Close-Up: Advertising is it just a load of cog and balls?

Sony's 'balls' and Honda's 'cog' are thought of as classics. So much so that many commercials that have come afterwards owe them more than just lip-service, Noel Bussey writes.

Every once in a while, an ad will come along that affects you so profoundly that it causes involuntary reactions, whether they are physical or mental.

They can manifest themselves as a gasp of awe, a prickliness on the back of your neck, or the urge to go straight to YouTube and watch it again. But one thing is for sure, you know you've seen something, as a football commentator might utter, "a bit special".

In recent times, there have been two particular ads that haven't just caught the country's imagination, they have also managed to change the face of the industry itself, as well as alter the way in which agencies, clients and consumers look at advertising in general.

From the sublimely simple concept of loading two massive cannons with bouncy balls and firing them down a San Francisco hill to the ridiculously difficult task of using hundreds of pieces of a car in an audacious chain reaction, two instantly recognisable approaches to TV advertising have emerged - and, obviously, a slew of new ads have followed.

Two main approaches

One approach is to create a beautiful, ethereal, bright, colourfully enchanting dream-like trip (generally with a folksy-sounding song) reminiscent of Sony's "balls" by Fallon, while the other is to build a complex mechanical creation that often involves a community of people coming together and making something, like Honda and Wieden & Kennedy did in "cog".

On the right are 12 examples, split into two sets of six, which illustrate how the two original ideas have been adopted - consciously or unconsciously - by the industry in the hope that some of their wonder and effectiveness will rub off on other clients.

In spite of the number of ads drawing inspiration from "balls" and "cog", the industry, on the whole, is forgiving about it. Most people accept that it isn't copying, but rather an emulation of an idea that they like and respect.

Most of the time, the new ads are simply likened to one of the pioneering examples, but some, inevitably, will be accused of being a little to close to the original. Falling into the latter category is Guinness' "tipping point", which was created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.

The execution features a behemoth of a domino rally, which uses items such as cars and burning hay bales and that snakes its way around a small village until a giant model of a pint of the black stuff is unveiled.

Many from the industry were quick to criticise, but Paul Brazier, the executive creative director at AMV, says he was unmoved about any similarities being drawn with Honda's "cog" work.

"I knew the ad was similar in places, but as an executive creative director, you have to look at things like that and make a decision. The fact the TV ad was only part of a huge internet campaign meant that I thought it wasn't that near 'cog'."

He also points out that he believes the internet is now spawning a host of sites where people are digitally creating their own massive domino runs (and other such mechanical feats), and was on the cusp of a growing trend.

"It is a human instinct to be interested in this sort of thing, it's happened since the dawn of time and it has driven technology," he says.

The concept about following trends backs up a point made by Jonathan Burley, the executive creative director at Leo Burnett and Arc, when he talks about the origin of an idea.

"The great creative ideas are spawned from a zeitgeist and are drawn from all of the shit outside of advertising. As creatives, that's where we need to be, that is what creates the best ads. We're doing something wrong if we are lagging behind cultural trends," he says.

Emulating great work

Add to this, the fact we need to take into account the population is continually on the look-out for new trends and fads to adopt.

This represents the perfect environment for an ad that is creative enough to tap into the public imagination, and, as a result, will evolve to take on a life of its own. So, with this in mind, it would seem remiss for agencies not to try to emulate the work that is closest to the consumer they're trying to reach.

This gives some indication as to why the two ads have inspired so many more pieces of work.

However, Nikki Crumpton, the head of planning at McCann Erickson, points out that imitation often comes after seismic shifts in underlying principles, and a great ad does not merely mean beautiful or moving or trendy, but it fundamentally needs to mess with the audience's head, and the industry's understanding of what it formally believed to be the truth.

She warns agencies who don't take this into account. She says: "You get a repetition of the execution without understanding the shift in the rule base - a case of copying without understanding why. The problem is that you end up replicating the wrong things.

"Fundamentally, these very precise pieces of communication come from a different type of proposition. Big ideas coming from looser strategic areas, that aren't dictating the structure and form of the ads as well as the content. We need a time of replication but we also need a time of invention if we are to avoid entering a 'dull-as-fuck' era in communication, where everything looks and sounds the same."

A reasonable man

David Hackworthy, the strategic planner at The Red Brick Road, applies his planner's brain to the debate and reckons that it is just like the George Bernard Shaw quote: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man."

He adds: "The amount of copycat work going around is nothing new, but it certainly shows that advertising is packed full of 'reasonable' men. So, perhaps that's the problem. There are too many reasonable conversations being had these days, too much seeking of comfort and consensus, which gets in the way of those really hard conversations that lead to original work in the first place.

