Creativity in ads is great — and usually incredibly necessary as well.
But there’s a distinct difference between creativity that helps to emotionally communicate the advertising message and creativity for the sake of creativity. And the difference isn’t always so black and white. Take, for example, these two ads:
The ads DO make a point and they ARE creative. But to what extent is the creativity helping to sharpen the point of the message, and to what degree is the creativity getting in the way?
First, I’ll say that the CLR ad is the best use of potty-mouth in an ad that I’ve seen in a long time. Much better than K-mart’s “Ship Your Pants” or “Big Gas Savings.”
Because CLR used the swearing to communicate the authenticity of customer’s surprise at just how well CLR cleans — a strategy based in some sound neuroscience. The Kmart ads, on the other hand, just used the potty mouth gag as, well, just that: a gag that was totally gratuitous and unconnected with the messaging itself.
So the swearing was relevant to the messaging, and the messaging was based on a true reality about the product itself. Nice.
But while watching that CLR ad, I couldn’t help think that a little OxyClean and Billy Mays-style demo would have dramatically boosted the credibility and effectiveness of the ad. Would Billy Mays have pitched you the cleaning powers of OxyClean without SHOWING you just how amazing it was? Heck, no! He insisted on demonstrability for his products and actual demonstrations in his ads.
And contrary to popular belief, the two approaches of clever creative and straight-up demo can easily co-exist. It wouldn’t have taken more than 3 or 4 seconds at the end of the CLR ad to SHOW the product in action, instantly removing lime/soap scum, stainless steel stove stains, etc.
All of which brings us to the second ad for the Samsung vacuum cleaner, because the problem with that ad, as I see it, boils down to not enough demo. Yes the baby chase concept was cute and creative, but how much time did it waste in NOT showing the unique feature of the product that the ad was presumably showcasing?
If that ad had cut about 50% of the cute-baby-imitating-cop crap and substituted in more demonstration of product it would have ended up a much stronger ad.
As the saying goes: “if you’ve got it, flaunt it.” If your product can be demonstrated to amazing effect, why in the world wouldn’t you want to demo it in your ads? Case in point, this ad for the Dyson ball:
Or take a gander at this very creative but almost purely demo spot for Samsonite’s Spinner luggage:
As I said, creative is great — and necessary, as an ad absolutely needs to capture and hold people’s attention. But, really, there is just as much advertising craft and creativity in the last two demo-heavy spots as there is in the CLR and Samsung spots, and the demo-heavy spots managed to get the sales message across far more clearly.
Bottom Line: If you can make a TV ad into a demo, you probably ought to give serious thought into doing so, regardless of whether or not it “feels” creative.
In other words, if truth alone isn’t enough to convince people — and it demonstrably is not — then the question becomes: what can legitimately be added to the truth to make it convincing? And my answer is vérité.
So what IS vérité?
Let me give you a few examples:
I have a partner who tells me that you have to evaluate testimonials the same way you evaluate copy, which is to say that words which wouldn’t make convincing copy don’t suddenly become convincing simply because they leave the mouth of a customer. Either they’re convincing or not, and the fact that they’re the “testimony” of another has little to no impact.
I disagree. At least in terms of radio and TV testimonials, where I think vérité enters into it. Case in point, this video produced by legendary ad man, Tony Schwartz:
Frankly, the bare words this lady says would make for rather dismal ad copy, and yet, she’s powerfully persuasive on film. So what accounts for her persuasive power? I think it has a lot to do with vérité. Her unique “voice” creates credibility in and of itself.
This recent Microsoft Ad does largely the same thing, leveraging the “voice” of Siri to create added credibility and emotional reality for the bare facts that are presented:
The use of Siri’s voice really drives home the comparison in a way that the comparison alone couldn’t have achieved, right?
When nurses are given their patient comments for review, in terms of measuring patient satisfaction through a survey tool like Press Ganey, it turns out that they are much more likely to “accept” the validity of the comments and to take action on them if they are given not only the typed out and redacted comments, but actual, scanned copies of the hand written comments themselves.
For some reason, seeing the actual scrawled-out handwriting of the patients made the comments real to the nurses in a way that the sterilized and redacted comments couldn’t. In other words, that added bit of vérité made all the difference.
