Long and winding road: the life and death of advertising clichés

Suzy Bashford examines the tipping point between potent creative concept and washed-out cliché and whether there's ever justification for employing a well-worn idea.


Suzy Bashford examines the tipping point between potent creative concept and washed-out cliché and whether there’s ever justification for employing a well-worn idea.

When it comes to creative clichés, car brands are among the worst culprits. It beggars belief that, in the age of digital, social and personalisation, someone, somewhere, still believes that the generic execution – the long, winding mountain road, booming specification-led voiceover and driver with wind blowing in his hair – is still a goer. Who exactly commissions this stuff? Is the car industry so lacking in creative talent that it has to keep treading this all-too well-worn path?

The safe road leads to banality

But the cliché is not all it seems. It can, of course, provide a useful shortcut for your message, and produce marketing that is memorable and attractive to a varied, global audience. However, it can also be a shortcut for lack of creative ideas. 

This is the view of Chris Hawken, group marketing director at Subaru and Isuzu UK, who has worked at Volkswagen Group (home to the Séat, Škoda, VW and Audi marques),

There is nothing worse than coming out with a shockingly clichéd ad. It’s a waste of money" - Chris Hawken

Renault, Hyundai Europe and Vauxhall. He is an award-winning marketer, having turned around Škoda’s fortunes in 2000, by adopting a gutsy strategy that involved having "a huge fight" with his European bosses, but which, ultimately, transformed the brand from the butt of many a joke to an acceptable, then desirable, car choice. 

When it comes to creativity in car marketing, Hawken has serious concerns about creating work for a global audience without nuance. His frustration at the cliché-commissioning global gatekeepers at his former employers led to his move to Subaru and Isuzu in December. "I’m 100% in control of what we do here," he says. "Yes, I have a tiny budget. But I can reinvigorate agencies by doing ballsy stuff." 

Subaru’s current tongue-in-cheek campaign uses the tagline: "When your car can’t, Subaru can."

Like many marketers, who entered the profession because they wanted a fulfilling, innovative job, Hawken produces his best work when empowered by self-expression and autonomy. Clichéd ads, intended to please multiple markets and achieve economies of scale, are the antithesis of this.

"There is nothing worse than coming out with a shockingly clichéd ad that is just wallpaper" says Hawken. "It’s a complete waste of money because it won’t get noticed, and you can measure the ineffectiveness by web metrics."

Adapting clichéd concepts

L’Oréal UK’s chief marketing officer, Hugh Pile, says he "understands and empathises" with some of Hawken’s frustrations. 

Pile argues that it’s possible to acknowledge the huge importance of globalisation and cost management, while also producing strong collective ideas. The inevitable tension between global and local teams should not automatically lead to prosaicism, he argues.

The picture that Pile paints of the culture at L’Oréal is seemingly far more collaborative than the atmosphere described by Hawken when it comes to the working practices he has experienced within car companies.

"At L’Oréal, great new ideas can genuinely come from anywhere," says Pile. "We in the UK are given freedom to come up with these ideas, and our French headquarters are interested in what we have to say. We talk about what we’ve learned together, we share it and are encouraged to give direct, open and honest feedback. Our approach to our marketing is constantly evolving." 

This type of culture enables advertisers to work beyond clichés, while not losing touch with the essence of what a brand stands for. In L’Oréal’s case, for example, Pile says the "big challenge" is how to freshen up the brand’s existing work while staying true to its core identity. 

"If a creative approach is repeated excessively, it risks becoming a cliché. And we all agree that clichés are not good," he explains. "However, some might argue that our ‘spokesmodels’ are clichés. I don’t believe they are, because we are constantly bringing in fresh talent, of different ages and ethnicities, driving the brand in new directions. The same could be said for our positioning around ‘worth’; worth is not a cliché, it’s a big, powerful, cultural, human value. The challenge of the brand team is to evolve the brand with the times."

A recent example of this is L’Oréal Paris’ ads for Age Perfect Golden Age, featuring actress Dame Helen Mirren. For these, the endline has been changed slightly to: "We’ve still got it and we’re still worth it." 

"This is an evolution of the ‘worth’ idea," says Pile. "What we’ve done here is capitalise on the zeitgeist, but we haven’t lost our brand integrity."

Between cliché and radicalism

The caveat when trying to avoid clichés, as Pile says, is that marketers must not be tempted to throw out the baby with the bathwater, in hot pursuit of creativity. The risk is that they devise a creative idea so extreme it loses all resonance with a brand’s heritage and audience. Consistency is not the same as a cliché, says Pile. The trick, he adds, is for brands to find that "white space" between cliché and radicalism. This theory is backed up by neuroscience: clichés, because of their familiarity, can act as a heuristic (a mental shortcut that makes the cognitive process easier). This is clearly helpful in a 30-second ad due to the short time a brand has to get its story across. 

