Seven Clichés of Award-Winning Advertising

Out of ideas? Try one of these.

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See if this scenario sounds familiar: You have a great idea. You sell it to the client. Maybe it even gets produced. Then, five minutes after your sweat and blood starts running in the local rag, you see the exact same idea you were so proud of in an old ad annual. At that moment you come to realize that you, like the vast, expansive majority of creative people, are unoriginal. But it’s not just your concept that’s been done before. It’s every concept. Every ad for every client is derivative of some other ad from some other campaign. In total, there are only seven ideas that were, at one time or another, original. Any idea you come up with is one of seven existing, interchangeable campaigns that have already been thought of.

1. I’m not looking at you, I’m looking at ________.
A Maximesque woman walks into a bar. The dork behind the beer bottle thinks she’s looking at him. Turns out (drumroll, please), she’s looking at his (name of beer here). Oh, there are variations on the theme. Different ways to yuk up the fact that she’s not really looking at him, including what might be identified as subcategory 1.1, called "I’m so absorbed by (product x) that I don’t notice interesting/bizarre/catastrophic/injurious event that’s happening to/right in front of me." But it all starts and ends with the same premise. Scary thing is, this idea has legs. So many, in fact, that it extends into entirely different products. Such as, "I’m not looking at the guy with the bees all over him, I’m looking at the VW Beetle." Or, "I’m not looking at my legs on fire, I’m looking at my rug." It’s the most overused concept today and deserves to be No. 1 on this list. And what’s so perplexing is that it somehow manages to get by judge after judge in competition after competition. Go ahead, pick up your favorite awards show annual over the last three years. It’s comical.

2. There’s a better way to ________.
This concept is particularly devious because it hides behind the guise of so many other concepts. Such as, "What would life be without (product here)?" Or, "How are you going to (do the thing that the product does)?" As far back as I can trace, I believe Conseco was the Adam and Eve of this direction with, "How do you plan on paying for retirement?" Brilliant. Laugh-out-loud funny. And worthy of consideration for your own client.

3. The lengths I’ll go to for a glimpse of ________.
Remember the Mercedes print ad with all the skid marks in front of a parked SLK? It was so simple and striking. In 1997. But now there are rubbernecking ads all over television. Currently, you can see one for Porsche, where a guy and his sleeping wife are traveling on the highway in their RV when a new Porsche SUV pulls up behind them. The man gets out of the driver’s seat while the RV is still doing 60, just so he can get a better look. Think of how far you could go with this concept if you found a way to do it for something other than the automotive category. Isn’t there an industrial solvent that it could be applied to? How about pants?

4. __________s that look like vaginas.
This concept is one of the more recent crazes. I’m not exactly sure where it began or what it accomplishes, but it’s always a photograph of some seemingly innocuous item, shot to resemble a vagina. Why? Beats me. But I’m sure it has something to do with how sex sells or some such credo. At least it’s not "______s that look like buttholes."

5. Maybe we’re a little too ________.
Here’s how it’s done. Take the product benefit. Say, a dish detergent that cleans dishes really sparkly. Then, exaggerate the bejeezus out of that benefit. Maybe the dishes get so sparkly that they cause retinal incineration upon eye contact. The voiceover or headline then comes in and remarks, "Maybe we make dishes a little too sparkly." It may not always be worded exactly that way, but the formula is usually pretty much the same. After all, what is "Fast. It’s corporate policy," for GT bikes other than "Maybe we make bikes a little too fast" by another name?

6. Imagine __________.
I have to hand it to Cliff Freeman on this one. The work they did for Budget was genius. A team of executives gathers together for a brainstorming session on how to make the driving experience more enjoyable. Somebody blurts out, "Aromatherapy candles." Cut to what the team imagines would happen if they actually put candles in their cars. Everyone in the car is asleep, including the driver. Car crashes through a barrier and across several lanes of traffic. Cut back to team saying, "We don’t need aromatherapy candles." Hilarious. Made me wish I’d done it. Apparently, it made about a dozen other teams wish they’d done it, too. Because now the daydreaming shtick is popping up in ads for everything from Time Warner Cable (man imagines what would happen if he had to wait for the cable guy) to (woman imagines what would happen if they stayed at an exotic room with mosquito netting) to SBC (woman remembering what happened when she changed gardeners) to Budweiser (man imagining what it would be like to be a big-league catcher for a day) and even to another car rental client, Avis (imagine what would happen if Avis didn’t try harder).

7. Sex products causing broken furniture/architecture.
The next time your agency gives you an assignment for a dildo, one common execution is to show a cracked wall, a broken floor or some other damaged piece of furniture or bedroom accessory. What better way to demonstrate wild sex than with architectural destruction?

Lastly, this article. I’m sure somebody somewhere has written about this very topic before. If so, I apologize. I’ve never read it and I was not inspired by it. But I’m sure to run across it in the next five minutes.

(Erik Proulx is a copywriter at Cleveland agency Brokaw. This column appears in the September issue of Creativity.)

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