Cialdini (of Influence fame) reports on a persuasion test around re-using hotel towels. Merely telling hotel guests that the reuse of their towels will save water and resources (i.e., the truth) isn’t enough. But telling them that most other hotel guests WAS enough to convince most hotel guests to follow suit. But what really got the best results wasn’t just that most hotel guests saw the light, but that most hotel guests that stayed in that exact room had elected to re-use their towels.
In my mind, mentioning the fact that the previous guests (who had opted to reuse their towels) had stayed in the exact same room as the test subjects provided a level of reality hook or vérité to make the social proof just that much more persuasive.
I owe this example to Kathleen Jaimeson, of the University of Texas, who pointed out the following element of vérité in Tony Schwartz’s legendary “Daisy” ad. When Daisy counts up to ten, she doesn’t do so perfectly, instead, she stumbles over the number 6 only to then go back from seven to count six twice — in exactly the way that little kids often do. This little-kid mess-up gave the ad just enough vérité to drive home the nuclear threat. You can watch the entire ad for yourself here:
I wish I had a grand conclusion for you, but… the only thing I can say is this: if you’re not searching for elements of vérité for your ads, you’re sort of missing out on a grand opportunity. And since vérité can come in many forms — that of a telling detail, a reality hook, or a tone of voice — it’s well worth hunting down and using whatever elements of vérité you can get your hands on.
Because vérité is just as important as veritas. And advertisers forget that at their peril.
Action Comics #1 starts with a baby superman-to-be sent forth from the doomed planet Kryptonite. Sent forth with his father’s desire that he become a force for good on Earth. The Amazing Spider-Man #1 tells how Peter Parker gained super-powers after he was bitten by the radio-active spider and how he became Spider-man in reaction to his uncle Ben’s murder.
In the same way, if you take any superhero movie that’s the first in its franchise, you’ll find a genesis story of that superhero — a tale that tells the audience:
- How the hero came to posses his powers,
- Who the hero is as a person, and
- What his mission is and Why he’s dedicated to it
If you don’t do that, you’re hero won’t be believable. Nor will he be sympathetic. You’ll end up with a character whose super powers will seem too fantastic and “made up,” and who will fail to inspire anyone to care about or root for him.
It’s that simple: no genesis story, no superhero.
Superheros and Advertising
Interestingly, the three tasks of a Genesis story overlay perfectly with Aristotle’s three elements of Ethos — the three things you must establish in order to persuade through an appeal to character. Here’s how they match-up, using Jay Henrich’s modern updates for the Ethos elements of phronesis, eunoia, and arete:
- Craft = Phronesis / Practical Wisdom = Powers
- Caring = Eunoia / Goodwill = Who the hero is as a person
- Cause = Areté / Virtue = Mission
Want to present a business owner as someone prospective customers should like and trust?
Then you need to cover these character elements. You have to convince the audience that the owner is great at what he does, that he cares about his customers, and that, at the end of the day, he’s on a bigger mission than just making money.
And once you understand the superhero angle, it becomes pretty obvious that the most powerful way to communicate these elements is through a Genesis story.
Put more directly, if you’re presenting the business owner as someone with superpowers — whether that’s the power to heroically save the customer from a tough situation, or simply the power to do X better than any other business on the planet — than you’re presenting them as a de facto superhero, and you need to tell the darn genesis story to make that message at all believable.
A Jewelry Superhero Genesis Story
Want an example of an Advertising Genesis story?
Here’s one from my business partner, Roy Williams [paragraphing mine]:
“When I was seven years old, I held my father’s head in my hands as he took his last breath and died. A thing like that stays with you. It helps you understand that relationships – people – are what life’s all about.You gotta tell’em you love’em.
This is J.R. Dunn. So now you know why I became a jeweler. Fine jewelry is one of the ways we tell people we love ’em. When I got older and fell head-over-heals for Ann Marie, the love of my life, I didn’t have enough money to buy her an engagement ring. She married me anyway. Go figure.
But I can promise you this: If you’re thinking of getting engaged to the love of your life, come to J.R. Dunn Jewelers in Lighthouse Point. No one in Florida, no one in America, is going to give you a better engagement ring for your money than me. One of the great joys of my life is to make it possible for guys to give the woman they love the diamond she deserves.
There was nobody there for me when I needed an engagement ring. But I promise I’ll be there for you.”
