Feature

The Death of Dialogue

Where have all the words gone from UK ads? It seems that imagery and music are better vectors of emotion, Alex Benady writes.

Guinness...word-free ad
Guinness...word-free ad

It was that award-winning copywriter William Shakespeare (Levi's, Hamlet etc) who observed: "Men of few words are the best men." But perhaps he was trumped in the word-related aphorism stakes by Goethe, who famously remarked: "When ideas fail, words come in very handy."

The notions that words somehow reduce the integrity of those who utter them and that they are a substitute for original thought are strange, coming as they do from two of the greatest wordsmiths in history. Yet they seem to have been taken to heart by contemporary advertising creatives, who have been busy in recent years removing as much verbiage from commercial communications as possible.

First, there was the much-lamented decline of long copy in press ads. Then there was the unlamented death of wit in posters. Now it's the turn of dialogue in television commercials, where the prevailing wisdom seems to be "ads of few words are the best ads".

Striking evidence of this trend came in spring this year, with the results of the British Television Advertising Awards. Of nine golds awarded, only two contained dialogue, and in one of them, Tide's US "talking stain" spot, the whole point of the ad is that you can't hear what is being said.

Meanwhile, Cadbury's "gorilla", Sony's "Play-Doh", Boots' "here come the girls", Sony's "Walkman", Levi's "Dangerous Liaisons" and Boots' "get beach gorgeous" ate all the prizes, and had the good manners not to utter a word with their mouths full.

So what's going on here? Are we witnessing the death of dialogue? Are we entering the age of the image? Is it just that dialogue-light scripts are flavour of the month? Or was it simply chance that there happened to be a spate of brilliant dialogue-free ads last year?

Perhaps it's just that the best ads have always tended not to have many words, the BTAA administrator, Peter Bigg, suggests. "This goes back quite a while. The most successful ads in creative awards have been light on dialogue for a decade," he says.

Guinness' "surfer" and "noitulove", Honda's "grrr", "cog" and "impossible dream", PlayStation's "mountain" and Stella Artois' "ice-skating priests" were all dialogue-free. And long before that, the very best ads tended to be word-free. Listen to Benson & Hedges' "iguana", Fiat's "hand-built by robots" and most of the long-running Levi's campaigns, and you won't hear much in the way of dialogue, just striking art direction and a stonking soundtrack.

It's not a coincidence: there are powerful reasons for this, according to Gemma Calvert, the managing director of Neurosense, a company that studies consumer response using cognitive neuroscientific methods. "Ads using images and music are processed by the brain differently from ads that are wordy. They are much more effective at activating emotions and a physical sense of movement, because they are processed in the early brain - the limbic system - while words activate rational analysis and are processed in the frontal cortex of the later brain."

To put word-free ads in a very wordy medium makes perfect sense, she says. "Most programmes are chit-chat. But we screen out speech quite well, so the brain picks up the contrast between the commercials and programmes."

OK, so dialogue-free films do certain things better. Why should that be more true now than ten or 20 years ago? One possible reason is that our culture as a whole is entering a new visual age, where we are bombarded by so much information that only the graphics can get through.

The theory sounds good, but unfortunately it doesn't stand up to scrutiny, say language experts. For one thing, we are actually spending more time reading than 30 years ago, according to the Office for National Statistics. "There is no evidence to suggest that the use of words is less these days," David Crystal, the professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, says. In fact, most of the big recent cultural phenomena have been word-based. "Look at text, most internet content, blogging, rap - they are all very wordy. Images may be on the increase, but only because the amount of all kinds of information is on the increase."

Society may not be growing more visual, but there is no doubt that the way media is consumed has changed significantly even in the past six years. The most obvious example of this is multi-tasking, especially among young people. "If your audience is watching your ad with half an eye while texting their mates and surfing the internet, it makes sense not to write anything too wordy. You depend on colours and sounds to create an impression," Nick Gill, the executive creative director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says.

But the real story behind the rise of ads with no dialogue is not so much about the direct impact of changes in society and the consumer as the indirect way they have affected every link in the advertising process - from clients, products and brands to research and planning, the way media is used and the skill sets of creative teams.

All of these have not only changed individually, but have influenced each other collectively, Rory Sutherland, the chairman of Ogilvy, says. "Advertising is so self-referential and plagued by feedback loops, that you get herding. That produces a 'screech', a trend that makes no particular sense."

It's not so much that agencies necessarily copy each other as are inspired by each other, Richard Flintham, Fallon's creative director responsible for the Cadbury, Skoda and Sony campaigns, says. "When something is successful, it frames solutions in the heads not only of the creatives but the clients."

