Combating cliche


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“Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless imitative style”. George Orwell

In thinking about the role and efficacy of advertising it is very tempting to dwell exclusively on the external pressures the industry is under.
We are all naturally concerned by the changing relationships between people and brands and the emergence of ad-skipping technology, both of which are covered extensively in this blog.
However, regular readers will be aware that I lay much of the blame for advertising’s ills on the inability of brands and their agents to say anything interesting about themselves to consumers.
In particular this industry is swamped by cliché, whether in insight, strategy or creative work. Few brands have anything to say that we haven’t heard a million times before, often from their own competitors.
Of course the automotive category is one of the worst offenders. How many marques or models have told us that they are ‘the family saloon that thinks it’s a sports car’, or ‘the diesel that’s so good you’ll think it’s petrol’, or ‘the car that looks so good you’ll pretend it’s your own’, or ‘the small car that is surprisingly big’? So many strategies and pieces of creative work appear more the product of automatic writing than any kind of conscious thought.
But it’s not just cars. Most categories have their resident clichés – breakfast cereals that are a good start to the day, beers that are cold, bottles water that is filtered by lots of old rocks and any number of organisations that have nice staff.
Which brings us to George Orwell. No really.
I have been re-reading his anthology of essays ‘Inside the whale’. Quite apart from his very moving account of life as a miner between the wars there is an excellent piece called ‘Politics and the English language’, written in 1946.
In this he rails against the corruption of the English language by politicians eager to cover up the reality of their actions from the people they serve.
His bete noir (except that’s the last phrase he’d use) are dead metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious language and the use of foreign words, particularly Latin and Greek, when more appropriate Anglo-Saxon words exist.
He believed that most politicians write on a kind of auto-pilot in which they simply open their minds to a flood of ready-made phrases and metaphors, that obscure any real meaning often from the writers themselves.
I’m convinced that is what happens when most people sit down to think about insights, write strategies or create work. They open their minds and a stream of hideous clichés pile inside.
And that’s the sad fate that appears to have met the new BA campaign. Here is a brand that is absolutely desperate for a new role to play in people’s lives and what does it get? A bottom drawer visual device in the form of cloud formations and the longest list of inane airline clichés, both visual and verbal, in aviation history.
Ads literally stumble from “at BA we believe” to “your holiday should start on the plane” to “air travel shouldn’t cost the earth” to “cutting costs not corners”. There are also one or two cut-aways to the kind of flight-attendant-servicing-grateful-passenger shot that we all thought had been evicted from airline advertising a decade ago.
If BA and BBH ever knew what they were trying to say to us about their brand they have succeeded in concealing it. A shameful result for one of the most anticipated new campaigns of the past few years.
So here’s the call to action. Commit yourself to fight cliché whether insight, strategy or work. And show that brands can say things to people that are genuinely fresh and genuinely of interest.
As Orwell says “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn out lump of verbal refuse into the dustbin where it belongs”.

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28 Replies to “Combating cliche”

  1. Amen to that.
    Theres so much evidence that boldness and originality can work wonder, but agencies and clients are so scared to risk money on something they dont already know.
    I havent seen the BA ad yet, but it sounds depressingly bad!

  2. It does my heart good to hear Orwell given proper consideration. Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

  3. Also worth reading on this subject: Martin Amis, ‘The War Against Cliche’, particularly the introduction. He argues that cliches are not just problems of language; they infect the mind and the heart.

  4. Just watched the BA ad.
    Agh, its awful. Its boring and puts across the message in such a dull and uninteresting way. For all the weaknesses and over-extravagance, at least the M+C ads got the message across and held your attention.

  5. Thanks for that James. Rather think that Orwell might have blogged and maybe at it’s best the blogosphere will revitalise the essay.

  6. Interesting thoughts (as always) – particularly about BA. One wonders what sort of work BBH showed in the pitch – or indeed what BA wanted to buy at that time when they appointed them.
    Advertising can – and arguably should – provide meaning for a brand to differentiate it in the mind of the recipient. I agree this is category cliche but I bet as a result of the daft over-reliance of pre-testing and focus groups. Try showing a bunch of housewives an ad or concept that is new or different – it always gets modified and watered down. It still amazes me that a client can buy the promise of great work -and then revert to type when the moment comes.
    Personally I like the Frank Lowe approach to research – if he liked it (because he was one of the rare people who really knew) – that was it – the ad got made – no research group needed. And he had the brass cohones to ensure the client bought it. Oh the heady halcyon days! The question is Richard – where does the blame lie for this lazy thinking that seems to be so endemic? Is it account management, creative, planning, procurement or what – I have my theories…

  7. Good question holycow.
    Id love to know the answer. Reason would suggest the client being scared of better ideas, but life is never that simple.

  8. Rob – it goes to the very heart of why this industry has become so poor at realising and communicating its true (and potential) value.
    In truth, we are as much to blame for allowing them to buy such mediocrity, as we are for creating it in the first place. It makes me cross and I could go on…

  9. Its the graphic designers mantra:
    Create 8 logos and they will pick the weakest one… then ask you to change it to make it worse.
    I think that the industry is very restricted in who joins. Ive been to several interviews and all-day interview events and god knows what; and there just seems to be a case of agencies picking people that fit what they already do instead of finding people that can add something.
    One of the few to branch outside the narrow narrow channels is WK with their WK side idea. I hope more agencies will learn from them in many ways. They are one of the few agencies right now who are pushing their true worth, creating original and interesting ideas that work both creatively and effectively.
    I agree about the Frank Lowe remark, I think that in many cases its better to have an idea that someone is passionate about but not everyone likes; than something which everyone thinks is ok. Too much advertising is ok. Played too safe.

  10. Excellent piece, I agree with it completely.
    Regarding who is to blame – I think everyone in the system is to blame. Ideas usually start out wonderful and interesting but then the reasons start flooding in why, this that and the other has to be changed. People start looking at their watches – we’re spending too much time on this, let’s just do something we know shall work. But by work they mean lets just do something average. The average campaign is bought by the client, because it is average. It all results in a campaign that creates diddley squat for the brand and is ignored by the majority of people.

  11. Pete – good observation – the danger of allowing poor work to pervade is bad for business – ours and theirs.
    Let’s face it – the link between shareholder value and great/ground-breaking work has been visible for years but the lack of erudition among agencies in recent years has eroded any chance of really capitalising on it and that is a crime.
    What we do is no different to any other important financial investment – in fact it is more so in my opinion. Ban the cliche please – it’s killing the industry I love.

  12. Agreed.
    It is definitely just like financial investment, the more risk you take the bigger your potential return. Look at Honda, a brave original set of ads has given them a massive return on the campaign. Look at the Sony Bravia ad (the bold bouncing balls) by Fallon; people are widely regarding it as the single biggest factor in bringing Sony’s TV sales out of a nosedive.

  13. And there we have the real reason why advertising has a future – because what it can do for a business is extraordinary – in the extraordinarily rare cases that it is any good. It is one of the very few business tools where the result of your actions can be so immediate and the return can be so totally disproportionate to the investment – Bravia was on top of the pops for goodness sake.
    But lets not have a go at the clients. If this industry is lacklustre its our responsibility – to do better work and to decry the flacid and weak product of our contemporaries from the rooftops.
    R

  14. Agreed again.
    After all, thats a key part of the industry, making sure the clients understand and appreciate just how a good idea will work better than a safe one.

  15. The industry has been like this for a long time. Creative and strategic thinking has become so sanitized that no-one challenges its role as it doesn’t offend, thus “It works”. Great. Clients happy. Agencies are happy as they can now work on the next big project. Unfortunatly, these are all big project opportunities that we ignore. We have become PVRs ourselves – skipping projects, fast forwarding opportunities until we land a brief that allows us to be creative.
    Thus, we have a vicious cycle of boring pap.
    Don’t even want to talk about recruitment standards.

  16. Totally agreed! Maybe we should all pretend to be interns or trainees again. They don’t get exciting briefs, but they work really hard at making them as fresh as possible.
    Remember how scary it was briefing creatives at first – perhaps we should try finding that mindset again.

  17. couldn’t agree more with this…
    “Creative and strategic thinking has become so sanitized that no-one challenges its role as it doesn’t offend”
    This is why planners with the wit to create strategy, the ability to communicate it and the balls to stick with it… are as rare as creative directors who can explain why their idea will work against the strategy.
    That is if they genuinely have an idea rather than just a TV execution.
    These skills are scarce, and it is down to us to ensure they are valued rather than overlooked by those who could never understand them.

  18. Jemster – the interesting thing for me is that we all seem to be broadly agreed about this – so why is the industry so bad at doing something about it?
    The likes of Trevor Beattie promised us a totally new type of agency but so far everything has been a TV ad despite their protestations to the contrary. I have nothing against brand films per se – but we are still governed by clients who think the answer is a TV ad – not the other way round and we do nothing to instruct them otherwise. You can’t get stocked on the shelves if you are in fmcg unless you have a heavy weight TV campaign to support it for example. Bonkers!
    I blame the shareholders for thinking it is OK to spend their profits on wasteful advertising and for consumers for being happy to pay an average extra 10% on the price of their goods and services to cover the cost.

