How a dose of reality can make marketing campaigns soar

It's time for advertising to stop trying to play popular media at its own game and instead look to marry its message with the context, says Alex Smith, planning director, Sense.

The Economist: ad uses its context to amplify its message
The Economist: ad uses its context to amplify its message

Advertising has always tried to copy entertainment. It appears in the same places, plays by the same general rules, and since we’re living in a golden age for the arts, the creative premium for advertising has never been higher.  

The subtlety of the best now often escapes easy description, playing with tone, feel, pacing and irony in ways out of reach for the majority of work. Ideas that sounded great on paper, when filtered through the inevitable compromise and committee, can easily be rendered gauche and bland.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the day when the bulk of our entertainment came from four grainy channels and dog-eared Dick Francis novels, we were pretty easy to impress. This made marketing quite a bit easier, since we were all capable of producing something that could command forgiving attention spans.

But now we’re spoiled. Our exposure to intricate and plentiful expanses of content has chiselled our palates to a level of discernment that feels distaste at even the tiniest misstep or incongruence.  

Applying this discernment to advertising (and why wouldn’t we, it invites the comparison), has produced the highest absolute quality of work we’ve ever seen, but simultaneously the lowest ever relative quality in comparison to the public’s standards and tastes.

How can brands survive this situation? The first approach, obviously, is to produce world-class ideas, executed flawlessly, and without compromise – marketing that manages to sit alongside the very best in popular culture whilst simultaneously accomplishing a commercial task.

Well, good luck with that.  

Sure, it’s certainly possible, but a strategy of  'do really, really good work' isn’t going to carry you very far; unless all of your competitors are aspiring to 'do really, really average work'.  Obviously, brands and agencies are trying to do their best, but still, somehow, it doesn’t always quite work out that way.

The second route is a touch easier. Quite simply – don’t play popular media at its own game.

Different game

As mentioned earlier, the majority of marketing structurally apes popular media. It’s generally an isolated fictional narrative or vignette, residing behind four metaphorical walls. These might be the four walls of a page, of a screen, or in the case of experiential even the four invisible walls of a site space. Within this space, marketing tries to put on a show, communicate its message, and hopes that people were paying attention.

This is exactly how the majority of entertainment works.  Movies, TV shows, theatre, sport – they all take place in their own little world behind these same walls.  When marketing plays the same game, it competes against them; the TV ad is compared to the TV show that surrounds it, the magazine ad is compared to the article overleaf, and the brand experience is rather like that show you watched last week – only not as good.

So, it’s fair to say that marketing would do itself a favour if it avoided this competition once in a while, and decided to play by its own rules.  How? Just break that fourth wall, and deliver your message through an execution interwoven with a relevant real-life context.

Here, advertising has a trump card over popular media. We aren’t providing entertainment for entertainment’s sake; we’re providing solutions. We’re providing real advice and assistance to real people, and because of this everything we try to say will have a relevant context in people’s real lives that we can tap into.  By simply marrying message and context, we can open up a creative opportunity that is simultaneously obvious and original.

By simply marrying message and context, we can open up a creative opportunity that is simultaneously obvious and original

Take the Economist ad, above, for example. We can see that nothing about the message or creative treatment is particularly ground breaking.  If you transposed the concept to a fictional format (say, a print ad showing a car that had just driven over the middle of a roundabout), it wouldn’t elicit a moment’s contemplation.  However by simply interweaving this unremarkable concept with an appropriate real world context, it suddenly becomes a powerful piece of work.

Contextual approaches don’t only transform generic thinking into award-winning creative – they massively stretch your resources too. If you hijack a real life scenario (which of course you didn’t have to create or pay for), then it becomes part of your idea, achieving scale that you’d never have realised with a fictionalised version.

The beauty of this approach is just how easy it is. It requires no outlandish creative thinking (the concepts can in fact be thoroughly mundane under the surface, though they won’t look it when you’re through with them).  It simply requires you to search for a real life moment or location where you message is relevant, and put the two things together.

So leave the entertaining to the entertainers.  We’re persuaders, problem solvers, and solution providers – a remit that’s far wider than putting on a song and dance routine. Wider, and for me, more exciting too.

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