It's not hard to see that in films such as "balls" and "gorilla", adland has swiftly co-opted one of the most successful new cultural forms of the past five years. The short-form film as seen on YouTube, often involving visual humour, shot on equipment with decent lenses, but poor sound recording, has been hugely popular.

Fallon, in particular, is one of the driving forces behind the current spate of brilliant but wordless commercials. So influential has it become that some even joke that now Juan Cabral, Fallon's star creative responsible for the Cadbury and Sony work, has returned to Argentina, British advertising will return to its gobby prolix norm.

Unlikely, Flintham says: "There is no conscious house style or deliberate policy. Our current Orange work is very wordy and different as a consequence. But brands know that they have to engage consumers these days or they'll just be screened out. So they are all trying to be nicer."

People don't want advertisers droning on about their products any more: they want to be entertained. That, he says, engenders a certain type of emotional feelgood advertising.

This trend is magnified by the fact that not only do brands have to entertain more, there is often less to say about the products in the first place. Clients' tendency to shy away from segmenting their markets in favour of fighting for the central ground with increasingly effective but undifferentiated products means brands have to take a more emotional approach, Andy Nairn, the planning director at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, says.

"We live in a world where products are increasingly similar, and there are fewer rational USPs, which means that, frankly, there sometimes isn't a lot to say about the product. The challenge is more about making people feel a certain way," he adds.

So we have a world of homogenised products making increasingly emotional appeals to consumers. To that mix we have to add the question of the increasingly multinational nature of advertising briefs. In just ten years, the quantity of multinational briefs and the number of agencies they are shared between has risen dramatically. A decade ago, agencies such as BBH produced largely domestic advertising. Now most of its output runs in more than one country - often it is regional or even global.

"Most of the big stuff we do these days is for other markets," Gill says. "English is tolerated in many markets, but you obviously can't have heavily nuanced dialogue. That's why a lot of our work for accounts such as Levi's and Lynx is primarily visual."

This may explain why many of the winners at Cannes have tended to be light on language and also why US TV advertising is still so verbal: it's designed for one culture - a largely English-speaking one.

Once the client has briefed its agency, a whole new set of forces come into play, all favouring the creation of ads without dialogue. First among them is the familiar problem of lack of craft skills, especially in younger teams.

"The fact is that good dialogue is difficult to write. It's a craft that needs to be learned," Gill says. He has run internal courses at BBH, for clients and creative teams, teaching them how to write and appreciate dialogue.

The trouble is, he says, that colleges are teaching conceptual thinking rather than execution. It's an old lament that isn't confined to advertising, but applies equally to art, design and even more academic subjects such as history. "The problem is that young teams come from the colleges without those craft skills. They are good at strategy, great at concepts, but they can't realise them," he says.

Now you might expect such remarks to start off a "yes we do ... no you don't" sort of squabble with the colleges. Yet even they agree with Gill's lament. Tony Cullingham, who runs the Watford Creative Advertising Course at West Herts College, says: "We have just 36 weeks to get our students ready for work. Yes, it is absolutely true that we teach less in the way of craft skills and more strategy and conceptualisation."

But the reason is not that they are pursuing some kind of Philistine anti-knowledge agenda or because they have lost touch with their market, but because they are giving the market what it wants. "I spend a lot of time talking to agencies," Cullingham says. "And it is quite clear that people in charge of placement at agencies want fast folios and favour big, global visual ideas. Wordy ideas slow up a folio."

On his course, Cullingham tries to pair up art college graduates with university graduates in more cerebral disciplines, to provide a broader range of creative styles. But, he says, "many agencies just recruit teams consisting of two art directors, straight from art college". The result is a reduced capacity for writing dialogue.

Even when dialogue is produced, many argue that agency processes militate against it. "I wonder whether planning is partly responsible," Sutherland says. "The golden age of advertising occurred when it was extraordinarily variegated. There were many types of ad. But the notion that every ad conveys just one thing in an extraordinary way pervades too many briefs today."

Last, but far from least, is the media environment in which ads appear. The communications mix has changed significantly in the past five years, and so has the role of television within that mix. "Media fragmentation and clutter mean that it's increasingly important to have an idea that works across all touchpoints, and a coherent graphic device can sometimes play this role more easily than words," Nairn says. He cites the scary hook used in MCBD's recent anti-smoking "get unhooked" campaign for the Department of Health as an example.

So in the end, when you cut through all the debate, it may be the internet that is dialogue's saving grace. "It is much better at dealing with all the detail that needs explaining. There seems to be less direct response TV and less product information. That leaves the role of television as being primarily about building big emotional ideas," James Appleby, the broadcast account director at Mediaedge:cia, explains. And that, as we all know, is best done using images and music.