, but the idea of cancelling cancel culture is clearly the most ironic of ironies.
Which brings me to the current hand-wringing over purpose-based advertising. Again, this is a complicated subject that is often spoken about in binary terms. It seems that for many on my Linkedin and Twitter feeds, we as an entire industry are woke idiots who are promoting baseless social justice initiatives instead of getting down to the proper business of selling stuff. There is in fact an entire book out there called ‘Can’t Sell, Won’t Sell‘ whose subtitle is ‘Why adland has stopped selling and started saving the world’. Having read the whole thing I can tell you that it contains some interesting points, but even with a book with that definitive a title, the author mentions several instances of purpose-based advertising being a good thing. So why write a misleadingly binary title, subtitle and Amazon blurb paragraph for a non-binary book?
Has adland really stopped selling? Obviously not. The amount of purpose-based work is dwarfed by that which explicitly tries to sell stuff, but if you are of a mind to decry any purpose-based work, then you can certainly find many examples to back that opinion up. However, an overall assertion that this is advertising’s biggest difficulty deflects attention from larger, more problematic issues (eg: malignant data scraping, the massive talent and money drain to tech, the reduction of fees due to the rise of procurement departments etc.).
But here we are with the binary nature of 2021 language. Purpose bad, selling good, as if they can’t co-exist in any way, except when they do, very successfully (see Nike’s recent Cannes Effectiveness Grand Prix-winning Colin Kaepernick work; or Microsoft’s Gold Effie winner, Changing The Game; or Aeromexico’s Gold Effie-winning DNA Discounts campaign). Sure, many purpose attempts are more Kendall-Jenner-Pepsi than Kaepernick-Nike, but there are lots of crappy, poorly considered non-purpose ads out there, too, and the vast majority of them will get nowhere near a Gold Effie. Perhaps ‘purpose’ is simply another advertising genre, like ‘humour’ or ‘celebrity’, and like those it is done both well and badly, suggesting another situation full of shades of grey.
Additionally we are now in a similar set of circumstances regarding ‘diversity’ (my inverted commas are there to denote the subjective nature of defining that word in 2021) where middle-aged white people are winning discrimination cases. That’s a direct result of people speaking in black-and whie terms about complex issues. If you, as a female ECD, say you want to ‘obliterate’ your agency’s reputation for being full of white, privileged straight men, you might just leave your agency open to charges of gender-based discrimination (I must add here that Jo Wallace, who said that, seems like a decent, intelligent person who has been treated dreadfully by the gutter press).
It’s not a binary issue of ‘obliterating’ a certain demographic to favour others. It’s a very nuanced problem that takes in systemic discrimination, meritocracy, conscious and subconscious gender biases and several other deep, complex topics, each of which could justify an entire post-grad thesis. But this was not a case of oldish white man bad, everyone else good, and I’m pretty certain that’s not what Jo meant to suggest, but here we are in binary world where a complicated issue has left egg on a great many unfortunate faces, and caused massive damage to the very situation it sought to help. Who will now be brave enough to sack an oldish white guy? How much more likely is it that a sacked oldish white guy will take that sacking to a tribunal? What is intrinsically wrong with oldish white guys? (Full disclosure: I am an oldish white guy.)
I know we’ve reached this situation because of the way social media discourse works, with incendiary, attention-grabbing statements leading to clicks and sales, but if we don’t employ critical thinking and nuance in all areas, we might find ourselves shutting off potential avenues of success, or useful and necessary arguments, while heading off in the direction of some pointless fool’s gold.
The black and the white is where the easy shit lies. But it’s also where the bullshit lies. If you find yourself making a massive generalisation you’ll probably find yourself missing out a big chunk of truth. The title ‘Sometimes Sell, Sometimes Don’t Sell: Why adland occasionally uses purpose to great effect, but sometimes kind of fucks it up’ … Hang on, I was about to say that it wouldn’t be as good, but that’s actually a much better title, although it would have to be for a different book. Anyway, there’s no need to be definitive when reality is nothing of the sort. Sure, human beings like certainty and closure, but playing to that need betrays the opportunity to make the kind of difference that happens when you engage with what is actually the case, rather than the superficial headline version of things.