After hearing this ad, you now know, with absolute clarity:
- What kind of person J.R. Dunn is
- How he got his superpowers (along with how those superpowers can help you)
- What mission he’s on and why he’s dedicated to it
Better yet, you not only know these things about him, but you believe them. You believe these things about J.R. Dunn because he told you his genesis story. See how that works?
So what’s YOUR genesis story, and are you bothering to tell it the way it ought to be told?
What tells you it’s time to stop digging?
- realize you’re in a hole, and
- stop digging,
- become open to solutions (aka, a way out)
Until you do these three things, you won’t have much hope of getting out of that hole. Obviously, the sooner you recognize the hole, the easier the process is. Just as obviously, this applies to businesses as well as individuals.
In fact, a lot of hole-digging in business involves maximizing short term profit at the expense of long-term reputation, customer satisfaction, product improvement, etc. Mostly because profitability is fervently measured while the long term things often don’t even have indicators, let alone measurements. This means many companies don’t realize they’ve dug themselves into a hole until a crisis hits.
So what are your early indicators for these “soft” or long-term factors? Have you bothered to set any up, or are crises going to be the only indicator that the hole you’ve dug yourself into is deeper than you can climb out of?
Are you demanding a state of grace, or are you willing to take people as they are?
One of the few things I don’t like about Getting Things Done is the “state of grace” factor. Meaning you have to start your system from a point at which everything is accounted for on a slip of paper in your in-box, which means you have to take 1–2 days out of your life to get yourself to the starting point.
I think that’s one reason there are far more variants of GTD and people using modified GTD systems than there are actual GTD practitioners. People like the system, but most can’t start from that all-too-hard-to-achieve state of grace.
Similarly, businesses that are willing to take people as they are generally do a whole lot better than businesses that force customers to have gotten their ducks in a row beforehand.
People want solutions, not an “I told you so.”
Think of the difference between a normal university and most online universities. They’ll always be a Harvard, but I think a lot of 3rd Tier Colleges and Universities are about to get crunched as more and more people opt for educational alternatives that will take them where they are — literally and figuratively.
What about your business? Are you willing to meet people where they are - to save them from their past stupidity if needed — or are you demanding customers enter your doors in a state of grace?
The object of giving something up is to gain something else
Christians fast and make sacrifices during Lent – i.e., they give up temporal, worldly pleasures and activities — so as to better concentrate their minds on the eternal and the spiritual. It’s not just about giving something up, it’s about eliminating some things to focus more on others.
This is a recognition that you can’t just add and add and add without having things get crowded out of the picture — usually the wrong things, the most important things.
While we all tend to endlessly add To-Dos to our list, there’s only so much time in the day. How many of us actively focus on a Stop Doing list? The idea is to replace less effective and efficient strategies and practices with more effective ones. So shouldn’t we have as many “Stop Doing” items as “Start Doings”?
What’s on your “Stop Doing” list?
Back in 1973, Master Lock ran one of the most effective Super Bowl ads of all time. If you haven’t seen it before, here it is:
Now, I’m not sure how many criminals would shoot a lock — seems to me they’d be more likely to just use a pair of bolt cutters — but that doesn’t matter, because watching a lock literally take a bullet and still continue to do its job impresses us at a fundamental, symbolic, and subconscious level.
And it’s this subconscious, largely symbolic level where real buying decisions are made, which is one reason why Master Lock, bolstered by the success of this ad, went on to dominate the industry in 70s and continues to be dominant today.
In fact, people still talk about this “tough under fire” demonstration to this day. Heck it featured in an episode of MythBusters.
Of course, the difference between today and the 70’s is that now customers expect to be able to find more information on the internet. So if Master Lock were to run an ad like that today, we’d expect to go to the website, see the ad, and then get more information, presumably including an added demonstration of how the haft of the lock is hardened against regular bolt cutters and such.
In other words, the Web is where we expect businesses to add more info, close more loopholes, and really convince us — all after they’ve impressed us with their mass media ads.
And that brings me to the ad Master Lock really should have aired last Sunday. Because you don’t know it, but the front door lock on your house is ridiculously, stupidly easy to overcome. It doesn’t even require regular lock-picking skills or really anything close to what one might call special tools or skills.
Nope. Picking the lock on your house simply requires a bumpkey and a few minute demo on how to use it. See for yourself within the first 90 seconds of this news special:
Think you could make a pretty dramatic ad out of that bit of info?