  19. Interesting comment miss holycow. Loads of reasons, one or two might be the following:
    The responsibility for strategy is shifting away from those who really know how to use it. Clients (often), media agencies and consultants (occasionally), are taking strategic ownership. Nothing wrong with this perhaps… but how many have actually tooled-up to deliver it?
    Consequently we suffer vile strategies proposed (and pre-sold to management) by clients, or the most simplistic ill-conceived strategy (media or any other sort) cooked-up in partnership with the media agency? We are left to argue our corner, as we rightly do… but do weak agency management feel this is in the best interests of the business?
    This is not a conspiracy theory.
    Creativity is then a captive of crap strategy and so can only do what it can. With no real strategy to leverage the poor CD can do no more than present the execution (even if he/she/it were capable anything more…). The long-term consequences of this are that we lose the skills that really matter.
    Then there is the whole pre-test/tracking debacle, geared up to TV and precious little else, unless you happen to live near Warwick. And the prevalent belief that if you can’t measure it doesn’t exist/can’t be justified. (Richard is way better at trashing the Brownians than I so I’ll leave off… but I proud to say I am also in their little black book of nasty people.) This is, I think, the context for your fine observation about shareholders.
    The end result? We default to TV because that’s all we understand. (Having said that, broadcast TV still works big time, but for how much longer???)
    As for Trev and his merry men. With the soft underbelly of the industry exposed and a client community that is looking for simple answers, given his legacy and the rich pickings out there, the sensible move is to launch a very ‘good’ ordinary agency.
    As it is with Trev, so it is with Clemmow, and Miles, and Delaney Bland, and so on … the ABBAs of advertising.
    Those who push the boundaries (the media consultancies aren’t… no matter how silly their names) carve out a business with those clients who have the nerve to go that way, many don’t which is why we are yet to see the kind of HHCL breakthrough we crave.
    I thought Tim Delaney’s piece in campaign was interesting, as was the response from a couple of media boys who obviously don’t get it…

  20. Good point about strategy shifting from the ad agency. We are involved in a pitch at the moment that is so refreshing because it is literally a blank sheet of paper strategically. No half arsed brand consultancy has been at it first simultaneously dumming the brand down and tying it in alsorts of complexity.
    I think it would be interesting to take the big strategic shifts that have made a real difference to Clients and work out how many came from an expensive and time consuming brand consultancy project and how many from a good old five week pitch from an ad agency.
    R

  21. Jemster thanks for the elaboration – superb. One point however – I am in fact Mr. Holycow – not ‘miss’, but then I do write like a bit of a girl sometimes so you are to be forgiven.
    Quick point about brand strategy if I may – many of the most succesful brands and brand narratives come from clients (usually the founder or an entrepreneur) with a clear view of who they are and what their purpose is – Innocent, EasyJet, Red Bull et al – none of which relied on a brand consultant to tell them what the brand is or should stand for – or indeed to play ‘logo cop’.
    Clarity of purpose and vision (the heart of a brand) should always be inside out – not externally applied to reflect a current trend to boost sales in my opinion. Never outsource your personality or image or you will end up a bit like Posh & Becks – manufactured, fake, inauthentic and transient. Looks good on the outside – but nothing going on behind the facade.
    Richard – hope the pitch goes well!

  22. ..I think herein lies the problem and the paradox. Redbull, Innocent, EasyJet and similar brands were actually created by external forces. They were defined by the outside. They all captured a real need at the right time and they all created new categories/markets etc. EasyJet when we longed for value in an overpriced market. Innocent at a time when we wanted exciting healthy alternatives, the list goes on.
    But, as guinea pigs in their relevant markets, they provide competitors who have missed the boat with a source of data/insight and more importantly trading history. This information appears in all kinds of tracking studies from MB to TNS and hey presto – brand owners have something to benchmark against. So instead of trying to capture that spark, create a soul, or in fact listen, the ‘me-to’ solution kicks in…..Fast forward a few meetings and before you know it we are working on that me-to concept which surprise suprise, happens to be boring, uninspiring and heartless.
    A cultural revolution is needed.

  23. Hey, I really like the quote on the home page with the photo. Why isn’t that showing up in the post?
    I may well be mentioning this post in the future but I’m disappointed that I won’t have that part to link to.

  24. good comments both. And I have to agree with the general flow.
    One niggle though MM.
    “… created by external forces. They were defined by the outside`’
    Makes it sound like there is an evolutionary force of nature at work and that the brands are a consequence of the forces without any ‘human’ intervention. If this were the case we would still be waiting for them?
    These brands were not created by external forces, but rather external forces created the context in which these brands would flourish.
    In nearly every case it would take someone, the brand owner, to indentify and understand -intuitively or analytically- the forces at play and so carve their brand appropriately.
    Either that or they had the desire, the vision and the pure bloody mindedness to make their brand work (for an e.g. look at Ted Baker).
    The brands were created by a someone… external forces were critical in governing and generating their success. But it took that ‘someone’ to read the currents in the first place.
    And this is my point, if I have one, surely if these people can read the signs so well, if we understand them, and the forces at play in their market then we have a better than even chance of doing likewise.
    And so avoid at all costs the stock-in trade outcome of the lazy consultant the “me-to concept which surprise suprise, happens to be boring, uninspiring and heartless”.
    God no-one wants to go there, not even the consultant who coined it in the first place!!

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