Tuesday Rant: Are We More Concerned with Being Clever Than Being Effective?

/ Comments (9)

Volume 11 In a Series By Felix

An admission – I am guilty of the former, and I’ve done it several times in my career. In the increasingly difficult quest to cut through the clutter and connect with consumers, we look for new and different ways to make our advertising rise up and stand out. But where do we draw the line between effective advertising and clever advertising? Do we even know the difference half the time?

This all goes back to my humble beginnings as a junior copywriter. I remember having a mid-week WIP (Work In Progress for those who don’t know the term) with one of the best CDs I ever had; this man had a book and a career that made me love him and hate him at the same time. Anyway, my art director and I had pinned at least a dozen ideas on the wall, and we knew three of them were killer. This was going to be a cakewalk review.

The CD came into the office, we presented each idea to him as he nodded his head. He laughed at the right ads, he frowned at the ones we had put on the wall to be sacrificial lambs. And then he said “this is clever work.” We smiled. Then he followed it with “but it’s not good advertising.”

That came as something of a shock to me; I thought the two were symbiotic, joined at the hip. He gave us both a copy of “Ogilvy On Advertising” and asked us to take the rest of the afternoon off to read it. We could start fresh in the morning.

To be honest, I thought Ogilvy was overrated. I’d skimmed the book when I first started college and most of it bored me to tears. I was far more interested in “Hey Whipple..” or the story of Bill Bernbach, but I did my due diligence and read it from cover to cover. And I had something of an epiphany.

What I came away with is that connecting with consumers is not the same as connecting with like-minded creatives. I already know you all sat there reading this and saying “well duh” or “no shit Sherlock” but here’s the thing; if you all know this, why is so much of the advertising I see just completely missing the boat? Why am I seeing dozens of ads that are just way too clever for their own good? Someone’s got to be guilty of it, even in Denver (yep, I went there).

I recently showed a collection of “clever” ads to my mom. She’s someone who reads the usual entertainment mags like People and Good Housekeeping. She likes soap operas. She keeps a tidy home, and she’s proud of it. She is the exact target audience for all of the products featured in the ads I had collected. Out of the 30 or so ads that I gave her, she got maybe 25%. And I’m being kind.

I’m not going to describe them all, you have better things to do, but here are a few examples. They were all visual gags of some sort, such is the state of the business these days, so they obviously don’t translate as well in a description.

First one.
The ad showed two almost identical scenes containing a sink, soap, a mirror and a toilet with toilet paper. But in one scene the soap was new and in the other it was almost worn away. The only copy on the ad, other than a tiny logo, said “1,000 sheets.” It was, as most of you would have grasped if you’d studied it, an ad for toilet paper. It was a clever thought. A lateral thought. And it went right over my mom’s head. She assumed it was for soap until I explained it. Then she liked it. Does that mean she’s a dummy, as I’m sure some of you will point out? Or was it just aimed too high?

Here’s another.
A magazine opens to reveal an actual dried plant within the pages (I already hear creatives rubbing their hands at the thought of the award shows). The two-word tagline said “Ultra Absorbent.” It was for Kotex pads. I got it, although I thought it sucked. My mom, she knew it was for Kotex because of the logo. But she had no clue about the message. None. Even as I explained it, I second-guessed myself.

One more.
This one has no words at all (man, I’ll be out of a job soon). It’s just a photo of a guy with a broken nose. Underneath, a bottle of Windex. You could have heard the crickets and tumbleweeds in the room. Not one clue. I gave her a few hints about the outcome of exceptionally clear, streak-free glass and she finally got it. Most of you would have got the joke instantly, but that’s because we think this way. Ponder, for a second, the target audience for Windex. It’s not a bunch of ad geeks, that’s for sure. And despite a more ad-savvy population, most people are not sitting around trying to crack the code of ultra-creative ads.

We cannot keep doing ads to please ourselves; we have to do ads that connect to the consumer. Sometimes, that will be a smart, clever, lateral ad. Sometimes, the clever idea is just too clever for its own good. It’s not doing the job. A Porsche 911 may be a damned sexy car, but it sure as hell sucks as a family car.

So, this is not so much a rant, but more of a plea. Please, give all of your work the target audience litmus test. I have nothing against being clever if it makes a memorable connection. But people don’t have time to sit and scratch their heads over a piece of advertising wank.

