David Bernstein: Is copy right or wrong?

When it comes to designing ads copy and images are not mutually exclusive, argues David Bernstein, as he appraises the book No-Copy Advertising

‘Look at this’, said the editor, handing me a copy of No-Copy Advertising. Written by Lazar Dzamic of EHSrealtime, it contains some 150 minimalist ads – print, poster, TV, Internet – which create their effect almost entirely visually.

Ad critic Bob Garfield’s introduction reads: ‘If copy isn’t dead, it’s certainly in its death throes persuasion and information are relics’. But surely even the most minimal of ads is trying to persuade the viewer of something – if only how clever are its perpetrators.

Some of the examples are striking, many good and nearly all, one way or another, involve the reader. Whether they make the case for the author or herald a new era of advertising is another matter.

But accept the introduction’s rhetoric and a new era seems inevitable. ‘Language is out: provocative images are in.’ Really? Are they mutually exclusive? Don’t some brands, categories even, require more of one and less of the other? Garfield lists three reasons for ‘no-copy’. ‘Language takes a long time to download’, so we relish MTV-style instant gratification (yes but). Pictures are universal and communicate globally (not always). If you want to win an international award, language can confuse a foreign jury (ye gods!).

Dzamic enlists the help of ‘industry heavyweights’ Neil French, creative director of Oglivy & Mather, Singapore, Jack Fund of the Jack Agency, Los Angeles, and Trevor Beattie of TBWA, London. The three of them make a lot of sense which means they do not go to the extremes of Dzamic and Garfield.

French makes a telling distinction: ‘Less is more is not the same as no copy.’ Of course, by dispensing with one component, as the start point, the creative imposes a constraint which can be stimulating. ‘The great posters are triumphs of imagination set free by limitation’ – I read that in a book I wrote. The poster is the toughest creative challenge. Fund recommends pretending you can’t use any words. Nothing so concentrates the mind.

The great poster artists, such as Cassandre, Savignac, Leupin, Henrion and Games, worked this way not because the design had to cross borders, but, given the medium’s chief constraint, the few seconds of consumer interface, the image would have to provide impact and message. Words, ideally, were integrated within the design. Elements were fused into a single dramatic expression of the brand’s promise.

There you have the paradox of the medium – complexity of task and simplicity of solution. The danger is to worship simplicity for its own sake, mistake minimalism for profundity. Beattie puts this down to ‘Fashion. Creative laziness. Visual-only ads aren’t necessarily “sophisticated”‘. He is in no doubt about advertising’s purpose. He defines it as ‘salesmanship which entertains’, an update of the classic definition of press advertising as ‘salesmanship in print’.

No-Copy Advertising entertains. The examples are mostly poster and press. The latter echoing Garfield’s comment ‘increasingly in the real (press) media world there is only magazine-sized outdoors’. All of the ads are award winners which may dampen the element of surprise. A trawl by the author of the unfamiliar and unprized may have been more rewarding than some of the examples on show where, I suspect, minimalism fooled the judges into believing there was an idea in there somewhere.

Take this top shot of a stylised blue tennis court, devoid of people, with 24 white balls in one court and a solitary yellow ball in the shaded other. Bottom right, proportionately postage stamp-sized, is the Cutty Sark label. Get it? If not, allow the creative team from Delivico, Madrid, to explain. ‘Not only does it project the idea of being different by using quite obvious contrasts and colour elements, but it manages to radiate the calmness and that dim-light feeling that real whisky connoisseurs have when sitting in a quiet corner with a glass in their hand.’ This sort of post-facto rationalisation gives crap a bad name.

There are many other ads where the link between execution and brand promise requires a caption. But not the stars of the show such as Heinz Tomato Soup: five tomatoes on a red background, leaves uppermost, to form stars. Or the celebrated Mercedes SLK, open top above a row of Lottery balls.

Alas, accompanying explanatory text is the rule rather than the exception, which seems perverse given the book’s title.

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