Ads Must Reach for Content that Aspires to Bigger Ideas

As Consumers Get More Control With Social Media, We Must Up Our Game to Get Their Attention

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Aspiration in advertising is about making great creative that stands on its own, with all the best qualities of editorial content -- a voice, a point of view and a larger purpose. It's work that is worth sharing.

This philosophy has defined my thinking around branding and advertising since I saw Lee Clow interviewed in the 2009 documentary "Art & Copy" about his work for Pedigree. Clow said, "Hey, you can be more than just a pet food company. You can aspire to loving dogs rather than just feeding dogs." His insight is especially important at a time when too many of us have started to assume that advertising is a necessary evil -- that nobody would willingly consume or share advertising.

"Marketing, for the last 50 years, has been about interruption, and it's basically a race to the bottom," Paul Adams, the social media researcher at Facebook, explained in a recent interview. "All these guys are trying to come up with more and more creative ways to interrupt people. We have a finite amount of information processing, and that 's not going to change in our lifetime."

Fifty years back is the right demarcation. It was the golden age of great, as opposed to interruptive, advertising. The legends of that era: Wells, Ogilvy, Doyle Dane & Bernbach, and later Clow, inspired and helped us aspire. They made ads you actually wanted to read or watch, that you remembered, that you sought out and shared. Clow's defining work for Apple stands as content with a larger purpose that has transcended the decades. ("1984" and "Think Different").

Fortunately, the massive shift in the media business is creating a huge opportunity for a new golden era for advertising. On the social web, consumers have more control. Advertising that isn't engaging is simply ignored, much less shared. We all need to up our game to stay relevant. Aspirational messages that will be widely shared are the most effective way to explain what a brand stands for and hopes to achieve.

I saw some of this among the ads that aired during Super Bowl XLVI. It's the one time a year when content-driven creative is most on display on television. My personal favorite was Best Buy, which focused on mobile apps and technology and their startup creators. Like Clow's Pedigree or Apple ads, the spot is about what the devices allow us to do, as opposed their consumer-friendly features. The Best Buy Brand aspires to entrepreneurship and invention.

E*Trade continued its tradition of great creative that stands on its own as content. This year a newborn entertained as he chatted with his father about the rising cost of tuition. The message is conveyed and worth watching, as opposed to just a bland call to action. It also manages to remind us of the company's financial services with a story line relevant to a tough economy.

The web is an even better forum than television for great creative because brands can be "always on" and utilize social to spread their messages. The possibilities for storytelling on the web are much wider and varied than what's needed for a 30- or 60-second spot. Great creative can be refactored into discreet pieces and packages of images, text and videos that brands can communicate and modify in real time as people react on the social web.

When I see great creative, be it from past decades or during the Super Bowl, and think about the power of the social web, I'm highly optimistic. Great content-driven marketing can spread through word-of -mouth across the social web, produce unprecedented amount of earned media and engage and inspire consumers like never before.
Jon Steinberg is president of BuzzFeed.
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