Promise, large promise, is the soul of an advertisement," Samuel Johnson famously wrote in 1758. And for centuries since, advertising has promised just about anything. From whites that sparkle after one miracle wash, cigarettes that lead to better looks, products that clean with a single wipe, or cosmetics that maintain youth even in later years. Advertising can be a quixotic mirror that sets the highest of standards to live by.
But there is a growing discrepancy between the ad landscape Johnson described three centuries ago and those on the receiving end. Modern consumers, no longer susceptible to a one-sided smokescreen of brand swank, have weapons at their disposal to cut through false promises. A globalised society aided by 24-hour news, virtual communities, the blogosphere and a deeper understanding of companies mean some of adland's traditional myths no longer hold water. Products that don't meet its promises can be taken to task almost instantaneously. Meanwhile, in a discerning age hungry for truth and suspicious of spin, even the creative methods are coming under rapid fire.
John Camm, a writer at the BBC, has vented his frustration, slating "the absolute reliance of advertising on its own regurgitated cliches". He cited some of the worst creative offences, including women locked in a constant battle with their weight, body-shape or hairstyle; sex-obsessed men who will forgo everything to watch football or chug beer; the depiction of school as a happy place for every child; and over-the-counter medical products that relieve symptoms within moments. This world of product promise, he says, has led to formulaic creative that is now ridiculed rather than respected.
So, if the world is so evolved, then why is modern advertising still so cliche-ridden? Some commentators argue that stereotypes are a way of getting meaning across. "Everything in culture is a sign with its own inherent sets of meaning and messages. TV ads are small, time-sensitive spaces where you often have to convey masses of information," Lucy Jameson, the executive strategy director at DDB London, says. "Using stereotypes allows advertisers to communicate layers of meaning built up across centuries to a mass audience very quickly."
Damon Collins, a creative director at Mother, agrees. "One of the reasons they get used is that, as ciphers, stereotypes are an effective way to mass-communicate in a truncated time period," he says. "But another reason is that many ad people can't be arsed to find ways to avoid using them."
Little wonder how, over the years, different product sectors have become synonymous with stereotypical imagery in its advertising. Toilet bleaches with sanitised black-and-white-tiled bathrooms, yoghurts with dancing and high-energy aerobics, and cat-food with an alluring set of legs on an Anglo-Saxon thirtysomething single woman.
But while those stereotypes are recognised as innocuous sector-specific generalisations, use of stereotypes can have an altogether more unpredictable effect. Earlier this year, JWT's UK launch campaign for Trident chewing gum that featured a gregarious Jamaican poet performing to a white audience was pulled after it generated hundreds of complaints, with some deeming it racially offensive. Many argued the ad was a stereotypical portrayal of black people from a bygone era. The ad jarred vehemently with a modern audience that considers itself contemporary and multicultural.
Even stereotypes used deliberately by advertisers can leave themselves open to criticism. Banks use exaggerated stereotypes of their competitors to show themselves in the opposite light. Leagas Delaney's latest Nationwide campaign stars Mark Benton as the slightly demented and self-absorbed manager that parodies all the worst preconceptions of bank managers. NatWest has opted for a similar strategy, showing a trio of rival bank strategists who take decisions on new initiatives by how much they stand to gain personally. By addressing customers' preconceptions through hyperbolic stereotypes, the viewer is made to deduce what the brand isn't, as opposed to what it is.
But Charlie Snow, the head of planning at Delaney Lund Knox Warren & Partners, asserts that while the ads are entertaining, it is a strategy that can backfire. He says: "The insight itself is a sound one: consumers have a problem with nightmare bankers. But risks of misattribution will be huge simply because, particularly in the new NatWest ads, the brand and stereotype are positioned too closely in the same space for both not to become inadvertently associated with each other."
DLKW ad campaigns for the AA and Halifax both feature images of its staff, but contest stereotypes often through using a big musical number, ethnic minorities and, in the latter case, a real employee from the company, rather than an actor. "We tend to avoid consumer insights or little dramas because you're invariably opening yourself up to cliches," Snow adds. "By focusing on the positives of a brand and projecting it in a way that acknowledges a multicultural Britain, you can get across your message in a much more relevant and memorable way."
So, is the advertising industry even aware it uses stereotypes so frequently? Yes, argues Laurence Green, the chief executive of Fallon. "Stereotypes are a bad agency's crack cocaine; they know they shouldn't use it, but they still have to reach for it far too often," he says. "It shows a casual contempt for your audience if you think oafish shorthand is the only way to win their custom."
Green dismisses the notion cliches are necessary in order to communicate messages to mass audiences quickly. He says: "Too many of us hide behind the need to communicate at speed. But for all the supposed 'efficiency' that stereotypes yield, they are still at odds with our other responsibilities: to differentiate our brands and communications and engage the consumer."
Little wonder, then, that Fallon's ongoing campaign for Sony Bravia, which featured coloured balls bouncing through San Francisco, paint exploding from buildings on a Glasgow council estate and Play-Doh bunnies hopping through Manhattan, is some of the most esoteric advertising of recent times. PlayStation and Guinness are other brands to have always avoided cliche. "Adland is brighter, louder and faster than the content it interrupts," Green adds. "It's appalling how quickly you can tell whether you've landed on an ad or a programme when you switch on your TV. Wouldn't people give advertising more time and grant it more goodwill if it was more like the programmes it punctuates?"