Yeah. Me too.
Now, here’s the thing — Master Lock has come up with a lock cylinder that’s pretty much bump-proof. Unfortunately their promotional video for the technology is slow, boring, and long. It is, however, convincing:
So why not have a super dramatic, riveting Super Bowl ad that demonstrates lock bumping and how exposed 99% of all homes are to the technique, then showcasing how bump-proof Master Lock’s new lock cylinders are?
If you really want to get serious, throw out a challenge:
- Viewers pick out a replacement Master Lock for their door and order it along with home installation to be done by a a local Master Lock dealer,
- All of which is FREE if the installation crew can’t bump lock the front door lock they’ll be replacing on your home.
- “If we can’t open your door lock as easy as this [image of bump lock opening] your new Master Lock is on us!
- See complete details at masterlock.com
What do you want to bet that that ad would sell a boat load of new door locks?
And that’s the ad we should have seen this Super Bowl.
OK, before we do anything else, just watch this Audi Superbowl Commercial:
Now, let’s talk about why that’s such an amazing piece of storytelling…
How Long Is a Moment?
There’s an apocryphal quote attributed to Steven Spielberg that talks about feature-length movies as “60 two-minute scenes” — with each scene capable of capturing and riveting the audience’s attention. It’s a fabulous way to think about filmic storytelling.
And, for advertising, it works just as well on the small scale.
Psychologists and neuroscientists tell us that a moment lasts 2.5 to 3 seconds, which is also roughly the same amount of time our brains can hold and process in working memory.
Handshakes last a moment. So do hugs. So does a glance into someone else’s eyes. Go longer than that and it’s both more than a moment and more than a slight change!
A moment, then, is exactly how long a single, vivid mental image is held in the mind’s eye. Draw the imagery out too much longer than that and you’re either building tension or risking the loss of your audience’s attention.
So for me, I don’t think of a 30-second spot as 30 seconds, I think of it as 10 great moments (or 20 moments for a 60 second spot).
That’s 10 mental images, each vivid and interesting enough to capture the imagination, strung together to form a riveting mini-movie. For a TV spot it’s a real mini-movie, and for a Radio or Print Ad, its a movie in the mind. Either way, creating one is a game of sequencing mental images for maximum impact.
All of which leaves only two questions:
- How do you pack as much wallop into each 3 second moment/image as possible
- How do you ensure that the moments all build into a meaningful story that ends with a bang
Packing Wallop Into a 3-Second Moment
Obviously, this is a big topic. Whole books could be (and have been) written about it. But here are the main techniques that come to my mind when I think about making each moment count:
- Entering late and leaving early through ritual,
- Visual Intrigue Through Imbalance (aka trouble),
- Forced participation/closure/enthymematic communication,
- Vivid & Striking Imagery (+ Persuasive Imagery) and Symbolism
- Speaking to Self-Image
- Leveraging High Stakes
And while all of these elements are important (and can be found in the Audi ad) I can’t help but feel that the first one, the use of ritual, or what Terry Rossio describes as situation-based writing, is the key to most of the others. It’s also the one that struck me the hardest when I watched Audi’s 2013 Superbowl Ad.
Watch the ad again and see if you can’t pick out every single ritualistic moment that whaps you in the face every three seconds:
- Looking in the mirror before a big event
- Mom seeing you off before High School Prom
- Younger sibling/sister as truth teller
- Dad handing you the keys to the car
- The visceral thrill of firing up a high-performance V-8
- Pulling up to and glancing over at the other car at a light
- Looking on with envy at the antics of the (limo-riding) in-group
- “Burning” the other car at a light
- Parking in the “Big Man’s” reserved spot to thumb your nose at authority
- Strutting into a building while cooly flicking the car lock remote
- Entering a happening dance/club/party
- Stalking your way through a crowded dance floor/club/party.
- Spotting the hottest girl in the room
- Approaching a hot girl dancing in the midst of all her friends
- Taking a chance at kissing the pretty girl of your dreams
- The high school fight (over a girl)
- The post-fight black eye (worn with pride)
- The post-kiss sigh of ecstasy
- The “it was worth it” rebel yell
- The ending message: “Bravery. It’s what defines us.”
What you’ll notice, as you watch the film, is that the vast majority of those moments come and go before you ever have a chance to get bored with them.
