Max Miller was a Cockney comedian. One of his jokes went like this:
"I came home the other night and the wife's crying. I said: 'What you crying for?'
"She said: 'The love's gone out of our marriage. You never notice anything about me anymore.'
"I said: 'Don't talk rubbish, course I do.'
"She said: 'All right then, what's different about me today?'
"I said: 'Let's have a look.'
"So she turned round, and I said: 'You've had your hair done.'
"She said: 'No, I haven't.'
"I said: 'No, I was only joking, you've lost weight.'
"She said: 'No, I haven't.'
"So I thought fast and I said: 'All right, calm down, I could see it all the time. You've got a new dress on.'
"She said: 'No, I haven't.'
"I said: 'All right, I give up. What is it?'
"She said: 'I'm wearing a gas mask.'"
That's my favourite Max Miller joke. I love the point it makes about over-thinking things. The answer to his wife's question was actually very simple. It was right in front of him, and he missed it. He was trying to be too clever.
I think a lot of us in advertising are guilty of that. Trying to be too clever. Why do we do that? Ads should be simple and powerful, shouldn't they? After all, look at the context they have to work in.
What do most people spend most of their time thinking about? They've got their love affairs, their sex life, relationships, or lack of them. They've got their job, they haven't had a raise, they've got bills to pay. They've got problems at work, the boss doesn't like them, they're not getting the credit they deserve. Their house needs repairing: the gutters are leaking, or the boiler's not working, or they've been burgled.
They've got medical problems, they're overweight, they've got a rash, they've got a pain somewhere. They've got problems with the children, or their friends, or the neighbours, or the car.
Then there's the news: the economy, terrorist threats, global warming, will the volcano/strike/exchange-rate affect their holiday? That's what people's minds are actually full of: their own life.
If we want to tell them something, if we want to interrupt their thoughts, wouldn't it be best to be simple and easily understood? Not make them guess what we're trying to say? Not expect them to stop dead, forget everything else, and concentrate on working out our ad.
Because the shocking news is, most people are not living just for the ads. They didn't turn on the TV, radio or laptop, or buy the paper, or even pick up a freesheet for the ads. Nobody does.
Well, hang on, that's not quite true. There is one group of people who live solely for the ads. A group of people for whom the ads are the most important thing in the world - people who work in advertising. We love to work out what ads are trying to say.
So, if we're doing ads like that, that must be who we're doing them for. Ourselves.
Now take a look at the ads opposite. Some of them are like that. So complicated only people who work in advertising can figure them out. Of course, not all of the ads featured here fit this category. But some of them certainly do IMHO.
Rather than just have me tell you my opinion, see what you think. Which ones deliver their message simply and powerfully? And which ones make you go WTF?
PLANNER - Laurence Green, chairman, Fallon
"Write the future," the goddess Nike instructs us in her epic new commercial. It's a pretty good endline for life, I reckon, and not just footballing endeavour on The World's Biggest Stage.
And so, adhering unimaginatively to the default Private View narrative arc, it's the lens through which we view this week's creative fare.
Nationwide (2) plunders the past - and the oh-so-familiar cast of Little Britain - to write its future, I fear unsuccessfully. Quite apart from the background noise of shark being jumped, there's something leadfooted about these ads. The plan is for essentially dull propositions to be brought to life comedically; instead, of course, the comedy dies. But what's this? Galloping into frame thanks to YouTube, Lou and Andy meet Fabio Capello and the England squad. Unburdened by message, it works far better. There's even an overhead kick. I like overhead kicks. It's enough to make me think a little more kindly of the campaign. Shoot loads of these with looser scripts, be led by the talent and you might just outrun the sceptics.
Railways, I'm told, are the future as well as the past, coalition cuts notwithstanding. There's a nod to this strategically in these Virgin Trains (5) posters but met creatively by a comicbook pastiche that, lovingly crafted as it is, serves accidentally to date it. And though the PowerPoint probably claims it complements the sunny optimism of its recent TV work, I see only conflict. A future there to be seized but yet to be written.
Anchor (6), by contrast, has written itself a rosy immediate future with a good old-fashioned TV spot. "Made by cows" is the unsensational yet economical premise, and here it is brought to life expertly. We see the cows go about their daily grind at the butter factory. We hear a bluegrass version of Paradise City. What's not to like?
What's not to like is the exceptionally dull film trailing what is otherwise a perfectly decent if emphatically niche comms idea: a special edition Emeco (3) Navy Chair made out of 111 recycled Coca-Cola bottles. I suspect this is one of those ideas best bumped into, rather than trailed, a fresh conundrum for us all: future-writers beware.
The iHobo (4) had - as is the miraculous modern way of things - reached my 13-year-old daughter before it reached me by way of Campaign. The name, she thought, was "a bit rude" and I'm with her on this. But having lived with my homeless tamagotchi for a few days, I am reminded that idea trumps execution and that - for impoverished charities at least - the end normally justifies the means. IHobo doesn't navigate the ethical rapids faultlessly, but it does raise awareness and, I daresay, money. A future written for sure, boldly if somewhat clumsily.
I've left what should have been the best to last in the guise of the BBC World Cup (1) trailer. The world's greatest broadcaster meets the world's greatest football tournament, whatever Jose Mourinho says. Sadly this idea-free mood film does justice to neither. More 1982 than 2010, it won't be talked about, passed on or played with. In the modern media crucible - not least the great footballing and football marketing circus we are about to witness - that's an opportunity missed.
A mixed onion bag, then, in terms of writing the future, but write it we must. Because it isn't all over. Not now. Especially not now.
1. BBC WORLD CUP
Project: World Cup 2010
Clients: Louisa Fyans, head of marketing; Karen Potterton, marketing
manager, BBC Sport and Events
Brief: The World Cup from the Rainbow Nation
Agency: Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R
Writer: Ted Heath
Art director: Paul Angus
Production company: Digital Kitchen
Project: Proud to be different
Client: James Boulton, divisional director of customer strategy and
Brief: Illustrate Nationwide's unique offerings
Agency: Leagas Delaney
Writer: Adam Arber
Art director: Chris Felsted
Director: Steve Bendelack
Production company: Spank Productions
Exposure: TV, online
Project: Emeco with Coca-Cola
Client: Dan Fogelson, vice-president, sales and marketing, Emeco
Brief: Showcase the new Emeco 111 Navy Chair to celebrate the
collaboration between Emeco and Coca-Cola
Agency: Wieden & Kennedy
Writer: Sophie Bodoh
Art director: Ben Everitt
Director: Nev Brook
Production company: Wrack@W&K London
Client: Rachel Slade, communications manager, Depaul UK
Brief: Raise awareness of issues surrounding youth homelessness and the
work Depaul UK does to help young people get off the streets
Agency: Publicis London
Writer: Matthew Lancod
Art director: Robert Amstell
App developer: Scott Walsh
Production companies: Creative North, The Mill
Exposure: iPhone, iTunes
5. VIRGIN TRAINS
Project: Don't go zombie ... go Virgin Trains
Client: Sarah Copley, marketing director, Virgin Trains
Brief: Portray Virgin Trains as the solution to the hassle and stress
involved with car and air travel
Writer: Nick Bird
Art director: Lee Smith
Illustrator: Marek Oleksick
Exposure: Outdoor, press
Project: Made by cows since 1886
Clients: Mike Walker, senior brand manager; Kate Richards, brand
Brief: Reposition Anchor as Britain's oldest butter brand
Agency: CHI & Partners
Creatives: Matt Collier, Wayne Robinson
Production company: Stink
Exposure: National TV