Above all, we fear risk. Why is it in this day and age, when it is so obviously important to breathe fresh life into brands and services, that we fear taking risks? Much of our advertising is devoid of risk taking. Either no one dares to try something new and different or they're waiting for someone else to do something different so they can copy it. When we should be applying wings to brands to let them soar, we're instead applying bullet-proof vests.
We're testing ourselves to death. Testing is being applied to almost everything that moves, to everything that remotely smacks of creativity. Rather than seeking information to help make judgments, testing is being used to make the judgments for us. We overestimate the extent to which the testing of ideas can be used to judge advertising's effectiveness.
Perhaps our industry has become more interested in comfort and in concepts that consumers find predictably palatable than in advertising that breaks new ground. With advertising, as with people, there can never be total certainty-no matter how much testing you do. As a result we stick to the safe, tried and trusted.
So there's a high risk of spending a lot and achieving very little. If you fear risk and put all your trust in testing, then you resolutely ignore the fact that the average consumer is exposed to nearly 1,600 advertising messages a day and would be perfectly content not seeing any of them.
I would like to offer one example of a company that decided to zig when everyone else was zagging. A company that threw everything in the face of conventional wisdom and has, through its advertising power surge, stepped into the future of advertising. It has become an international household name on the strength of issue-oriented advertising, rooted firmly in its social consciousness.
The company is Benetton. Its advertising is fueled by the realities of life. And though a lot of people don't like what they see, Benetton's fuel is working indeed. Benetton's campaign has caused endless controversy and upset countless thousands. Shock value? For sure. But they're being noticed, which proves that: a) people are hopelessly conservative; b) Benetton is miles ahead of us, a leader on the cutting edge of advertising; c) advertising in the '90s is not a socially acceptable outlet for wild imagination; d) fantasy remains more popular than reality.
Given the reaction to recent Benetton ads, the outrage is hardly surprising. At a time when the mass media is under enormous pressure to make the masses more aware of today's issues, you would think such a commitment would be welcome. Think again.
When Life magazine runs a photo of a dying AIDS victim surrounded by his family, it is viewed as sensitive and supportive reporting. Later when Benetton ran the same picture-the very same picture-with the Benetton logo, it suddenly became explosive, exploitive and offensive. Similarly, condoms are handed out in many North American high schools, but a Benetton ad featuring a myriad of colored condoms was rejected by such mainstream publications as Cosmopolitan, Self, Mademoiselle and Essence.
A more recent ad offered up by Benetton's creative director, Oliviero Toscani, reveals a single riveting image of a Bosnian soldier's bloodied army uniform. The accompanying text, written by the soldier's father in his native Serbo-Croatian reads, "I, Gojko Gagro, father of the de-
ceased Marinko Gagro, born in 1963, would like my son's name and all that remains of him to be used in the name of peace and against war."
In an interview, Toscani said, "The language in the ad belongs to a dictionary the Western world doesn't want to open. We decided to make a symbolic picture of the war." Now running in 25 countries, the ad was rejected by several French newspapers and The Los Angeles Times. The Vatican denounced the ad as "advertising terrorism."
Benetton's advertising has led to many lawsuits and charges that it profits from the misfortunes of others. How's all this fared for Benetton? Whether it's helped to sell clothing is hard to say, but Benetton's creative people believe they've made Benetton a household name around the world.
They certainly have.
Early on, Benetton realized that assessing creative work is mostly about balancing risks; the risk of uncertainty and the risk of consequence. In the end, the job of advertising is to get noticed, because no matter how perfect the marketing plans are, how finely tuned the strategy, how much time and money you spend testing your creative ideas, the day dawns when all that stands between the product and the consumer is the advertising.
In a recent interview, Benetton founder Luciano Benetton was quoted as saying: "Just showing the product at this point is banal. I don't think that in an ad campaign you can resolve all the problems of selling. How you improve your selling has more to do with the quality of the product and the price and the distribution of it."
Benetton's creative director Toscani added: "To be an up to date company with a view of the future, we must take our communication in another direction. Because it would be like throwing big money away if we only explained that our product is better than the competition's. Advertising should give something more. It should tell the truth. We cannot pretend that the difficulties and horrors of life do not exist."
Statements like these have marked the Benettons and their creative director as heretics. They also reveal them to be visionaries, years ahead in their understanding of how advertising and the media-not to mention human beings-really work. Their poignant images have nothing to do with style or product and everything to do with attitude. They're expressing a sense of concern and a desire to connect-to be a part of the world, good or bad. This kind of thinking puts Benetton directly in opposition to their competition, whose modus operandi is to create consumer needs that can only be satisfied by a specific brand name product, and whose claims have little to do with truth. Benetton has transformed itself from clothing manufacturer into social force. Theirs is a new paradigm. You can almost hear the consumer saying: If this company is as smart about what it makes as it is about its own image, I'd buy Benetton.
Despite the negative outcry, Benetton grows tougher and tougher every year. They address audiences in 110 countries. One would not want to overstate Benetton's good will, yet the implications of provocation and controversy as a publicity and marketing device are fascinating. The assumption that risk-taking is itself a selling tool is a departure from traditional marketing methods. Benetton has put itself right down on the street with the rest of us in the real world: the world of terrorism, AIDS, prejudice and violence. They've done this to get noticed. They've used the new powers of advertising.
As for the future, it's no longer enough simply to recognize the power of advertising. The challenge now is how to use this power. Two questions remain: How socially conscious does the public want to be, and how much truth can we stand.u
Adapted from a speech Michael Fromowitz delivered at the 1994 New York Festivals judges' dinner. Fromowitz, senior VP-executive creative director at McCann-Erickson/Toronto, was for merly chairman/executive creative director at The Ball Partnership in Hong Kong and regional creative director at BSB Asia.