The ad always enters these scenes late and then leaves early because the creators chose each moment with care: they’re either archetypal American growing-up rituals or just everyday, everyone-has-them rituals. No backstory or explanation required; we encounter them in media res and instantly know what’s going on.
Not only that, but many of these moments are further augmented by multiple camera shots within the space of a single 3-second moment. These storytellers are putting the peddle to the metal visually, ’cause they ain’t taking a chance with losing your attention.
Only two of those moments are allowed to linger and grow pregnant with suspense:
- Spotting/walking up to the girl and kissing the girl being one sequence, and
- The brewing, shocked, then angry reaction of the prom king.
Those sequences grow past a single moment because they gain in suspense and interest as they move past three seconds in length.
He kisses her for more than a moment, which sends your mind off spinning: How long is he going to kiss her? Is she going to slap him? No, holy crap, she’s kissing him back! Shit, her date sees him, he’s about to deck him, isn’t he?
The other thing about these particular moments is that they’re the obligatory scenes in the story.
Once the inciting incident kicks off —- once you find out the kid is going to prom alone — the question arises as to what he’s going to do about it. What’s he going to do at prom when he gets there? Yeah, he’s got a cool car, but what’s he going to do after he parks it and shows up at prom all alone? These moments answer that question, and so they deserve to play out over more than just a few seconds.
And this idea of set-up and pay-off brings us to…
Story Arc — Connecting Moments Together Meaningfully
The counterpoint to Spielberg’s blurb on “60 two-minute scenes” is his quote on story structure:
“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”
So it’s not only about individual scenes — they still have to be connected in a way that makes a point.
Obviously, this is a HUGE topic that many of the greatest minds in history have tackled. So by all means, go read what Aristotle had to say on the subject. Go read McKee’s Story and all the other modern-day story structure gurus.
But also, let’s maybe bring this down to the level of a blog post and talk about some quick and dirty how-to’s. And with that in mind, here’s what I’ve got for ya:
- Why “Therefore” and “but” are GOOD connectors, while “And then” sucks
- Brian McDonald on 3 Act Structure in a 5 minute documentary,
- Roy H. Wiliams on Choosing an Angle, Framing Your Scene, and Deciding How to End
- Set-ups and Pay-offs
- How Narrative Misdirection Makes Set-Ups and Pay-Offs More Powerful
- Applying Save The Cat’s Beat Sheet to a 30-second Ad
And again, for me, the first element is key. If you’re not connecting one moment to the next through causation or upset, then what’s the point? Either you’re paying off the promise of a previous moment with a “therefore,” or you’re throwing the audience off-guard by subverting their expectations with a “but then.”
If you’re not doing one of those two things, you’re probably wasting time and losing the audience’s attention.
What Makes Great Theatre and Holds Attention
Ultimately, most ads suck because people think they’re making ads, and are willing to accept ads that sound like ads. They think ads don’t have to grab your attention and hold your interest like a great movie or TV show or radio drama.
They are breathtakingly, spectacularly wrong.
This is explained brilliantly over at the Sell! Sell! Blog [Emphasis Mine]:
The things that make a print advert work are the same things that make an editorial layout, or piece of printed art strong. The things that make a TV commercial great are the same things that make a TV programme, film or piece of video art great. The crucial difference being that, obviously, the ultimate job of the commercial work is to meet its brief; sell a product, change your opinion about something, etc. But still, the things that make it work in the end are the same craft skills that make other things strong in that media.
The problem comes when you forget this, and you think about making adverts. People tend to do things to adverts that they wouldn’t do to an editorial piece of design, or to a film. But unfortunately ads don’t get processed differently by people. Either it’s good or it isn’t good. There are no excuses just because it’s an ad. But still, people try to cram in way too much information, over-the-top branding, social media logos, and other guff, because it’s an ad.
Sometimes it makes you think that people, clients and agency alike, have forgotten how to make interesting things that also happen to be great ads, and they only know how to make things that look and sound like adverts.”
So the question you ought to be left with is: does your ad guy just make ads that sound like ads, or is he a master at grabbing and guiding people’s attention and desires?
Could your copywriter have scripted anything half as good as that Audi Ad?
P.S. Special shout out to my colleague Tim Miles for inspiring me to dissect this ad and answer exactly why I like it as much as I do.