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Time For Brands To Get Off The (Dove) Soap Box

17/03/2017 13:56

A very wise woman once said of advertising, "do the kind of work nobody else is doing".

Now I'm no fan of hanging my hat on the pithy one-liners of advertising greats. It feels a little bit like Sun Tzu quotations on strategy slides, or Steve Jobisms introducing creative work. But doing the work nobody else is doing appeals because of its blunt and instructive clarity.

So why are there so many ads going around at the moment that feel, well, so similar? The sort of work I'm talking about involves fizzy drinks, shampoos, or cleaning products, ruminating on the big issues of the moment: immigration, gender equality, body positivity, wage equality, world peace.

Big issues were once new and exciting, of course. When Dove started on the Real Beauty path it felt genuinely fresh. It was relevant, because the concept related to advertising and beauty. But that was over a decade ago. A once creatively interesting thought has become increasingly expected.

Creativity springs from the perpetual desire to do things differently: make new, offend, contravene, challenge, subvert, flip, or blow up the status quo. Peter Gay notes that one of the few uniting ideas around 'modernism' in the 20th century was the 'lure of heresy'. Advertising is an industry that should be full of iconoclasts, not political activists.

But today brands are over-reliant on cultural or political issues. They've forgotten what really matters. Being new. Or interesting. Ideally both.

As a result, brands are all rushing to make a certain type of ad. We saw it at the Super Bowl this year. At least a dozen times. Consider two spots which ran from Coca-Cola and Google. They are, quite clearly, the same thought: a big inclusive montage of lots of different people from a range of different backgrounds, ethnicities, creeds, and colors.

The montage / creative is not the point of course; the PR about how inclusive and politically relevant the brands are, is the point.

How did we get here?

In part blame the scrappy genius of PR. Because PR has to earn attention, it has to think differently about getting attention. It assumes that the consumer doesn't want to read about the latest developments with your paper tissue brand... and a journalist doesn't want to write about it. That's why PR attaches the product to a culturally interesting Bigger Point.

For example: a story about masculinity, male fragility and crying is more interesting than an article about tissue absorbency.

Yet, this smart set up has become the driving assumption behind entire brand strategies. The tail is wagging the dog. Creative work is now developed as PR, as opposed to being supported by PR.

The problem is that only so many brands can say 'equality' or 'body confidence' without it becoming a cliché.

SNL beautifully lampooned the efforts of the advertising industry to make big meaningful, politically relevant points - about immigration, walls, Trump, same-sex marriage, you name it:

"We open on a little immigrant girl. She's dusty. She's tired. She's come a long way. She looks up and sees a wall; how will she get over it? A boy appears at the top, and throws down a rope; the rope is made from American flags. The girl climbs the rope. She sees her new country for the first time, and she cries.

Hard cut. Cheetos."

At its root this type of advertising starts from a false premise: it assumes that consumers care deeply for brands, love them and are loyal to them. It therefore follows that brand messages have to have moral, political or cultural weight. They must have 'purpose'.

In fact advertising is fun because this isn't the case; after all how do we make this otherwise everyday product interesting, and keep it at the front of consumers' minds? Consumers are promiscuous (72% of Coke drinkers also drink Pepsi) and 77% of people say they have no relationships with brands. Consumers wouldn't care if 92% of brands disappeared tomorrow.

Now - to be clear - none of this is a political point. It's a point about what's interesting and new. It's about the importance of remembering to do 'the kind of work nobody else is doing'.

Phyllis Robinson, one of the first women to smash the glass ceiling in advertising, came up with the thought. She must have been, by her very presence, a bit disruptive. A woman in the predominately (straight, white) male advertising industry of the 1950s and 60s. She must have naturally had a different angle on things, a contrary point of view, or disruptive set of thoughts which could undermine the norm and create great work. Brands should aim to follow Mrs Robinson's simple mantra - to be contrarian, surprising and thought provoking - and get off their increasingly crowded (Dove) soap boxes.

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