Sure, it requires more work and less simplistic thinking, but what are we saying? ‘Drain the swamp’ or ‘Let’s take a look at corruption in politics and see how we can reduce it’? ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Has this person acted in a way that contravenes any laws? If so, what should be done about it?’? ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘We should examine the ways in which leaving the EU might affect most of the people of Britain, then act in the best interests of the majority’?
Yes, the cheap sloganeering is easy to remember, and has incited many people to both support and action, but to what final result? ‘Move Fast And Break Things’ sounds great until you ask what might be broken and discover the answer is Western Democracy.
The simplicity of black and white is so tempting, but life tends to exist within the grey, and we ignore that at our peril.
There’s a lot of chat about AI copywriting at the moment. Companies such as this one have been offering some form of machine-generated advertising writing for a while now, and are understandably getting better at it.
Equally understandably, copywriters have been up in arms about this. How could a machine/robot create something as artistically pure as a combination of words that informs people that frozen chickens are available for 20% off at Sainsbury’s?
I jest, but I kind of don’t. There’s a reason why someone thought a computer could come up with copywriting and it might be a little hard to swallow: most copywriting is not very good, and it’s also not very difficult. When you see the post copy on a Facebook ad for cheap wine, or the headlines on most posters, or you listen to most radio ads you probably think, ‘What a load of rubbish. I bet a crappily-programmed robot could do better’. Well, you weren’t the only one.
I get that there are many other elements to the job that AI might still find difficult/impossible. These include thinking up a concept (although most ads don’t seem to bother with them), taking feedback and reworking ads to a client’s satisfaction (I think this one will save all our careers. Clients are not usually good at this, but they are also not usually happy with the first ten versions they are offered), and coming up with something original that no one was expecting (also becoming vanishingly rare). But when it comes to some basic-bitch copywriting, they are as good as at least some of us.
And here’s how that happened: our predecessors wrote a lot of shitty ads, then many of us did the same.
So they/we made the job look easy, and that’s what made other people think they could program a computer to do it. Yes, I know they’re getting AI to do some very difficult jobs these days, but the artier ones, the ones that involve excellent creativity, are the hardest to replicate. Rubbish creativity, on the other hand: piece of piss.
This isn’t the first time we’ve shot ourselves in the foot by making the job look easy. Back in the early 2000s there was a fashion for finding a good short film by an unknown director, slapping a logo on the end and entering it into advertising awards. Here’s an example:
Spot the difference (good luck).
This was then followed by several years of doing the same thing with interesting YouTube clips. For example:
Although the above are both very good ads, and every artist borrows from somewhere, this straight lifting of other people’s work made the job look very easy. Why pay lots of money for an ad agency when an enterprising 15-year-old searching YouTube could produce the same result?
Is it a coincidence that ad agencies are paid much less than they used to be? I don’t think so. Although several factors have contributed to this situation, I think you could make a good case that devaluing our creative currency has been one of the biggest. Making great ads used to be a mysterious process, only managed by a select few. Now it looks much easier, and therefore worth much less.
A third process has contracted things still further: digital and social media is cheap, quick, disposable and done very well by kids and idiots (and both). So it was partly we who made this part of adland look easier, and partly others, but check out the average corporate social media feed and ask yourself honestly: does that look so difficult that it should be expensive or time consuming?
We’ve gone from great creatives (sometimes) writing and art directing ads in such a way that it looked very difficult, to crap that looks (and often is) cheap and easy. And when we did that we let crappier practitioners seem perfectly capable of doing it to a professional level: computers and kids. Who needs excellent, experienced humans when the opposite can give you 80% of the quality at 30% of the price?
We unwittingly made our own bed, and now we must lie in it.
He recorded the sound of a typist hammering out the words “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, because he thought the sound each key made on a typewriter was slightly different and he wanted complete accuracy. To make sure that the line was as effective in foreign versions, Kubrick painstakingly translated it into idiomatic German, French, Spanish and Italian and re-shot the scene, placing the translations in the typewriter for Jack’s wife Wendy (played by Shelley Duvall) to find. The Spanish phrase “No por mucho madrugar amanece más temprano” (No matter how early you get up, you can’t make the sun rise any sooner) captures the tone of crepuscular horror perfectly.
