Thursday, March 16, 2006

Talkback: Forget the joke, let's tell a story

By Mike Edgar

"Television," my grandmother used to say, "is a visual medium."

You'd think this might be self-evident to those advertising folk who make TV advertisements, but if you look at some of the ads you might think otherwise.

A commercial is screening now showing some teenagers in a sack race, with singing in the background. Having missed the advertiser's name, I have no idea what is being advertised.

Let's say it's for a high-energy breakfast food. Do teenagers in a sack race convince anyone that this particular breakfast food has higher nutritional value?

How could an ad agency conclude that a sack race has any merit in promoting a product or service? Yet the "concept" must have been devised and prepared by the agency and approved by its client. Did no one ask what relevance a sack race has to the product, to the prospects or to the world in which the rest of us live?

Another commercial features people driving in a car and singing a song. So far as I can determine the song has nothing to do with the product. We get glimpses of the car, but not enough to see that it has anything special going for it.

How on earth does an agency convince a car maker that happy drivers, singing a song, are better than product shots in his TVC? Or that a song is needed instead of product information? Beats me.

I have seen four commercials for "Working for Families". The product, I know, is free money, but you wouldn't guess it from watching the commercials. In one, a family enters a room and greets an older woman. In another, children are making breakfast.

It may be riveting television but in these commercials there is nothing about free money. Yet some excited copywriter had the temerity to suggest these were good ideas, perhaps a "creative breakthrough", and some ad executive agreed.

We hapless taxpayers, of course, paid the production costs and the telecast costs. On the other hand, the communication is so poor that we probably didn't have to come up with much of the free money on offer.

It may be that a TV commercial is doing all its selling in the soundtrack. The agency produces a radio commercial and then adds irrelevant pictures which distract the listener from the soundtrack's message. Even a blank screen would be better.

There are any number of examples on TV. Remember those funny animals that used to be seen in Telecom commercials? Does anyone recall what the product was? The pictures bear no relevance to the product or service being promoted.

In the old school I belong to, true creativity in advertising derives from examining and presenting quality in the product or service, in a manner which catches viewers' attention. This may be done with humour, charm, sentimentality or pathos, the message certainly doesn't have to be product sell from start to finish. But the emotional content, whatever it is, must be directly relevant to the product or service and add value to it.

Many advertisers have learned to their cost that irrelevant humour draws attention away from the product.

"Make your pictures tell the story," said legendary ad man David Ogilvy. He did not say make your pictures tell the joke.

* Mike Edgar is a freelance writer and advertising consultant.

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