Advertising, pure and simple

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Everyone's mental switchboard is still on overload. People everywhere talk about being distracted, being unable to finish projects, being unable even to sit still. Anxiety and concentration can't coexist. Being nervous, being jittery-means being unfocused.

In an increasingly complex world, we're all yearning for simplicity. We're back to simple values: religion, the comfort of friends and family and the desire to stay home and cocoon.

We're back to simple pleasures: comfort food instead of lavish menus, a bottle of chianti instead of an overpriced cabernet. Much of what people bragged about two months ago seems tasteless now. Trendy hot spots go empty while neighborhood restaurants are packed.

The implication for advertising is this: We, too, need to get back to what's simple. We need simple ideas, not simplistic ideas. Ideas still need to be big. But more than ever they need to be clear and focused.

* We need simple messages.

In a world where people have trouble focusing, they can't be expected to decipher complicated advertising. No one wants to pay that much attention. No one has the energy. Don't expect people to work so hard; they're not going to be studying our ads.

Here are a few of the old rules that are even truer now.

A spot can have only one idea, not three, and one benefit, not a multilayered offering.

The days of the complex "reason why" are over. People cannot be argued into buying a product.

The more words you use, the more counterproductive your effort. Tell me once or, better yet, just show me.

* If there was ever a time when advertising and entertainment needed to converge, it's now.

People are hungry for a moment of relief, a little island of pleasure that will offer respite from the day's news. With "their worst nightmare" on their minds, we need to entertain to break through. Ads that entertain are like oxygen: a moment to breathe, a release from the events of the day.

* Humor, please!

Laughter is the ultimate escape from stress. But the kind of humor that's appropriate has changed. We've already observed that snide, cynical humor no longer resonates.

Poking fun is still fine, but disparagement is not.

Forced humor-jokes that are stiff and artificial-always fell flat. That hasn't changed at all. It's now more inappropriate than ever.

Stupid humor, the "dumbing down" of America, is passe. People are proving every day that they can deal with weighty issues. Humor that treats people like adolescents is condescending unless, of course, they are adolescents.

One kind of humor that will resonate is what I call "behavioral humor." It's humor that comes from a witty observation about the little things that people do. It comes out of the unaffected remarks that kids make and the natural way they behave. It finds charm in people's little human foibles and idiosyncrasies. It pokes fun at classic patterns of behavior. We can identify with that. It's real, it's genuine and it's not unkind. It makes us feel good. It lifts us.

* Products can't be heroes; people are.

"Make the product the hero" is an old expression that's not right today. The product can play a role in allowing a person to be a hero, but the product itself probably isn't heroic, and it shouldn't be portrayed that way.

Don't exaggerate. Products can't be the focus of our attention because they're not enough to hold our attention. It's the way people interact with products, the way they behave, that makes a story engaging.

The audience will identify with a moment of human triumph. People long for stories they can identify with-small achievements, where an obstacle is overcome or a person does something surprising.

Make sure the brand is modest if it takes some of the credit. Don't expect people to worship the goods. People want to connect with somebody, not something.

* Watch the flag-waving.

An idea doesn't get better because it's draped in the flag. We've come to appreciate the flag more than ever since Sept. 11, but this is a time to use it judiciously.

Of course, there are brands whose heritage is connected to the flag (from the U.S. Postal Service to Tommy Hilfiger). But heritage is one thing; climbing on the flag-waving bandwagon is another. Pseudo-patriotism is barely veiled profiteering, and it will not resonate with the American consumer. It's a callous sale.

* Trust the idea. Don't overproduce it.

An over-produced piece of advertising is the antithesis of what we need now. Overproduction just overcomplicates.

Injecting money and techniques that are supposed to make an ad more interesting only make it more expensive. That just brings conspicuous consumption to the TV screen.

Of course, simple ideas must be engaging and entertaining and well executed. But that doesn't require self-indulgence or lavishness. Watching Willie Nelson singing "America the Beautiful" can be more electrifying, and more appropriate, than a chorus of 100.

"Simple" may look easy but it isn't easy. Simplicity exposes the quality of an idea. Although we may have become accustomed to over-thinking and over-producing, now is the time to simplify.

Mr. Novick is vice-chairman-chief creative officer, Grey Global Group, New York.

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