The Big Lie – the complete book online - 5 Creativity

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Chapter 5

The secret magic ingredient

Creativity

Persuasion must in every case be effected: 1) by working on the emotions of
the judges themselves; 2) by giving them the right impression of the speaker’s character; or 3) by proving the truth of the statements made.

Aristotle

If advertising is a hit-and-miss affair, frequently producing ineffective, or even counter-productive messages, as has been argued in the first three chapters of this book, how is the growth of powerful worldwide consumer brand franchises, as described in the previous chapter, to be explained? Effective advertising must have contributed to the early development of these brands. But once a brand has achieved a certain threshold – an omnipresent level of distribution, consumer awareness and acceptance – it is very difficult to kill it off, even through misguided advertising. Once a brand has been successfully established, the most important influence on its sales is “brand momentum”, a quality which is scarcely recognised and never measured. Successful brands can be dislodged only by a significant change in the price/value relationship. For example, when consumers perceive that a cheaper own-label brand is “just as good”. Or, when a marketing event alters the intrinsic consumer perception of the brand – typically the launch of a new product.

In 1950’s Britain, when marketing was something housewives did on Saturday mornings with a net bag, manufacturers simply responded to imperatives arising from the demands of their production and sales departments. At that time Dunlop enjoyed total dominance of the African market for bicycle tyres. Nevertheless the company continued to innovate, and launched a superior new product, incidentally taking the opportunity to modernise the logo which appeared on the side of the tyres. The new tyres were distributed throughout the market stalls of Africa, and after a few weeks, salesmen were sent out to check on progress. While the stalls had been stripped bare of the old tyres, they were stuffed with the unsold new model. The African women who ran the stalls were distraught. “We can’t sell these new tyres,” was the refrain, “give us back the Jesus tyres.” They meant the bearded image of the founder of Dunlop, which had been removed from the logo to modernise the image. The creative communication which had driven Dunlop’s African sales for decades was entirely accidental.

Advertising agencies live and die by creative communication; that’s how clients justify advertising and their choice of agencies. All advertising people agree on that, but what is creativity? Here there is no consensus, though many advertising people appear to believe it is simply something funny, unexpected, or outrageous – a man slipping on a banana-skin, or the display of a sampling of genitalia of differing maturity, as in a Benetton advertisement which was honoured at the 1993 Venice Biennale. Mathematical models of advertising effectiveness usually make no allowance for what most of us might think is fundamental: the content of the message. That is because it has proved impossible to measure its effect.

Yet, is there any reason to believe that effective techniques of mass communication are different in kind from successful individual persuasion? How does a smooth salesman sell you a suit? How does a conman convince a punter to part with his life savings? How does a bloke chat up a Judy? A pro a John? How does a Samaritan talk a depressive out of committing suicide? Instinctively, most of us can identify the tactics which are likely to succeed or fail in these circumstances.

Why should those tactics vary when you are talking to mass audiences? US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used person-to-person appeals effectively in his “fireside chats” when the new medium of radio allowed him to talk to each member of the electorate in his own living room, John Major spoke to the individual in his “soapbox” address during his successful re-election campaign, and direct response advertisers use personal appeals to get you and me to pull out our credit cards. Why do so many mass marketers instinctively reach for a long-handled brush and a pot of poster paint instead of a fountain pen? Probably because to naive advertisers the phrase “mass communications” conjures up a mental image of a grey, undifferentiated mass of people standing in a stadium, to be addressed in the style of the 1995 press advertisement for the Datewise Worldwise lonely hearts agency which offered to help “you, the public, find true happiness”.

Where large numbers are gathered together in the same place at the same time – a rally, a convention, a music-hall – immediate, visible social pressures intrude; an unruly mob is the extreme example. In such circumstances the individual can only be reached through his role as a member of the group, and a different psychology applies. But where the communication is by television, radio, print, or poster, the difference between individual and mass persuasion lies in the technical use of the medium and not the style of the message. Although appearing in media which reach millions, effective mass persuasion is not directed to masses, but to individuals. (A cinema advertisement is perhaps an exception, and paradoxically this medium reaches relatively few people in aggregate.)

