Tuesday, February 14, 2023

I Think We Forgot How.

I spent a lot of time over the last few days watching commercials. Not because I was watching television. I scarcely watch any TV at all anymore--though out of force of habit, between my two houses, I pay close to $6000/year just for the chance to be bombarded by 497 channels of home shopping network and commercials mixed 75 decibels too hot. 

Of course, those extortionate fees for cable are an integral part of the control giant monopolies have over most of our lives. The cable and ISP providers being among the most pernicious. The worse their service gets, the more hidden and obnoxious their fees. The more you need them, and the more they charge. 

None of that. 

I watched most of the commercials that were on Sunday's football game. There were a few that were good, funny and memorable. But more that were rife with noise and spectacle and celebrity that seemed to be lacking anything close to what Bernbach called, simple, timeless human truths. 

So, I went back in time. Not for nostalgia's sake. Or to reminisce. But to try to find where we lost our way.

First, Saturday night I finished a new, and heavily-reviewed book "The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Can Tell Us About Distraction" by Jamie Kreiner. (I'm forever looking for ways to be better at my job. And getting noticed and fighting distraction are two of them. It staggers me that I seem to be the only one left in the industry who thinks about things like this.)

Kreiner's book is a look at distraction from the habits of the people reputed to be the most focused of all: monks from early Christianity, say 300 AD to about 900 AD, when all hell broke loose, like madrigals and the Book of Kells.

Then I spent 13 minutes watching commercials of the sort I grew up with. Commercials from the early and mid-1970s. Of course, some of these are sullied by imagery that we would today considered marred by sexism or racism, but that's not what this is about. This is about the ancient techniques used to get people to pay attention and remember what they've seen in the service of selling a product.

This is about 'anti-distraction.' It's about messages that register, and take-over a place in your brain. Some of the effectiveness of these 50-year-old spots was contingent on their repetition--we had only three major TV channels back then. But at least as much was because the creators of these spots seemed to focus on repetition within the spot, mneumonics, product shots, rhymes and jingles.

All these effectiveness tools are disparaged by the ad industry today. We put less stock in creating something that's memorable and effective than in creating something that no one actually sees but will be awarded by the judges in Cannes. 

Not too long ago, I presented some work to a major private equity firm with about zero-percent unaided awareness. I did good work. Then did an extra campaign--a campaign that would have gotten me fired from virtually every agency in America because it did something as semantically-sticky as Ogilvy's old, "well, my broker's E.F. Hutton, and when..."

We don't do work that worms its way into memories now. We do farts in a windstorm. That was largely what was played on the Super Bowl. Giant events, laden with unknown celebrities that will last as long as a pdf of George Santos' resume. 

I watched those Super Bowl commercials on Thursday. It's Sunday morning now, and I remember Anytime Fitness and Goodby's Doritos spot. At the very least each of those exploited something unique and intrinsic about the brands they were advertising.

If you want to learn something about the human brain, and to use that knowledge to do your job better, you might want to take 33-minutes and six-seconds to look at this documentary on an English ad man you've never heard of, John Webster.

Don't look at production values, or anything else our overly-contemporary minds can disparage with a simple imprecation that Webster is "dated." 

No, look at these as a 4th Century monk might have.

How they use memory devices. How they establish empathy. How they make you laugh. They don't sensory overload. Like a good story, they bring you in with the unusual.

I think we've forgotten how to reach people other than award judges and chief creative officers.

I think that is among the top ten reasons advertising doesn't work and advertising as an industry has been relegated to the fringes of business. We've lost our seat at the table. We lost our ability to charge for our services. We lost our ability to "think different." And sell more.

I think we've forgotten common sense. Bernbach's words.

We embrace something called "culture." All too momentary popular gimmickry, devoid of empathy and meaning.

We've become ..."A tale/ Told by an idiot, fully of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing."

That's Shakespeare. 

Too many consider it a brief.

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