Wordily wise

People are going ape for the Cadbury’s gorilla commercial. A reported 500 000 watched it on YouTube the week after it was released, it’s being tirelessly blogged about and gabbed about, and Phil Collins – Lord help us – is looking ripe for resurrection. Not so much the reassuring ‘Hello, I Must be Going’, as a rather worrying ‘Hello, I’m Back’. Meanwhile, 90 seconds of creative brilliance from ad agency Fallon seems to have rescued Cadbury from all the negative publicity of last year’s salmonella scare, which reportedly cost the Brummie chocolatier a tidy £20m.

Fallon has dubbed the commercial as ‘a branded space’, a slice of pure entertainment rather than intrusive, old-school ‘interruption advertising’. Its microsite, www.aglassandahalffullproductions.com, claims simply, ‘It’s just an effort to make you smile, in exactly the same way Cadbury Dairy Milk does’.

From where I’m sitting, it’s interesting for another reason. It has achieved phenomenal recall and buzz without dipping into the currency of my profession. Or, to put it another way, there’s not a single word in it.

You could argue that advertising has been heading this way for some time. The industry has steadily adopted a more visceral approach, creating a texture or mood around a brand in both commercials and print advertising. In this context, words are an irrelevance, they just get in the way. So much so that the noun ‘copywriter’ has all but disappeared from the rarefied world of above-the-line advertising. ‘Creative’ is now the preferred alternative, but this is as affected as it is lazy. After all, it describes anyone from Alfred Hitchcock to someone who sews sequins on to garish Come Dancing outfits.

More accurately, the adfolk-formerly-known-as-copywriters have morphed into ‘conceptualisers’, or ‘idea mongers’. These rock’n’roll gunslingers shoot from the hip. They are reliant on intuition and gut instinct, and generally suspicious of words. Such high-falutin’ matters are left to the articulate people (planners and account handlers) who have to post-rationalise their creativity and sell it to the client.

That’s not to say there haven’t been people in advertising alive to the power of words. But you have to go back a bit to unearth them. The UK’s last stand was in the 1980s, when craftsmen like David Abbott and Tim Delaney championed the ‘long copy’ ad. Engaging, witty and tightly argued, these pieces of skilfully measured prose deftly told the stories of deeply resonant brands like Sainsbury’s, the Metropolitan Police and Timberland. Among the same generation of advertising scribes was Indra Sinha, whose latest novel, Animal’s People, has been shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize. On TV too, we were treated to accomplished writing in the form of hilarious sponsored sketches for the likes of Heineken, Hamlet and Cinzano, crafted with all the verve and aplomb of the lively contemporary sitcoms that inspired them.

But, 20 years on, if advertising has spurned words, design has slowly come to embrace them. So, why is this? Mainly because design is concerned with conveying longer-term and often more ‹ complex messages. Advertising sells beer. Design captures the spirit of the company that brews the beer – today and several years down the line. Where advertising is generally about a quick-hit sales message, design takes a broader, more strategic approach. And words are key here. They provide a versatile, sophisticated creative starting point for internal and external communications, the small pieces that come together to form a coherent corporate image and vision.

Against the background of a shifting media landscape, the demarcation between design and (particularly below-the-line) advertising is starting to blur. Certainly, as a design writer, I find I am being called upon for direct mail, point-of-sale literature, scripts, on-line advertising, press ads, as well as the more expected leave-behinds, annual reports, websites and packaging copy. As the news pages of Design Week and Campaign (its opposite number in the advertising world) testify, the human resources traffic between design and advertising has certainly become more fluid, as each seeks a slice of the other’s business.

But, it’s the designers who are becoming more adept at using narrative to put over multi-dimensional information. Seamlessly combining words and imagery to create memorable personality and tone of voice, they are achieving a conversation with their audiences, one that goes beyond the merely factual by making an emotional connection. And this is an organic, ongoing process. It is building a solid relationship that will last for years, rather than the wham-bam of the advertising one-night stand.

Designers also seem to be more aware that, culturally, words are more prevalent than ever. Book sales have risen steadily for the past five or so years. Digital radio has prompted a resurgence in the spoken word. But, more intriguingly, blogging and social networking sites have put the power of words firmly into the hands of the non-professional.

Small on-line communities have sprung up, brought together by shared interests. They have created an independent sphere of comment and observation that stands apart from the ‘official’ line of companies and brands. More and more people are using the medium of writing, but in a far more personal, direct way, which is affecting the way we read and how we react to what we’re told. There can be many different versions of the same story. Whose do we trust? The self-interested brand-sanctioned tale, or the uncorroborated, yet apparently objective, observations of an amateur on the Internet? These are the kind of emerging questions communicators quickly need to get to grips with.

One thing is for sure, designers and writers will need to lock even more closely together to understand the way people want to receive their information in the future, and find ways to present it in the most compelling way. They’ll need to be nimble, in tune and intelligent about the next phase. More crafty chimpanzee than lumbering gorilla.

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