That’s just one of the many stories of Kubrickian perfectionism. He never compromised, went to extraordinary lengths and drove his actors crazy with endless takes. So that’s how you achieve excellence, isn’t it? You obsess over details and never let up in your monomaniacal drive to achieve your singular vision.
Jean Luc-Godard, a similarly revered director did nothing of the sort. In making his classic Breathless, he ‘wrote the script as he went along‘. ‘Filming began on 17 August 1959. Godard met his crew at the Café Notre Dame near the Hôtel de Suède and shot for two hours until he ran out of ideas.’ ‘Actor Richard Balducci has stated that shooting days ranged from 15 minutes to 12 hours, depending on how many ideas Godard had on a given day‘. ‘(Director of Photography) Coutard said that when (producer) de Beauregard encountered Godard at a café on a day on which Godard had called in sick, the two engaged in a fistfight.’
In addition, like many European directors of the time, Godard employed American actors who did not speak French/Italian/Spanish and simply dubbed the appropriate language over their English line reads. Jack Palance in Le Mepris, Burt Lancaster in Il Gattopardo, Alain Delon in L’Eclise… I just want to emphasise that these are some of the greatest films of all time, and the sound doesn’t match the mouth movements – and there’s not even a pretence of an attempt to do that!
In later films they worked out that the mouth shapes for the Italian/French words could be matched to the mouth shapes of English numbers, so an English actor’s line would be ‘Three, seventeen, nine, four, twelve’. Not the actual lines with the emotional content of the correct words, but a list of numbers.
Let me add still further: Fellini liked to direct as the acting was happening. He would shout at the actors as they were reading their lines, even the Italian ones. This meant that all the dialogue was post-synched, so it had none of the ambient sound, and didn’t match perfectly.
All that is to say that Kubrick (and other great perfectionist directors, such as Ozu, Chaplin and Malick) would presumably have had a fit about any of the above. If he insisted typewriter sounds were perfect, can you imagine him dubbing over a carefully chosen actor’s voice so it didn’t match the mouth movements? Or making up the story as he went along? Perfection and spontaneity are not easy bedfellows.
So which is best? Perfectionism or looseness? If you squeeze too hard, do you destroy the delicate object in your hand? Or is it possible that the wrong colour blouse or a misplaced apple can destroy or compromise an entire creative vision?
With so many greats on either side of the argument, it might be better to define perfection. What Kubrick et al would see as the essential control of every element until it matches the vision in their head, Godard might see as a lighter, more emotional expression of an artistic idea, with the spontaneity being as crucial to him as the control was to Kubrick.
I was involved in making two ads for the same big client a while ago. One had a budget of millions, was minutely planned and examined, and involved thirty agency staff. The other had a budget of ten thousand dollars, was briefed in by two mid-level creatives, and forgotten about until the directors sent in the final result. Both were excellent, and I think each would have suffered if they’d experienced the same level of budget and attention as the other.
I know of excellent art directors who are happy to brief a photographer then wait till he sends the finished shots in. I also know of excellent art directors who minutely micromanage their photographers. I also know of excellent art directors who work wonders with stock shots.
I know of excellent copywriters who pore for days over every syllable in a three-word line. I also know of excellent copywriters who find great phrases hidden in company brochures. I also know of excellent copywriters who crank out hundreds of words as easily as they breathe.
So there’s no agreed-upon path to greatness, and the important thing about that is the fact that your method might be the best route to the best work, but so might anyone else’s. That’s not to say that sitting around doing nothing is the most likely way to win a Cannes Grand Prix, but bunking off to see a movie could prove as effective as pulling an all-nighter. Letting a top director do their stuff could be as useful as constantly looking over their shoulder and insisting they do fifteen more takes. Nailing down a script might be a good idea, but so might turning up with an outline and seeing what you might get from a bit of improvisation.
Try a bit of Kubrick, then maybe go for a touch of Godard. There’s no right or wrong; only what works – and many, many things can work brilliantly.
How procurement departments screw ad agencies:
He didn’t just say what I think he did, did he?” And Dr. Dre said, nothing, you idiots! Dr. Dre’s dead, he’s locked in the weekend.
Ace Ventura perpetual scream thing (it’s better than I’ve made it sound).
Why almost everything you thought about running is wrong (great design).
What if the laws of physics were different: