or… the Battle of the Two Volkswagen Superbowl Spots
In one corner we have “The Force”, the 2011 Volkswagen 50-million-YouTube-views Superbowl commercial featuring a “powerless” diminutive Darth who re-gains the power of The Force with a little help from his father and a Passat.
In the other, we have this year’s Volkswagen Superbowl Spot, “The Dog Strikes Back”, starring Bolt, a St. Bernard – Australian Golden mix. A canine “biggest loser” metaphor for the return of the New Beetle.
Both entertain. Both offer a story arc of struggle and reward. Both have a surprise ending.
Does the former make the latter the better? Or does Little Darth still reign supreme?
I don’t think there’s much question that the quality of a really great ad is dependent on the quality of the idea it’s built upon. Ads like DDB’s the 1960’s iconic VW “Lemon” or any of the ’90’s “Got Milk” campaign we’re memorable high concept ideas that influenced consumer behavior in the pre-Facebook, YouTube, Twitter days of advertising.
There was a time in the not-so-recent past when print truly made a difference in brand advertising. When people bought a product because because they believed it made them appear smarter, more sophisticated, or more intelligent. Not only in their own mind but to others as well. No more. When consumers of advertising messages also became the creators, a tectonic shift occurred.
The 20th century ‘analog’ idea became the flexible, agile, stretchable, shareable ‘digital’ idea of 2011. One that doesn’t rely on ads anymore. One that doesn’t fight with competing brands for the consumer’s attention. Not anymore.
Today, ad ideas battle against every other message out there that people see, hear or read. Slugging it out against more than just advertising messages. Trying to get noticed above all the other bits of information, from RSS feeds to blog posts to Facebook walls to a countless stream of text messages.
The thought that I’ve wrestled with in the past few days is this: “Have ads, as brand building blocks, finally become irrelevant and unnecessary?”
In a word, probably. Much as I still love creating them, (I really do) they’ve sadly become the Jimmy Carter of media… aging (not very gracefully), occasionally attracting some attention, but for the most part, they’re irrelevant and unnecessary.
Here’s proof. Name a print campaign that made you want to buy the product without going online first.
Don’t misunderstand me. I like nothing better than to gaze upon a two-page print ad with a killer concept, pithy on-point copywriting and art directed to the nines. But the times they are a changin’… too fast, maybe. Tick, tick, tick. Waiting three weeks for the next copy of Wired to get a new print blast of brand personality just doesn’t cut it in today’s 24-hour, spin-dry, news cycle world.
So just give me ideas. Lots of them. And keep ’em coming. Ones that solve problems. That satisfy a need or desire. Hopefully the ones I have. In any media. Any time. Every day.
I recently read that match.com created 100 commercials this past year. Talk about speed dating!
So content isn’t just king. It’s King Kong!
But I for one am glad. Really glad. Because for us idea junkies, well, we’ve become more relevant and valuable than ever before.
If you live somewhere in America where hotly contested elections are underway and watch any local local television stations, November 2nd can’t come soon enough. Why? Political advertising. And, it’s not the quantity of political advertising glutting the airwaves, although it’s become a tsunami. It’s the quality, stupid. (To paraphrase James Carville’s famous line.) And, due in no small part to the lack of restraint, guidelines and standards placed on their content, enabling political strategists to throw out these 30 second packages of swill and tripe.
Working in the Industry of Ideas since late last century I’ve created more than my share of television commercials… some very creative and entertaining, some not so much, for clients who have a very clear idea of what respect for rival brands meant. They all had one thing in common… respect for the sensibilities of the viewer. Then there’s also something called broadcast standards.
In political advertising there appears to be none. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
The advertising industry gets enough heat about what we do without the help of ‘political advertising professionals’.
I’ll grant you that political advertising can often be creative, but I don’t mean that as a compliment.
And talk about trashing the competition! Better take back that overdue library book before you’re accused of “defrauding the government”!!! And that high school report on the McCarthy hearings!!!
Let’s, just for just a minute, apply the same (lack) of standards to a mainstream American auto manufacturer’s advertising – here we go…
Fade up on an accident scene at a busy downtown intersection, ambulance lights brightly flash red, gold and blue in the background, the static sound of police radio messages cut in and out. In the foreground are two mangled hulks of automotive sheet metal. Cut to a series of tight shots of ambulances speeding down the road, twisted multi-car wrecks, hospital emergency rooms, rows of cemetery headstones.