Aristotle maintained that argument succeeds through emotion, reputation, and – a strange word this in the modern context – truth. He has not been proved wrong, yet in the absence of conclusive evidence other theories abound. Many advertising practitioners aim no higher than capturing attention, using hyperbole, shock, sex-tease, and humour, without any evidence that this kind of “creativity” influences brand decisions, or, indeed, a convincing rationale about how it might be expected to do so.

Certainly creativity is closely linked to humour. And it is usually described as a new way of looking at things – an unexpected juxtaposition. Arthur Koestler, who wrote about the psychological roots of creativity, contends that scientific exploration, humour, and art have a common source, which he attributes to a departure from orderly thinking: the sudden intersection of two wholly separate planes of reference, producing a new line of thought. In science the combination leads to discovery:

 

The motions of the tides were known to man from time immemorial. So were the motions of the moon. But the idea to relate the two, the idea that the tides were due to the attraction of the moon, occurred, as far as we know, for the first time to a German astronomer in the seventeenth century; and when Galileo read about it, he laughed it off as an occult fancy.

 

In a joke, Koestler observes, the collision of frames of perception leads to a new appreciation:

 

A Marquis at the court of Louis XV had unexpectedly returned from a journey and, on entering his wife’s boudoir, found her in the arms of a bishop. After a moment’s hesitation, the Marquis walked calmly to the window, leaned out and began going through the motions of blessing the people in the street.

“What are you doing?” cried the anguished wife.

“Monseigneur is performing my functions”, replied the nobleman,
“so I am performing his”.

 

Koestler takes the risk of explaining his joke:

 

It is the interaction between two mutually exclusive associative contexts (the logic of quid pro quo and the canon of sexual morality) which produces the comic effect. It compels us to perceive the situation at the same time in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.1

 

“Comic discovery”, Koestler concludes, “is a paradox stated; scientific discovery is paradox resolved”. His theory, which he termed “biassociation”, explains why an invention often seems to occur out of the blue, when the mind is engaged on something else entirely. Why Nikola Tesla, strolling through a park in Budapest reciting some lines from Goethe, suddenly stopped and began to draw the concept of alternating current in the dust with a stick. How Edwin Land conceived the Polaroid process because when he was photographing his young daughter, she asked why she couldn’t see her picture right away.

Owing to its ability suddenly to permit us to see things from a new angle, creativity plays a key role in mass communications. Persuasion works by reinforcing existing views or by attempting to change them. The latter demands a shift of attitude – a new way of seeing things. Its enemies are habit and convention. Where attitudes are entrenched, the challenge is enormous. As Koestler conjectures:

 

To unlearn is more difficult than to learn; and it seems that the task of breaking up rigid cognitive structures and reassembling them into a new synthesis cannot, as a rule, be performed in the full daylight of the conscious, rational mind. It can only be done by reverting to those more fluid, less committed and specialized forms of thinking which normally operate in the twilight zones of awareness.2

 

He is describing how the creative individual thinks, but if Koestler’s suggestive sub-rational underworld exists, it must be receptive to external influences as well as internal impulses. Effective persuasion is subversive. Its strongest influences are through the irrational state. Even its appeals to reason are creative: the arguments of analogy, metaphor, and hyperbole.

A sudden topsy-turvy insight can make us laugh. Particularly if it’s subversive – the man slipping on the banana-skin is more likely to raise a laugh if he’s promenading with a swagger stick, wearing a top hat, and has a snooty lady on his arm. But how can the power of creativity be harnessed to sell goods and ideas? How can it be managed?

