VIEWPOINT: CREATIVE ADVERTISING 101

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Rosser Reeves, apostle of the USP and incubator of such godawful-great campaigns in the 1950s as Anacin's "Fast, Fast, Faster" and Wonder Bread's "Helps Build Strong Bodies 12 Ways," knew a thing or two about advertising creativity. One time a client had the temerity to suggest that, since Reeves was running the same ad over and over, it didn't seem fair that the bills always reflected the same commission. Once the creative act was done, the expenses should decrease, the client reasoned.

What you're continuing to pay, huffed an insulted Reeves, is to keep you from changing what I've created.

In other words, advertising creativity is not in making the pitch, it is in holding the pitch while all around you people are banging on pots and pans. It is not in saying something shocking. It is in saying something important about the product, and then saying it over and over.

In this sense, advertising creativity is more like Renaissance art than Modern art. In the Renaissance, painters like Michaelangelo, da Vinci and Giotto didn't paint what they wanted to paint. They were usually told exactly what to paint, and even how to paint it. Then they were told to paint it again, just a little differently. Their clients were the mendicant orders of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Although the corporate headquarters were in Rome, the individual orders had some say in how they chose their advertising (what we call art). Competition between these orders produced some of the greatest creations of the Western imagination, in part because they never forgot (and were never allowed to forget) the necessity of drawing an audience by addressing its needs.

Go to Florence and you'll see what I mean. Individual churches competed for parishioners' attention just as modern corporations compete for prospective buyers. Competing agencies had to stay in defined boundaries, but they had leeway. And in that leeway -- images of the Madonna and Child, for instance -- the artists created wondrous visions. Often the individual church used such artistic decoration as its USP, since, after all, all churches offered exactly the same service. The goal was not to be new; it was to be best.

Now, I'm not saying that cathedrals are billboards or that frescos are 30-second spots, but there are similarities too important to overlook. Modern art, however, is different. Here the artist is working for himself and he is rewarded for breaking boundaries, for getting out of line. Think of all the movements of modern art -- Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Impressionism -- and you will see that creativity often means violently disturbing expectations. It gets attention not for what it says, but for how it says it.

Too much advertising today considers itself to be Modern and not enough understands the lasting power of the Renaissance view. Too much advertising sees itself as avant-garde, not enough as rendering the unique truth of a product in terms the audience can understand. The famous quotation (attributed to both John Wanamaker and Lord Leverhume) that "Half my advertising dollars are wasted -- I just can't figure out which half," needs to have the percentage increased.

Howard Gossage, the great San Francisco adman, said it best: Too often creativity in advertising is taken to mean driving the copywriters and art directors of competing agencies nuts. Too seldom does it mean really drawing sustained attention from an audience and directing it to the product.

In the months to come I will try to illustrate this. I will close-read a handful of what I take to be examples of true advertising creativity. This stuff won't blow your socks off, but it did change the way we look at the product and the world around it. Seems easy. Is hard.

I am going to take a look at such ancient ads as those for Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Tonic, P.T. Barnum's circus, Gerald Lambert's Listerine, Thomas Barrett's Pears' soap, and at modern ads such as Shirley Polykoff's "Does She. . . Or Doesn't She" and those for Absolut vodka. To a generation of Bernbach wannabes, many of these ads won't seem very creative; dreary even. You won't drop your jaw looking at them. You'll drop your jaw, however, when you see the effect they had on the bottom line and on culture as well. And isn't that what creative advertising is finally about?

University of Florida/Gainesville professor James Twitchell's next book will be titled Lead Us Into Temptation: Advertising, Packaging, Bonding, Fashion, and

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