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Is it starting to feel a lot like Christmas?
Two years ago, it was a COVID-Christmas, with advertisers scrambling to match the mood of the nation. It must be Groundhog Day because this Christmas planning cycle feels eerily similar.
Matching the mood of the nation can be a thankless, ineffective task.
Mark Ritson’s recent column suggests it doesn’t have to be. Ritson argues “salience is marketers’ highest priority,” specifically “empty salience,” because everything is meaningless anyway. Nick Asbury hints we’ve entered an age of “purpose nihilism.”
How did we get here?
In 2020, brands traded salience for similarity.
In the nascent months of COVID, marketers turned to consumer surveys to “read the room.” 92% of ANA members reported adjusting their creative work during COVID. This appeared, at the time, to be a good thing: 82% of consumers claimed they approved of COVID-related advertising.
What followed, however, was a sea of sameness as all COVID ads began to look and feel the same, losing all distinction that helped consumers link ads to the brands paying for them. Ironic then, that the most effective ads were the ones that didn’t change (according to data from Google and System1Group). System1Group recently analyzed the data again. Turns out, effectiveness doesn’t “wear out.”
To make up for lost time (and salience), “2021”, the recently retired Jeremy Bullmore wrote last year, “will need to be a year of repair.”
What does repair look like in 2023?
Many marketers, including Mark Ritson, are talking about BrewDog’s anti-World Cup campaign and Belvedere’s campaign featuring Daniel Craig. Both, Mark Ritson claims, are “good marketing.” They’re brilliantly salient and will sell “a shit ton.”
Ritson’s advice to marketers is to “take their shirt off and roll around in the quotidian dirt of consumer reality.” Salience is more important than brand image because “we are witnessing a new marketing moment, in which meaning and authenticity are traded for eyeballs and attention.”
“It may not last forever but it is clearly a current opportunity.”
This Christmas is different because it overlaps with the World Cup, another huge moment for advertisers. Rather than the commercials or sponsors that are getting the most attention, it is this “muted, brooding print ad that's getting most of the attention.”
Since 2010, Louis Vuitton has been wrapped up in World Cup lore, as the trophy travels in one of their cases. Photographed by the equally iconic photographer Annie Leibovitz, this ad, with all its easter eggs, symbolism, and cultural reverence is salience captured. It is far from empty.
Louis Vuitton is Louis Vuitton, though.
As Christmas campaigns and World Cup ads collide (not to mention Black Friday), most brands don’t have the luxury or heritage of Louis Vuitton. Threading the needle and finding that “big idea” to capture attention and drive salience seems more mountain than a molehill.
What would George Lois (who passed last week), progenitor of “the big idea,” graphic communicator, modernizer (he was part of the DDB coterie that kickstarted the creative revolution of the 1960s), and legendary adman – do?
For one, he would argue “empty salience” is not the name of the game. Responsible for some of the most eye-catching, political, and persuasive campaigns of the last century, Lois believed in “political and graphic statements that grab at your heart and at your throat, and that make statements about what the hell you think life should be about.”
“Advertising,” Lois claimed, “is poison gas.” Big ideas should be “seemingly outrageous.” He would “go to war” for his ideas, telling clients, “I'm trying to make you rich.”
Not everyone is Louis Vuitton, but George Lois took an unknown fashion designer, T_._._._H_._._._._._._ and made him famous overnight with a budget of $200,000. Tommy Hilfiger would later tell Vanity Fair, “If I hadn’t listened to George Lois in 1985, I’d probably be poor today.”
Rather than seeking empty salience, advertising should make a point. Lois says, “I was always trying to sell product but I was always making a point. Advertising can be and should be, and at times has been, revolutionary and subversive.”
Big ideas are risky. There is risk in challenging conventions. There is also risk in trying to be authentic. The status quo is risky too.
Advertisers have always faced uncertainty and risk. It’s especially true now. Against the backdrop of a recession, this post-COVID cocktail of Christmas & World Cup presents a new challenge. One that reminds us that strategy is choice, and one that helps us make calculated risks. Risk, James Hurman reminds us, “is critical to success in business, innovation, creativity and life.”
As we look to 2023, great strategy and great ideas can be risk-mitigating devices. The decade long-success of John Lewis reveals that, whether or not it feels like Christmas, “empty salience” isn’t the answer. Advertising is soft power, but, as George Lois would remind us, powerful nonetheless. In the words of Uncle Ben, “with great power, comes great responsibility.”
Yes, “empty salience” reflects a post-COVID malaise that matches the current economic mood. But brands can offer more than empty salience.
COVID & COVID ads are not the sole causes of purpose nihilism. The industry has been on a long trajectory of trading silliness and humor for coolness and sophistication, according to the author, planner, & advertising historian Paul Feldwick. Kantar & Warc report that, despite its effectiveness, humor is declining as a creative strategy.
“Silly ads that run for decades aren't cool,” Paul Feldwick writes in a recent article, “but they do what they're supposed to.”
Feldwick was exploring the 70’s Charmin ads (discussed in Hey Whipple Squeeze This), which were “absurd” and “actually quite funny.” They ran for over 20 years, featured 500 commercials, and turned Mr. Whipple into the second most recognizable face in America (2nd to the President). Oh, and made Charmin and P&G a lot of money.
Rather than acting as a “touchstone for bad advertising” because they’re uncool, the Charmin commercials should be celebrated as a “great example of how to make a brand famous and successful.”
Advertising is about convincing people who are not like you to do things that are not like them. Purpose nihilism is a fair reaction when you look at the empathy gap between advertisers and consumers.
Borrowing from Feldwick, maybe repair looks more like “characters, catchphrases, irony, silliness, sentiment, and consistent campaigns.”
Or maybe, to borrow from Jeremy Bullmore, repair “will demand creative excellence of the highest order; communications that are so true to the personality of the brand that they come close to being its proxy.”
Happy Holidays & thanks for reading!
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