The advertising business is schizoid about creativity. On the one hand its trade magazine, Campaign, has no difficulty in periodically ranking the leading advertising agencies on this quality. It simply tots up all the prizes awarded in a selection of the many award competitions, including its own, which are held each year by self-promoting industry groups, and concocts a rating using a weighting system of its own devising. Campaign’s league tables of “the most creative agencies” are esteemed by those which feature in them. In its compilation covering 1994, however, the magazine puzzled as to why a “notable feature of the top creative accounts list is the absence from the top of the table of some of the IPA Effectiveness Award winners”. The possibility that the two criteria – effective result and its own definition of “creativity”– might not be linked did not occur to the magazine. Instead, it came up with this hypothesis: “There seems to be a lag between the appearance of a campaign and its recognition in terms of creativity, it may be that the effectiveness winners will perform well in 1995”.

Businesses which hire advertising agencies are not buying the benefit of hindsight. What they are paying for is what they expect from their other consultants and advisers: the ability to influence the future. Advertising is not a profession, but agencies nourish the cult of creativity for the same reason that doctors wear white coats, lawyers speak Latin, dons dine at High Table, and oracles lived in caves. If the worth of your opinion cannot be proved, authority can be conferred by erecting barriers which deflect dissent.

Unlike the professions, the advertising industry draws an uncompromising distinction between its high priests, the “creatives” – mostly youngish graduates of art schools – and the “suits”, which is everyone else. The demarcation line is stronger than in the most bolshy trade union. Like necromancers, witch doctors and pop stars, “creatives” conceal their mystique and signify their special status through exotic dress, cabalistic communication, and eccentric behaviour. “Suits”, and this of course includes all clients, have an image as responsible businessmen, which requires that they appear normal, at least in meetings; they are not encouraged to have advertising ideas. To avoid any possibility of mistaken identity the creatives avoid wearing suits. (When a JWT London team flew to Frankfurt to make a new business pitch, the creative director packed a suit for a social engagement, while the account executive ravaged his only suit during a night on the tiles. The next morning, as one was a head shorter than the other, they couldn’t swap clothing, so the only solution was to switch roles for the presentation.)

If science is a creative process – and even accounting is sometimes called creative, while lying certainly is – clearly creativity is not something taught only in art schools. Is it really, as the advertising industry implies, an intuitive quality absent in most people, and possessed only by a few anointed? Obviously not. Creative responses are required in all types of business at all levels. Creativity is not a wand waved over a puzzle by a wizard. It is an integral way of thinking and begins with a creative analysis of the problem. It extends to marketing activities and the selection and use of media. Original thinking is vital to every aspect of persuasive communication and, according to Koestler’s theory, may be expected from anyone who is capable of entertaining two thoughts at the same time. It’s like acting: most people have some ability, but the difference between the amateur and the truly gifted is the range of parts they can play. The problem is not lack of creative instincts, but how to keep them from running amok.

The modern advertising agency was more or less invented by the firm of Carlton & Smith, founded in 1864. This firm sold space in religious publications to advertisers who told them what to put in it. Four years later they hired a 20-year-old who came up with the idea of helping the advertiser dream up ways of filling those spaces. He bought out the firm in 1878 and renamed it after himself, James Walter Thompson. For the next half-century or so, the prototypical advertising “ideas” man was an all-rounder: he dealt with the client, together they worked out the gist of the copy, the adman may even have sketched out a layout, and he placed the media. He did his research by going to the library, talking to people, or scratching his head. He used both the left and the right sides of his brain.

But as the business grew more complex, advertising followed Henry Ford’s trend towards the division of labour and separated creative departments from other functions. Today, like many businesses, advertising agencies encourage a multidisciplinary approach. In a continuing debate, account executives or “handlers” represent the views of the client, a new discipline of “account planning” has been invented to interpret the needs of the target group, and the “creatives” provide the vital ignition that turns plan into idea.

Today the team concept is exalted in industry, as it is in societies both totalitarian and democratic. Elitism is politically incorrect. In advertising, the rational argument is that cross-disciplinary thinking rarely flourishes within a single individual, unless you have people like Leonardo da Vinci, Francis Bacon, Arthur Koestler, or Jonathan Miller on the payroll. Nevertheless many individuals have at least partial competence in more than one discipline – indeed, whole professions are based on the bridging ability of the generalist – journalists, architects, GPs, and barristers. None of these produce their best work in rigidly structured environments. And true creative inspiration – when it is acknowledged in the artist, the scientist, the philosopher, or the entrepreneur – often seems to be the product not of a team player but of a single determined ego.

