It’s dishwasher sized, "realistic looking" and combines wild animals in their natural setting with fully clothed people at leisure. (The people can be ordinary or famous: it makes no difference.) It’s predominantly blue, ideally autumnal and its curves are soft. It’s America’s most-wanted artwork, according to a survey of 1,001 adults conducted by the Russian conceptual artists Komar and Melamid 25 years ago.
And, of course, it looks like shit.
Komar and Melamid also used the same data to define America’s most-unwanted artwork. For the record, it’s paperback sized, "different looking" and features imaginary objects, geometric patterns and sharp angles.
It’s a bit better.
Now, no conceptual artists worth their salt would stoop to explain what this all means; Painting by Numbers, the record of Komar and Melamid’s artistic journey, instead celebrates their work as "a provocation". But as an advertising practitioner, it’s hard for me to think of a better demonstration of what happens when you work back from what your audience tells you they want – or tangle too many strands of feedback.
(I can’t help thinking of a certain Pepsi commercial as the best recent example of dishwasher-sized advertising folly.)
Frankenstein’s monster is the ghost at every advertising feast. The urge to add our own, minor improvements to the work can be irresistible even before we burden our original idea with the added weight of stakeholder and research feedback. (After all, everyone approaches advertising with an open mouth.) The recent trend towards multiple routes and tissue meetings invites pick ’n’ mix creative development. Friendly fire can come from a director keen to add their own executional flourish. Even edits can be accretive.
Slender as each of our consecutive interventions may be, creative iteration inevitably tends to add rather than subtract layers of communication: it’s a kind of advertising Buckaroo, and we all know how that ends.
We complicate rather than simplify as we go, forgetting that ideas have spikes and shadows just like people do: that each one has strengths and weaknesses, some things they cannot do or even stretch to accommodate. Too much of what our audience eventually sees is, therefore, a compromised version of our original, single-minded intent. We play, indeed play out, too many notes.
The best commercial communication, on the other hand, always has creative integrity at its heart: the unmistakeable whiff of a vision realised rather than negotiated into life. Its parents and sponsors have somehow resisted the siren call of adding things, and may even have taken some out to honour the core creative intent. Its gestation may have involved listening to the consumer but never at the expense of listening to our idea.
Following your idea and seeing where it wants to go is an easy thing to prescribe and a harder thing to do. But it’s still your best guarantor of a proud process and brilliant outcome in a world where other, less hardy advertising specimens proliferate.
Laurence Green is executive partner at MullenLowe London