On Madison Avenue, one of the theories I was taught was the Budweiser principle.
How Budweiser got to be the biggest-selling beer in the world.
The secret was: it was everyone’s second choice.
Nobody loved Budweiser, but nobody hated it.
It worked like this.
Supposing I was going to the store to get a case of beer for the weekend.
My favourite beer might be Pabst, but that tastes too hoppy for some people.
So I get a case of Pabst but I also get a case of Bud in case any visitors come round, because no-one objects to Bud.
At the same time, you drive to the store to get a case of beer for the weekend.
Your favourite beer might be Rheingold, but it tastes too gassy for some people.
So you get a case of Rheingold but you also get a case of Bud in case any visitors come round – no-one objects to Bud.
And so the store has sold one case of your favourite beer, one case of my favourite beer and two cases of Bud, which wasn’t anyone’s favourite.
We can see that bland and unobjectionable works – it’s safe.
Around that time, cake company Sara Lee ran a campaign based on the same thought: you were safe if you bought Sara Lee cakes.
They were nice and bland – no-one would object.
Of course they didn’t phrase it like that.
They showed people having bad days, then cheering up with a slice of their cake.
They used the strapline: "Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee."
Obviously, what they wanted you to remember was that nobody objected to Sara Lee – it was the safe choice.
The same was true of computers.
In the early days, Steve Jobs fought against the massive dominance of IBM.
Computers were mainly bought for businesses.
The mantra that played in everyone’s head was: "No-one ever got fired for buying IBM."
Why take a risk?
Go with the safe choice.
IBM might not be the fastest, or the most adaptable, or the cheapest.
But when your job was on the line because you had to choose which computers to buy, one motto kept repeating in your head.
"No-one ever got fired for buying IBM" – go with the safe option.
And gradually "go with the safe option" seems to have taken over the advertising business.
It’s become the no-brainer, knee-jerk reaction.
We no longer try to do a great job, we just try not to do a bad job.
We aim for a safe job, a bland job, a job no-one can object to.
Which is why execution has taken over from ideas.
Ideas are risky, but execution is safe.
Nice photography, nice lighting, nice soundtrack, nice casting, nice locations, nice editing, nice typography.
We don’t have to take a risk on controversial ideas.
Ideas that might stand out and get talked about, get loved or objected to, make waves.
Why take a chance, why rock the boat?
Just remember it’s our job to fill up the spaces with stuff no-one objects to.
Bill Bernbach said: "If you stand for something, you’ll find some people for you and some people against you. If you stand for nothing, you’ll find nobody for you and nobody against you."
To everyone in advertising, the second option seems far more sensible.
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.