Yet the advertising world is not about to bury stereotypical portraits anytime soon. Certain commentators argue that when used carefully to subvert norms, cliches can retain their cultural nuances, disrupt convention and contribute creatively.
DDB London's latest work for the Volkswagen Passat features a number of men indulging their therapist in their mid-life crises. Describing their stereotypical symptoms, including penchants for younger women, rock music and recreational weekenders, they are in stark contrast to the solid therapist, who - unsurprisingly - is a Passat driver. "When stereotypes are used well, you can get all the rich cultural reference points and layers of meaning without the dull and worthy household slice-of-life stuff," Jameson says. "It works because you've used the full power of the semiotic references, while subverting them for something more memorable and creative."
Ogilvy Advertising's Dove campaign is another example of an ad that has disrupted cliche. Featuring real women rather than the shower cubicle cover girl, the campaign has been hailed as a success for recognising - and celebrating - the disconnect between the real life and advertising's parallel universe. Steve Henry, the executive creative director of TBWA\London, says: "Advertising in that sector was promoting an unrealistic relationship with products, which works up to an extent, but is subject to decreasing returns. What Dove did so well was break that by demonstrating respect and empathy for its consumers. That will be even more important as we move from a world of consumers to one of stakeholders and participants."
But even subverting stereotypes comes with its potential pitfalls. The recent MFI ads from M&C Saatchi smashed the cosy world of advertising cliches to pieces. Featuring, among other things, an old couple in a blazing argument about a raised toilet seat, as well as a daughter who arrives home late enough for a domestic row with her mother, the ads provoked a flurry of complaints. The ads have since been hastily dubbed into Spanish in an attempt to take the edge off their gritty nature. Few would have guessed consumers would miss the sanitised world of B-list celebrities lounging around on plush sofas. Perhaps advertising has a role for stereotypes after all?
Or is it something even more important? Frank Furedi is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent and the author of Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and the Culture of Fear. He argues that the use of stereotypes is critical to recognition. "The unconscious mind is always looking for patterns and predictable forms of behaviour," he says. "Advertising doesn't have to replicate society, but it does need to represent it. To do that, it needs to find cultural markers that act like signposts. If it didn't, the ad world would just be full of abstract art, which would have no real bearing on its brands."
But he adds that society is not comfortable looking into a mirror that reflects a negative view of the world. "What would motivate you to see or buy something that reaffirms a negative view or leaves you with nothing to aspire for?"
Advertisers agree. "Advertising has a social contract with the world that it feeds," George Bryant, the head of planning and a managing partner at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says. "Great advertising shouldn't resemble the act of looking through a window at the world. It should give back something surprising and rewarding. In a world where we're given so much in the way of horror stories, greyness and hardship, the last thing we need is to see more of that in our ad break."
And, to a large extent, this view still holds. "Essentially, ads are promising to make your life better," Henry says. "For a brand to be financially successful, it has to be legitimately making the world a better place."
Perhaps this brings us back to the underlying element of advertising: promise. Charles Revlon, who founded Revlon in 1932, famously once said: "In the factory we make cosmetics; in the store we sell hope." Little seems to have changed. Society still looks to advertising to entertain, promise and show world truths without its gritty traumas. Those that can, while resisting the draw of cliche, will reap rewards.
SEVEN DEADLY SINS
1. Bathrooms that sparkle
Devoid of nasty pubic hair and tiled to within an inch of its life, adland's quintessential bathroom gleams, usually after an effortless wipe removes unrealistic layers of thick grime.
Guilty ads: Ambi Pur, Glade, Flash
2. Nasty bank managers
They're loud, self-absorbed and slippery. Usually the polar opposite of the gentle couples they serve, bank managers serve no higher purpose other than to screw customers over with a smile.
Guilty ads: Nationwide, NatWest
3. Dad - the loveable buffoon
We're constantly reminded how fatherhood means narrowing your mental capacity to the level of an amoeba's, outpouring your emotions like an out-of-work actor auditioning in panto season, and finding numerous ways of being outwitted by your four-year-old son.
Guilty ads: Snickers Ice-Cream, Nintendo DS, Pampers, Orville Redenbacher, BT
4. Spinsters with cats
She's a capable career woman. She lives alone. She never wears trousers and she has legs to die for. Oh, and she has a cat that she cares more for than life itself, regularly sniffing its food.
Guilty ads: Sheba, Gourmet Pearl, Olli
5. The Marge Simpson mum
Mum is the omnipotent presence and tranquilises the erratic behaviour of her family. Instead of losing her nerve or stressing to pieces, she's always level-headed, at worst smiling resignedly or rolling her eyes up to life's hardships.
Guilty ads: Rice Krispies, KFC, Vicks
6. Yoghurt makes you move
One gulp of live bacteria has the same live-wire properties of ecstasy. Dancing like a lunatic, users will soon enjoy the healthiest of lifestyles. Probiotics have added to the madness, with consumers finding an instant hippy-like connection with the world around them. Most users sport the body of a supermodel.
Guilty ads: Danone, Muller, Actimel
7. Crowds united in a cause
You may remember the Coca-Cola theme song, Tomorrow's People, earnestly sung by a female lead with backing vocals from hundreds of children representing different races promising to build "a better world". Well, that was back in 1987. Twenty years on, and the unmistakable "brandfare" still comes out of the closet too often, as brands look to unite their audience with one catchy, collective musical number.
Guilty ads: Frosties, AA, Pot Noodle.