We all know about the loop; If you close it completely, the ad is boring; if you leave it too far open, you get dumbfounded consumers who just zone out and forget about you. It’s a fine balance that has to be evaluated on each and every job.

By all means keep being creative. Don’t be afraid of being clever. But at the same time, don’t be afraid of creating ads that are effective either. If the consumer has to work too hard to get your brilliant piece of thinking, it’s not an ad any more. It has failed. And while you’re patting yourself on the back for being such a clever bastard, the product or service you’re pushing is fighting for its life. Bottom line, as Ogilvy said many times, “it’s not creative unless it sells.”


I’ll take a campaign that resurrects a brand over a campaign that wins a titanium lion any day.

Thank you. I’ve always thought this new generation of “visual gags” that sweep the award shows were smug and self-ingratiating. I’ve seen them in action, how they fail to generate sales, but clean up in award season.

To me, those visual gags represent nothing more than an overly ambitious substitute for the sort of stuff that makes brands appealing: honesty.

I’m reminded of this John Ruskin quote from my art school days:

There may be neatness in carving when there is richness in feasting; but I have heard many a discourse, and seen many a church wall, in which it was all carving and no meat.

Well written article, I think a lot of us are guilty of “clever over smart.”

Exactly. The point I continually try to make, and a well-written piece too. People are always excited when they win awards, and I do admit that I think the recognition is nice, but my contention is always to ask, “But did we do our job?”

Whatever the goals of the particular assignment was, did we meet them? I know there are people out there that love to collect awards and, no offense to them but, who cares?

This is business. Commerce. Not art. Being clever and creative only matters in the context of branding and selling.

I’ve got to disagree with The Artistic Mercenary, advertising is an art, albeit a lower one. There is fine art, pop art, and then finally commercial art (advertising). The goal of commercial art is to drive commerce, which is where Ogilvy (and Felix) hit it on the head when they say “it’s not creative unless it sells”. Ad Contrarian has touched on this “is advertising art” question a bit recently if you want a better argument.

It’s easy to be lured by the Temptress, Madame Clever, but her appeal is becoming less and less potent. For all the clever stuff that graces the pages of Archive, there are a lot that fail miserably on the awards show circuit.

But I have never understood why award shows and sales are treated like oil and vinegar. The annual Gunn Report states that 75% of all award-winning ads do in fact reach their objective. I like those odds. Besides, something that wasn’t meant to haul in trophies doesn’t mean it’ll nudge the sales needle.

Like all of you, I’m not a big fan of clever either. Smart, yes. Clever, no.

All I have to say is amen.

I was just talking about Olgivy’s book. I’ve had a copy of that on my desk for some time. I think it was given to me at my first internship at a small firm in Greeley during college. The book is old. The ideas to many seem outdated and I’ve had a recent grad turn their nose up when I mentioned it like it was something to avoid like the plague. I knew a copy writer in San Francisco that even went as far to deface the cover to say “Olgivy On What Not to Do in Advertising”. And all this time, it’s been a staple in my collection of books.

We must respect what came before us. For anything, he lived in a castle. He was a legend. He was arrogant. He pushed research. He was a man with mixed reviews. Before and after his death. Love him or hate him, we can’t ignore him and his impact on our field.

If there one thing we can all agree with about the big O and Felix agrees: Ogilvy knows that an ad campaign, no matter how visually wonderful it may be, must do one thing: sell.

The book. I think it deserves a re-read this weekend.

I once heard that the reason Milton Glaser’s I [heart] NY campaign was so well received and has longevity is because it’s in a way, a puzzle. Milton himself has said that people like to solve puzzles and that is why it was so successful.

Your Windex ad is just that, it’s a puzzle in a sense. In order to understand the ad, you have to put the pieces together. Broken nose, bottle of Windex…pause…oh, I get it!

Not everyone has time for puzzles but many do, and can appreciate the thought put into these types of campaigns.

Not every ad has to say exactly what you are selling, and I think putting some thought into it is giving not only what your client is paying for (your creativity) but it is also telling their consumers that you think they have some intelligence and maybe even want to be entertained (the reason why they are reading a magazine, or watching television).

And I’ve never read the book that you are referring to but we must all remember that we are not just selling products and services but who these companies are or can be and their ideas.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Link = <a href="http://url.com">This is your text</a>
  • Image = <img src="http://imageurl.jpg" />
  • Bold = <strong>Your Text</strong>
  • Italic = <em>Your Text</em>
Rocket Fuel