Like everyone else, advertising agency staff genuflect to the ideal of teamwork, and people from different disciplines work together to get things done. But the crucial spur of creativity is less likely to spring from communal effort than from megalomania. Clients rarely choose advertising agencies for their management skills, while media expertise is often hived off as a separate activity. In the end, success or failure in advertising depends on creative genius. And by the rules of the game which agencies have devised, this is a personal gift, difficult to define and impossible to measure. Inevitably, this has produced a star system. In determining what the client is offered, the creative sanction is absolute. That capacity has been conferred on the “creatives” by their peers – those who bestow creative awards. The role of the “suits” is to try to ensure the game is played more or less on the right pitch, while the “creatives” keep moving the goal posts.

Though many others have an input, the inspiration for an advertisement arises from a single mind or, more usually, a closely bonded team of two in which one, the art director, is nominally responsible for the visual impression and the other, the copywriter, for the text (if any). Generally “creatives” are in their 20s or early 30s, with little experience of business outside an advertising agency. Ultimately, they are the motor which powers the advertising industry. The entire edifice of marketing, the ultimate responsibility of devising a communication which will influence consumer behaviour, devolves on them.

What are their influences? In that instant of creative insight, Koestler’s intersection of unlikely planes of thought, what frames of reference do they apply? The latest experiments in communications theory? The maxims of applied psychology? The instincts of a salesman? The collected thoughts of David Ogilvy? Some “creatives” may have acquaintance of these. But the primary influences are patently three: cinema films, television entertainment programmes, and other advertisements, probably in that order.

Could a “knowledge engineer” extract advertising skill and replicate it in a computer-based robotic system, as is now being attempted in professions such as quantity surveying? No, because while creative tactics and techniques do exist, there are no measurements of their effectiveness. If a quantity surveyor gets it wrong, his building will fall down. If a “creative” is wrong, no one can prove it. What computerisation has done, however, by expanding the possibilities of visual expression, for example, is to make more impressive the process by which he makes his mistakes.

Because of the orientation of its practitioners, advertising creativity is less like scientific discovery than fashion design. It does not aim to solve problems through original thought, but by the rearrangement of familiar materials. “Originality” means inventing a new way of playing the game; “creativity”, as the term is used in advertising, means reshuffling the cards of the pack.

In this it is no different from other businesses which believe that “creativity” is what they have to sell. In the film industry, television, popular music, and publishing, the demand is for facsimiles of recently successful ideas. These industries too, have little idea of what affects consumer behaviour, and so rude originality in the Koestlerian sense is as welcome as a bloodied martyr at a conclave of bishops. For businesses with deep pockets, it’s a conservative commercial strategy, like betting on the favourite in every horse race. But they miss out on the long shots which pluck the rich prizes and change all the rules. Which is why you don’t expect big companies to come up with big ideas.

 

The true role of creativity in advertising is to make that intuitive leap which defines the relationship between the brand and its user. The winning ideas may seem to come out of the blue, but they don’t come at random: all successful advertisements are based on a shrewd, if often instinctive, understanding of what makes people tick. To the individual it’s aimed at, the best advertising doesn’t seem like advertising: it’s a direct personal communication that strikes the heart of the matter, like the famous 1914 war recruitment advertisement featuring Lord Kitchener pointing directly at the passer-by and demanding “Your country needs you”. (In the US, Uncle Sam was even more direct: “I want you”.) You don’t need a degree in marketing psychology to evaluate the arguments in the rest of this section about how persuasion works; the lessons of your own personal experience as a child, parent, employee, or lover will do nicely. Because that is what consumers are.

1 Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation, Hutchinson Danube Edition, 1964.

2 ibid.