The Warc Blog

The Warc Blog

Where have the populist advertising ideas gone?
Paul Feldwick, Admap Columnist and Consultant, Paul Feldwick Ltd
Paul Feldwick

Where, oh where has the populist advertising idea gone? Those stories that charmed, or tugged hearts, or raised chuckles, and justified the term 'campaign'?

Seamus O'Farrell, director of communications, The Prostate Cancer Charity

Is it just nostalgia for a golden age that makes us suppose there were more Honey Monsters, PG Chimps, Hamlet Cigars, and Humphreys Abouts back in the 1970s and 1980s than there are today? It would be hard to prove, but you might well be right, and there's one bit of strongly suggestive evidence: agreement with a TGI statement, 'The ads are often better than the programmes', peaked in 1991 and has steadily tanked ever since. And if that's true, it's a good question - why has it happened?

There are lots of possible answers we could speculate on, but the first one that occurred to me was that it may have something to do with the decline of the agency-client lunch. That sounds facetious, but reflecting on it, I think it may contain some kind of truth. Those extravagant lunches of the past may have had a lot wrong with them: indulgence bordering sometimes on corruption, and negative impacts on livers and waistlines. But at their best, they could create a very different sort of conversational space - more relaxed, more personal, more playful, where language could explore the emotional subtleties of humour or furry animals beyond the analytic, message-based discourse of the boardroom. It is a myth, I believe, that clients of the past were readier than they are now to approve campaigns that were heavy on entertainment and whimsy; in my recollection, such work generally only saw the light of day after extended and frequently acrimonious exchanges between client and agency. If things have changed in 30 years, I think it is not that clients were either more naive or more visionary than they are today, but that account directors were better at holding that conversational space open until a common understanding was allowed to emerge. And I'm prepared to believe that an agreeable lunch break, modestly lubricated by wine, could be a crucial strategy in enabling that to happen. A different kind of relationship happens when people sit down to eat together - a key turning point in the Northern Ireland peace process was when the opposed factions were persuaded to meet for dinner.

This has all changed utterly. Marketing directors rarely break for lunch at all in many organisations, snatching an M&S sandwich between back-to-back meetings. Whatever the practical reasons for this, it's also become a cultural revolution: it's simply not the done thing to go out for lunch any more. And at a fundamental level, wherever this happens, it helps redefine the nature of what is considered 'work'. Work is rational, analytic, judgmental, dealing with facts and evidence. Work is not expansive, imaginative, playful, frivolous or funny. Yet advertising has frequently been all these things, and if it is less often so today, it may be in part due to the new puritanism that pervades the anonymous glass and steel offices of many marketing companies.

If this sounds like the sentimental ramblings of an aging adman, there may also be solid science behind it. I have been reading Iain McGilchrist's excellent book about the two hemispheres of the brain, The Master and His Emissary. Like all good brain science, it's complicated (and it's a pretty thick book): but one of the main themes is that the left hemisphere experiences reality by dividing it up and manipulating it, while the right experiences the world as a whole. The left hemisphere takes things apart, analyses and labels them - all essential to our human achievements - but our experience of the world as a whole both begins and ends with the holistic quality of the right hemisphere. McGilchrist argues that Western society has tended to get this the wrong way round - we assume that the left hemisphere is the one that really matters, because it represents our rational, analytic side - and it's easy to see how this expresses itself in organisations, with the privileging of verbal, rational arguments over the creative power of the less definable experiences mediated by the right. Artistic creation requires both hemispheres, but, as elsewhere, the right hemisphere is the more important, enabling emotions, music, poetry and humour. McGilchrist draws an analogy between the two hemispheres, and the two Greek gods who respectively stood for order and proportion, and for abandon and passion - Apollo and Dionysus. And Dionysus, as you may recall, was, among other things, the god of wine.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.

Subjects: Advertising, Brands

01 February 2012 17:20

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