Carlsberg: will avoid censure by the Chinese government, probably
Carlsberg: will avoid censure by the Chinese government, probably
A view from Andreas Ullenius, Åkestam Holst

Bragging rights: The future of bragging in advertising

In September, Beijing made an unexpected announcement. The Chinese government was issuing a blanket-ban on all ads using hyperbole or unsubstantiated superlatives.

The international advertising community was startled. Executives at Gillette wondered whether a man could, in fact, get better, while Carlsberg breathed a collective sigh of relief that their "Probably" might just make them admissible.

Creatives everywhere dejectedly disassembled their favourite superlatives, carefully replaced them in their packaging, gave them one last, apologetic look, and – with a sigh – shelved them.

The impact of these new regulations creates an interesting challenge for brands eyeing China for expansion. A vast and fertile commercial landscape that can’t be colonised through sheer braggery is a brave new world indeed.

But exactly how important is bragging in advertising? How much do advertisers use it as a technique, in the UK and elsewhere? Is bragging really necessary in order to sell your product or promote your brand?

The masses are not asses

Consumers are savvier than they have ever been. Over-exposure (the average person in the UK is served over 1,700 banner ads per month alone) means people are saturated with the promises of countless products and brands.

Because of this, and the inevitable resulting cynicism, the tactic of bragging in advertising is on the decline, and has been for some time.

We’ve long been moving towards work that actually shows how a brand or product can contribute to a person’s life, rather than just pledging to do so.

It’s also very apparent that, with globalisation and the almost ubiquitous internet, advertising culture is becoming increasingly shared across the Western world.

Where once there were fairly distinct national styles and cultural conventions, today’s effortless viral sharing means a great ad can go anywhere – and notions of what makes an ad great are constantly borrowed, traded and shared.

Across the pond

This is not to say that styles of advertising across the West are identical just yet. While the Americans didn’t invent bragging in advertising, they certainly embraced it with the most gusto. The pre-regulation advertising arms-race was astonishing; a carnival of promises where no problem was unsolvable, no desire unquenchable, and every company’s product or panacea was the very best you could buy.

Today, that swaggering, pearly-white-toothed brazenness has softened, although elements remain (the ‘Trump-factor’ clearly has alarming appeal).

Generally speaking though, advertising in the US is going the same way as other parts of the West. Increasingly cynical audiences, inundated with commercial marketing, are demanding greater substance and less self-aggrandisement.

In my experience, the British have always been less inclined to brag than Americans, in most facets of their society. The invention of account planning in the UK, when John Webster’s 1970s revolution at BMP fused creative advertising with the rigor of research-driven results, began to turn the tide on bogus promises in advertising.

Webster set a precedent of demonstrating the worth of your work, through research and evidence. Madison Avenue was happy to emulate this, and by 1988 Marks and Kamin in the US had irrefutably shown that more exaggerated advertising is not as effective as a subtler message.

But, even before Webster’s revelations in London, American salesmanship tended to be moderated by British cultural modesty and humour.

Hamlet Cigars are a great demonstration of this. "Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet" was the famous (and totally hyperbolic) slogan, which accompanied an amusing, usually unfortunate, situation for the subject of the advert, where a good smoke provided some consolation.

The Scandinavian approach is, like that of the British, traditionally rather more understated than the American way, born out of our cultural pillars of politeness, humility, and wry humour.

While the Lindisfarne strategy was once the behavioural mainstay of the Vikings, these days we are a subtler and gentler folk, having long since traded our longboats for self-deprecation and our battle-axes for genial sarcasm (although the beard remains a local trademark).

We Scandies are even less receptive to arrogance than the UK audience. British and Scandinavian advertising styles have always been similar, often employing that dry, sarcastic humour of which both our cultures are so proud.

There is a key point of difference, though, in the brasher side of British humour. In the UK, it’s much more acceptable and commonplace to be disparaging or patronising in your advertising – this wouldn’t go down well in Scandinavia, where the suggestion of everyone’s equal worth is so important.

As a people, we’re very easily offended and tend to avoid conflict wherever possible, which is why we hide behind irony and self-deprecation.

Bragging Bad

Despite these subtle points of difference, wherever you are in the West today, clever, thoughtful advertising appeals more to consumers than braggadocio.

The compelling ads that go viral and get the world talking are not the ones that yell their product’s name the loudest.

The best ads are those that intelligently, and congruently with their brand, engage the audience by evoking a universal emotion.

Åkestam Holst recently created a campaign for 3, showing elderly people in a retirement home for which 3 had provided free music streaming, speakers, headphones and Wi-Fi. These laughing, dancing retirees talk in Swedish – but their happiness puts a smile on your face whatever language you spoke.

A challenge

The Chinese consumer, as evidenced by the need for the recent regulations, is currently a far less cynical audience than people in Western countries.

Decades of state censorship has meant Chinese media tends to speaks with a single, indisputable voice.

As such, the Chinese people are less inclined to question broadcasted messages, and their government has acted accordingly to stop "we’re the best, fuck the rest" advertising exploiting this lack of cynicism.

It’s impossible to tell how advertising will develop in China. All we know is that, for now at least, bragging won’t be a part of it.

I think this is a wonderful challenge. The best advertising can come from anywhere and works everywhere. So, if you aim to do your very best work, and treat your audience with the respect they deserve, you don’t have to worry about bragging to the culture you’re marketing to – you’re already aiming higher than that.

Andreas Ullenius is creative director at Åkestam Holst, part of the North Alliance network of Nordic creative agencies