"Clichés can play a positive part in marketing because they access that emotional engagement in a very quick way on a brand’s behalf," says Amanda Phillips, marketing director at Millward Brown, where she is the global lead on the Diageo account. "Clichés work well when a brand evokes a heuristic, but then takes it to another, unpredictable place; it feels predictable, but then it isn’t." She cites Ford’s ‘Unlearn’ campaign as a good example of this, because it turns the stereotype of the dull, ubiquitous ‘Mondeo Man’ on its head. "It meets the cliché of the salesman driving the Ford Mondeo head-on. It wants viewers to ‘unlearn’ those memories and create new ones." By acknowledging the stereotype, Ford has moved on from it. To be successful, the brand has to link to its past, otherwise the dramatic change of direction is too difficult for our brains to process, and it is simply dismissed and forgotten. 

Mind games

Phillips observes that marketers typically underestimate how long it takes consumers to build up strong ‘brand memories’ – they often don’t appreciate the detrimental long-term effect that frequent changes of strategy have, especially if marketing directors are hell-bent on producing ‘uber-creative’ work. 

"The human brain doesn’t have the same appetite for change as a marketer does," she contends. "To get consumers to rethink their assumptions requires a brand to consistently be on-strategy and bash away at the message. We don’t memorise our brand memories as fast as marketers would like."

Direct Line was mindful of this when it took the nerve-wracking, landmark decision to ditch its traditional advertising in 2014 and introduce a "Fixer" character, played by actor Harvey Keitel, as a metaphor for what the brand can do for its customers. 

In breaking away from the usual clichés prevalent in the sector, it knew it had to work harder than the competition to aid consumer understanding. The fact it’s one of the few brands not listed on third-party comparison sites (because it can only be bought direct) added to the complexity.

"Another way to describe clichéd marketing is ‘formulaic advertising’," says Wendy Pearson, head of marketing at Direct Line. "In insurance, there are two main routes: ‘We’ve got our arms around you’ versus ‘We’ve got cheap prices’. We had to find a voice and stand out."

She adds: "The way you can do something different is by having a bit of personality. Being distinctive is hugely important for us and the idea of the ‘Fixer’ has really helped not only our marketing, but our entire definition of our purpose in the market."

Pearson sees "huge parallels" between the insurance and car industries. She speculates that one of the reasons so many clichés abide is because "you get people in certain industries who feel like ads should be formulaic". There is some comfort in cliché, after all: if everyone else is doing it, it’s a safe option, which is easily justified in meetings. 

This is false thinking and, ultimately, dangerous. Pearson, for instance, has no doubt that, had Direct Line not taken the risk, over time it would have been "forgotten". Luckily for her brand, the senior management team held its nerve.

"It would have been very, very easy for them, in a market like insurance, to revert to what they were doing before if they didn’t see immediate results," she says. "You need a senior team around you that has the guts to say ‘We’re only a few weeks in, we have to wait and see what happens.’ 

There were a lot of very nervous people in Direct Line at the time, so having them trust we were doing the right thing and realise that it takes time to build momentum was really important."

When asked whether she worried about losing the "mental shortcut", from which 
insurance brands using clichés could potentially benefit, Pearson says: "We did have an element of worry. But, while it is good to have that shortcut, it’s only an advantage if your brand is distinctive enough to stand out; you can’t have the shortcut without the ‘brand cut’."

Culture, cliché and conscience

According to many experts, the answer to the question of how to exploit the clichés cleverly lies within the planning department. Hawken agrees. "Coming up with the best creativity that agencies possibly can is always about the planning function first," he says.

John Griffiths, founder of Planning Above and Beyond, and Elena Ionita, strategy director at advertising agency 72andSunny, are planners who came together to conduct a research study on clichés. They concluded that their best use is as research for a brand’s future marketing, supporting the hunch that you need to allude to the cliché to build a better creative approach that goes beyond the obvious.

Griffiths cites the example of encouraging people to make their own spoofs, which is now well-recognised as a way to make a marketing budget go further. "But without seeing the original, what sense can you make of the spoof?" he asks.

The pair’s research shows that creative ideas become clichés when they lose their cultural relevance, which happens because consumer attitudes and behaviours change and move on. At this point, says Griffiths, they need to be "pensioned off". 

However, a relentless focus on pre-testing and researching ads can mean that creative ideas persist beyond their best-before date. This is because consumers, when asked about what they remember about ads, tend to identify the cliché. 

"That is consciously retained as a generic lowest common denominator," says Griffiths. "But just because they remember clichés doesn’t mean that’s what you want to give them."

He adds: "We ought to be finding our way past the clichés. First, because it gives the first-mover brand an advantage. But mainly because there is so much promotional noise out there that, even if people remember ads en masse as clichés, it doesn’t mean they find it easy to pay attention. It’s vanilla."

But more than just ‘vanilla’, which equates to ineffectiveness and even brand damage, Ionita argues that clichés can harm society on a wider level. Using some clichés could, therefore, even be socially irresponsible; something that should ring alarm bells for marketers in an increasingly socially conscious market.

"Advertising clichés have a role in reinforcing stereotypes," she says. "Gender stereotypes are top of mind here, with women and men under pressure to comply to increasingly unattainable standards. In this sense, by so often defaulting to clichés – out of laziness, incompetence or cowardice – advertising is not only failing to do its job, but is also ‘poisoning’ culture and society."