Must every ad be an emotional journey?
A view from Maisie McCabe

Must every ad be an emotional journey?

The rise of sentimental ads - Esso being the latest example - shows brands can get so wrapped up in a trend that they forget how the world really works.

How do you like your tea? I like mine strong with no sugar. Or that’s how I’ve drunk it for the past 18 months since I gave up the white stuff for Lent last year as part of my not-very-feminist-pre-wedding-health-kick. Either way, I like my tea at the same spot on the Revlon colour chart every time.

But with ads, there’s no one way of doing things properly. They can be happy, sad, funky, naff, boisterous or sentimental and still be great. The brilliant campaigns of the past month or so have included a skinny bloke poking fun at rugby players, a beautifully crafted film splicing together music, sport and real life, and a simple outdoor execution celebrating the arrival of the UK’s second female prime minister.

Zaid Al-Zaidy wrote in Campaign last month about what he considers the different stages of advertising. He says we are moving into the age of audience from the age of ideology, having already passed the age of emotion. Yet the default approach for many brands seems to be to position themselves at the epicentre of emotional life moments through a mood board masquerading as an ad.

Now, some brands do this very well. John Lewis is the obvious example. But the John Lewis ads don’t work simply because they have a heart-wrenching story set to a wistful version of a song you already like. Not only are they expertly crafted, the whole experience and ethos of the company is something people want to buy into. Oven chips just don’t have the same cachet. 

Take the recent Esso spot. I am told it was not really intended as a homage to David Lynch’s The Straight Story as such but my colleague Simon Gwynn spotted the similarities right away. 

In case you haven’t seen it yet: the online film – a medium that always rings my effectiveness warning bell – shows an older person making a long, lonely and tiring journey set to a song from The Straight Story’s soundtrack.

In the Esso version (spoiler alert), it’s a woman calling on a childhood sweetheart – or that’s the assumption you’re led to make – rather than a man taking a tractor to see his dying brother. Yet my overriding feeling when watching the film was: surely she would just fly? It’s as if we’re so lost in "brand truths" that no-one sat up and thought about the way the world actually works. 

Oil prices might be low but there is no way you would drive that far in real life. In The Straight Story, Alvin’s legs and eyes don’t function well enough for him to have a driving licence. He’s not travelling 240 miles at five miles an hour for fun. Just as it’s boring for airport ads to show wide-eyed journeys and reference a film from 2003, do we have to use long-lost love to sell petrol?

Dishwasher-tablet brand Finish has shown that you can celebrate the place consumer goods have in our lives without being overly sentimental. If only more people would rip that off.