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Any Blazing Saddles fan should know that reference. As the townspeople attempt to make a duplicate of Rock Ridge in one night, Reverend Johnson says, “Do we have the strength to pull off this mighty task in one night…or are we just jerking off?”
That phrase has been running round and round in my head for the last few months, and it happens every time I see an ad filled with hyperbole and platitudes.
As you can imagine, I’m hearing that phrase a lot.
Advertising has changed. Anyone who refuses to admit that can basically kiss their career goodbye right now. It’s not just that everyone and everything is going digital. It’s not just that we’re becoming jaded with advertising messages. In fact, at Advertising Week many experts talked about the trade off millennials are willing to make; you give me something, I’ll engage with your ad, if it’s got something to say to me.
This is about the way we are willing to receive our advertising messages. As a copywriter, it’s hard to believe that the kind of ads Neil French, Tony Brignull and David Abbott wrote are no longer relevant. But…they’re not. Anyone who knows me knows that is a really fucking painful thing to say.
Am I saying copy is dead? Not at all. I’m not even saying long copy is dead. But what we’re dealing with now is a culture that, for the most part, wants to know what the hell you’ve got to say. And you better get to the point really quickly.
So when you get ads like the latest Ikea “Bed” spot, or “Up” from Delta airlines, you have to wonder what the fuck the creative team was thinking.
Let’s look at the script for “Up.” (Remember, this was a Super Bowl spot). Imagine lots of black and white images of planes, airports, and passengers, all with Donald Sutherland’s smooth and expensive VO over some inspirational music.
“Up. A short word that’s a tall order./
Up your game. Up the ante.
And if you stumble, you get back up.
Up isn’t easy. And we ought to know. We’re in the business of up.
Every day, Delta flies a quarter of a million people, while investing billions improving everything from booking to baggage claim.
We’re raising the bar on flying. And tomorrow, we will up it yet again.”/
Delta: Keep Climbing.
I can imagine the writer and art director patting themselves on the back for some of that. “Oh yeah, I love that short word, tall order line. Nice.”
What does it mean to anyone watching? Jack shit. It means nothing. It’s a lot of pomp and puffery and not much else. Is anyone going to go online to book a flight and go “oh fuck, don’t choose United. They have that godawful Rhapsody In Blue song. I hate that. Let’s book Delta, they’re in the business of up. I like up. Up is good.”
What will make the difference? Probably price and number of stops. If the cost is identical, then it will come down to prior experience. The ad is a lavish waste of millions of dollars.
Instead of saying a lot of poetic small talk, the ad could have pushed a product innovation. What does Delta do differently? What makes flying Delta a way better choice than flying any other airline? If there’s nothing new to say, why not think of something inexpensive that could be rolled out across the fleet of aircraft?
How about a section just for kids? Maybe use a service that uses something like Tinder to let singles find each other on the plane and chat for the flight? What if long flights gave you the chance to learn something? Offer free interactive courses that use the touchscreens in the headrest in front of you. When you get off, you’ve got a new skill.
So maybe those suck balls, but what I’m saying is that fancy prose is not going to cut it any more. The modern consumer wants something tangible. You are fighting for their attention, and the fight is getting harder and harder every, single day. You always have to ask, what is in it for them?
This must comes down to responsibilities. It is the client’s job to bring something worth talking about to the ad agency. If they have nothing, they must be willing to listen to ideas from the agency that include suggestions on a better service or product. This is not a new concept; Bill Bernbach was doing it in the sixties.
It is also the ad agency’s responsibility to present ideas that go beyond hyperbole and tired old clichés. The client is usually not brave, and that kind of glossy shit is easy to sell in. Everyone loves a good-looking ad, but if it’s as empty as Kim Kardashian’s book shelf, what’s the point?
Finally, it is the responsibility of everyone in the industry to stop awarding these empty vessels the gold and silver gongs. Just stop it. We can’t keep slapping ourselves on the back for work that looks good but doesn’t move or persuade the target audience. As long as we keep on doing it, we really are just jerking off.
Felix is a site contributor, ranter and curmudgeon for The Denver Egotist. He’s been in the ad game a long time, but he’s still young enough to know he doesn’t know everything. If he uses the f-bomb from time-to-time, forgive him. Sometimes, when you’re ranting, no other word will do. He’s been known, on occasion, to drink alcohol by the gallon. Do as he says, not as he does.