"'Cog', 'balls' and now 'gorilla' were unreasonable sales to the client, but after that, it all became reasonable. That's why it's good to be working with Frank (Lowe, the founder of The Red Brick Road), because he's so fucking unreasonable."

On the whole, though, adland is optimistic about the reasons why certain ads change the way in which everyone views the industry - and why they spawn similar work.

Crumpton chimes in again, as she really starts to run with the idea: "Culture is constantly moving about, and often consumers are way ahead of the curve in terms of how they want to be spoken to. 'Cog' and 'balls' tapped into a fundamental cultural shift of optimism and a fundamental need to look on the bright side.

"They thought small in terms of intimacy, rather than big in terms of ego (not showing your product demonstrates wanting to talk to people on their terms, not just the brands) and connected at a really fundamental cultural level.

"I think they are examples of creative vision that goes beyond mere execution. They actually reach the level of wanting to create genuine newness."

However, anyone who thinks that the ad industry is not the teensiest bit cynical about this subject should probably take stock for a second or two.

Getting in on the act

Perhaps there are more calculating forces at work. With a number of these ads, the creative process was never quite as unconscious as the "nicer" people in the industry are prepared to believe, especially when you consider there are awards up grabs. As one creative says: "You can't help but think that, but if anyone is behaving like that, it's a very shortlived fantasy. Copycat ads very rarely win awards."

And it's not just agencies who are sometimes seduced into the rip-off. There is also the fear that a client sees how brilliantly effective these ads have been and thinks "right, I want some of that".

Crumpton says: "What clients are really saying is that something's changed here, and it's good. Help me understand it so that I can play in this new space and grow my business. Anybody who thinks that means literally copying indiscriminately shouldn't be in the industry.

"Thankfully, it also points to the need for creative visionaries, people who aren't afraid of doing things a bit differently, and I mean clients here as well as creatives.

"What we forget is that there was a person who bought that idea, and that partnership of marketing and creative vision is where the shifts ultimately happen."

Richard Flintham, the executive creative director at Fallon, points to the origination of "balls" as a perfect example of this. He says: "There are more pressures these days on clients to show themselves as open and honest and green, and, ultimately, a warm company. Ads like these are the best way for a company to achieve these things on a grand scale. 'Balls' came about after talks with Sony about changing the perception people had of the company from being cold and distant to warm and accessible."

Of course, it doesn't just have to be stylistically or emotionally where the themes running through ads spawn emulation.

You can't watch an ad break these days without coming across one, if not two, ads that are backed with a soft folksy-sounding track that is more than a little reminiscent of Jose Gonzalez's version of Heartbeats for Sony "balls".

In their completed forms, both styles of ads are designed to leave you with the lasting feeling that you have just witnessed a spectacle, but both adopt different approaches to fulfill this.

So, with that in mind, it seems almost fitting that Fallon has created an ad that transcends both of these categories. "Unlimited" for Orange brings together the colour and warmth of "balls" with the mechanics of "cog". However, this did lead one observer to comment: "Well, when coming up with 'balls', they must have left a couple of ideas on the cutting-room floor."

But seemingly not content with this success, it is now apparent that the agency might have had more than just a small influence over the next shift in the advertising cycle.

Passing nature of trends

Trends, by their very nature, don't generally last for a very long time. Something new will inevitably come along and take up its position in both the hearts and minds of the general public.

So, this time around, the "Mystic Megs" in adland believe that Fallon's "gorilla" will provide the main source of inspiration for the rest of the year and beyond.

Ben Walker, the creative director at Wieden & Kennedy and a creator of "cog", says: "I've got a feeling people will start doing irreverent things that don't make sense. People can't help but like something, and when you do, you can't help drawing on that. People want to emulate things they like."

He continues: "However, we should all be looking for the big ad that will create the new style. Now that everyone is going to be doing the wacky, fun ad, I reckon I'm going to do the world's most boring ad and start a trend that way."

Flintham adds: "I think the success of 'gorilla' means that clients will feel better about letting go and asking for something a bit different, and not just a copy of the ad.

"Not everyone likes the ad, but a lot of clients have been interested in the case study, because it's such an interesting sell."

Similarities abound

However, it needs to be pointed out that "cog" and "balls" may not have been quite so original themselves. Juan Cabral's San Francisco-based opus was actually a skit on The Late Show With David Letterman in 1996, where the presenter poured hundreds of, yep, you guessed it, bouncy balls down a hill in the American city.

Meanwhile, after "cog" was released, a video by the artistic duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss was unearthed showing an intricate chain reaction made out of car parts. Draw from that what you will ...