The audio might sound something like this: “Toyota. They’ve played fast and loose with our safety. Ignoring the safety warnings. Lying to congress. Putting the American people in danger. Hundreds killed. Millions of cars recalled. When will it end? Protect the future of our children and the generations to come. Call Toyota. Tell them to stop selling dangerous cars and trucks… tell them the future of American families is at stake. I’m Henry Ford III and I approved this message because I want to make our roads a safe place again. And, oh yeah, for a limited time you can lease a for Ford Focus for only $198. a month. See your local Ford dealer for complete details.”
I wonder what Microsoft would have to say about Apple, Coke about Pepsi, Adidas about Nike, Bloomingdales about Nordstrom? And vice versa?
How would you apply political advertising standards to a television spot?
I’ve seen the following unfortunate situation unfold countless times for nearly a decade in advertising courses I’ve taught : A student will come up with a highly engaging, on-strategy, traffic-stopping campaign idea for a creative assignment. Then, execute it with visual images that are as well matched and powerful as Lady Gaga singing opera.
Sure, a well composed photograph from one of the many stock photo websites looks great in a layout at first glance. But, upon closer examination of the ad and its concept, the image often does more to blunt the idea than amplify it.
Imagine if there were a website that offered stock concepts. Think ‘Corbisideas.com’ for instance. Type in “Funny, toothpaste, whitening.” Hit search and bingo!!! A page full of creative ideas ready to go. Now imagine coming to class and seeing another student’s work with the same idea from the same site. Royalty-free concepts???
Now I’m not denigrating stock photography. The quality and selection of photography by way of a “click” has become quite impressive. And royalty-free stock has long since shrugged off the perception as generic and common. Full disclosure… many of the outstanding images we see in advertising, both online and off, use stock photography. And to great effect. As a result of today’s shrinking ad budgets, stock is often the only viable solution.
The point I’m making is this: a concept that’s highly original deserves nothing less than an image of the same quality. Your photograph may be original or taken from stock and Photoshopped until its origin is unrecognizable, but you should settle for nothing less than a final execution for a wicked concept that’s wicked as well.
Remember this… when you finally get that interview with the Creative Director of an agency you’d kill to work for, the last thing you want to hear during a review of your portfolio is “Is that picture from ThinkStock or Corbis?”
Current advertising campaigns driven by big ideas are about as plentiful today as plug-in stations for electric cars. Geico’s the one big exception that comes to mind. And it’s no wonder they’re an endangered species. Ideas, really good, honkin’-big ideas that take a brand “on their shoulders” and powerfully position them, are seldom recognized or truly understood by today’s crop of marketing mavens. Hey, it’s a tough balancing act making that sales chart grow in the right direction and keeping the bloggers from flaming your product at the same time.
Warning: 20 tweets and a well-liked fan page do not a big idea make.
Fortunately, there is still a real need today for big ideas that adhere like velcro to your brain. Great ones do that. They take a product, make it water-in-the-desert desirable and create a rabid community of brand lovers. They drive brand leadership and bottom line sales. And they spawn legions of imitators. And they’ve been doing it long before the Internet. The stickiness of Bartles and Jaymes and Miller Lite’s “Less Filling/Tastes Great” campaigns (Google ’em) are good examples of iconic, powerful concepts from the late 20th century.
In contrast, Apple’s recent “Mac vs PC” campaign may have been memorable and entertaining but upon closer examination reveals itself to be an excellent example of an execution substituting for a concept. And so is the original iPod television campaign. Visually compelling? Absolutely. Great product demonstration? Dead on. Strategic? Yep. Big idea? Uh-uh>
And when it comes to ideas don’t confuse consistency with concept. Progressive Insurance relies on their sales concierge, Flo, to deliver their brand message but I challenge you to tell me what their big difference is.
When they do surface, big, duct-tape-sticky ideas barely have the time to drive brand equity or positioning in today’s viral, solar-flair-hot, crash and burn, social media online environment. Instead, replacing them is an avalanche of lukewarm, interchangeable, post-it note ideas. Hardly sticky. Easily forgettable. A classic case of quantity over quality. Like technology inmates running the idea asylum. Think Transformers II.
Think it’s a crazy point of view? Well, this big-idea aversion is even infecting some of the big NY agencies. The recent exodus of top several creative directors from top New York shops underscores my point. Most recent is the departure of BBH New York Creative Chief Kevin Roddy. Here’s what he had to say in a story that ran in last week’s ad age: “Creativity used to be put on a pedestal, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” he said. “Creative people have become more of a commodity, and I think that takes the wind out of them. The creative ego is a very important thing, because it drives talent. But it’s also a very fragile thing.”