Obvious is beautiful

At the risk of ignominy, creative teams tend to over-complicate campaigns to be different or challenging. David Bernstein warns not to ignore the obvious.

We spend part of each year by the Loire, but do not pretend to see things through French eyes. Indeed, we are regularly surprised by the way French eyes see things. Last month the local paper reported on a decline in the number of Brits visiting the region. It chose to encapsulate the story with an image which defines the Briton abroad and which this summer is seen less of/ ‘le plaid’. The travel rug. A random check on our return in the car ferry queue at Caen confirmed this.

What is it about the obvious that makes it invisible? A Frenchman, Marcel Proust, observed that we should not crave new things to see, but new eyes to see with. ‘Sight,’ said Eric Gill, ‘is a faculty. Seeing is an art.’ Foreign travel allows you to practise it. Just as my hosts can point out meaning in what I either don’t notice or simply take for granted, so can I, the foreigner, discern meaning, or the lack of, in items French which confront my gaze.

Our village has just held its annual attic clearance or boot fair, which takes over the main street along the river. A small poster began appearing on trees in the approach roads and in the village itself. Now what worked adequately in the boulangerie window was next to useless by the side of the road. The audience for the former was stationary and knowledgable, whereas the latter had to grab the attention of passers-by and impart information. To confound things the PC printer offered means – fancy fonts, sloping type, pastel shades – to bedeck the message and drain it of impact.

I judged the work as a professional, but also as a foreigner. For, as a driver in a foreign land, I could identify with the briskly passing motorist – of any nationality. The poster barely communicated the what (boot fair) and the when (7 August). It was left to the driver or passenger to discern the where, the location and above all the name of the place, so that later they could on the day contemplate returning.

With three days to go the roadside posters were replaced – simple design, yellow out of black, what, when and where.

Why does it take so long to do the obvious? Perhaps the obvious is the first idea to be rejected. Why? Because it isn’t new, different, challenging – not because it doesn’t solve the problem.

Creative teams are often inhibited by the obvious, by the opprobrium they imagine it brings. They will avoid the direct route from problem to solution, preferring to involve the viewer in an intellectual game or, worse, to show off.

In an attempt to free a creative team of the fear of the obvious, I would ask them to role play. What would XYZ (the name of a non-stellar outfit) come up with? They would, more often than not, produce a workable solution, one firmly linked to the product offering.

One of my favourite current ad campaigns is for Ronseal. ‘Does exactly what it says on the tin’ is a potent promise, fixing the name of the brand variant to its delivery.

Not many years ago such a line would have seemed superfluous. Surely all products should do what they claim they do. But whether or not they did, their advertising had to convey more than performance, that is, values over and above product values.

The Ronseal campaign, in an area where performance is crucial and measurable, chose to question this, get back to basics and make us see the obvious anew.

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