Dig deeper for the pay dirt

Images used in TV ads are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the brands they’re trying to sell, says David Bernstein. He thinks the admen should try a lot harder

There are a lot of them about – what my wife calls ’90 per cent commercials’. TV ads that involve you without revealing the brand name till the final seconds. We try to guess. We’re often wrong, failing to identify not only the brand but the product category. This is remarkable. If it’s everybody’s it’s nobody’s.

The viewer is hooked, if at all, by production values rather than brand values. The name is eventually mentioned and the viewer presumably is meant to make a connection. If not, well there are other chances to pass the test. Strangely – to all but psychologists – on subsequent viewings we tend to repeat the error.

Why should advertisers wish to indulge in general distraction rather than invest in specific (for example, branded) persuasion? I’m not advocating old-fashioned hard sell: I just wish the new-fangled soft sell could be relevant to the brand.

Perhaps they don’t believe in their brands’ ability to hold the viewers’ attention, fearing that they will mentally switch off or physically switch over? Hence all this application of ‘borrowed interest’, as if to say ‘I know you’re not really interested in what we manufacture but please enjoy these wonderful few seconds, remember who provided them and… er… show your gratitude by buying our brand’.

But if the advertiser appears not to believe in the brand can viewers be expected to? Leo Burnett, eponymous founder of a great ad agency, believed in his clients’ brands. He defined the advertising creative’s task for all time by saying that every product has a strong story and that ‘our number one job is to dig for it’.

In more recent times British adman Robin Wright has used a different verb. We must interrogate the brand until it gives up its secrets. That demands work – and intellectual rigour. Creativity isn’t simply the release of a wild rage of fancy. Imagination must be applied to facts, to the core properties and values of the brand. It’s not the easy option of borrowed interest. It’s burrowed interest – if you dig my meaning.

However, if the advertiser chooses to do a 90 per cent ad then it is critical to help the viewer relate the end to the beginning, to retro-fit. But, next time you watch a commercial break notice how many advertisers choose not to, instead, simply adding a tasteful line of type containing the brand name. They look like – and act as – credit titles.

If you want me to name names, then two reputable companies take this route. Watch the current campaigns for Honda and Audi. Another car ad recently began with an idyllic country, away-from-it-all scene. The emphasis was on the scene rather than the car. Understandable: you buy a car for what it enables you to do. But, unless the brand name is locked in, this – in our household at least – is a generic ad for the motoring industry.

TV ads from the 1950s may look corny to contemporary eyes, but you can hardly accuse them of forgetting to brand. Often the branding was crude, repetitive, off-putting. But you remembered the name. Branding, of course, is more than identification. It is equally important to convey the brand’s personality. The brand must always act in character. Act out of character – ie by latching on to the personality of a ‘personality’ – and dissonance may result.

What I’m urging is integration, not simply of beginning and end, but of entertainment and argument, of emotion and reason, of production values and brand values. Yes, and of words and images. For 90 per cent ads aren’t confined to television. Though not as prevalent elsewhere, they can be found in outdoor and print. And design-for-print where the graphics, novel and impactful, sometimes seem at best arbitrary and at worst unrelated to the text. Dissonance again because words and images aren’t in harmony.

Images should illuminate the text. Those that merely decorate remind me of songs in old-fashioned (pre-Oklahoma!, 1943) musicals that halt the action rather than develop it. Indeed, many of the songs were detachable, capable of being removed to another part of the show where they, since non-specific, were equally suitable or even, should the show be a flop, cavalierly transferred to another show altogether.

Does this touch a nerve? Hasn’t each of us been tempted to provide a ready-made solution rather than begin digging? But it’s hardly professional to say, in effect, ‘here’s one I prepared earlier’.

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