The Tyranny of Creative Correctness in Advertising

Let’s define a new term: Creative Correctness. In other words, the tyrannical pressure from a specific view of artistic perfection that turns advertising from a powerful advantage into failure.

Creative correctness is a disease. And it’s one the ad business needs to fight. Because forcing advertising to live up to any one group’s specific flavor of art takes advertising away from truly human communication.

To be clear, being concerned about creative correctness in no way lets up on the drive for advertising excellence – it enhances it. Creative correctness is dysfunctional – focused on a specific and one-dimensional vision of artistic purity rather than a rich understanding of moving humans to action through communication.

Interestingly, this means advertising’s new radicals – those seen as “out of step” with best practices – are those who defy the call of creative correctness to create, instead, campaigns that are far more powerful by delivering meaning in ways consumers receive best.

This year’s Superbowl ads were littered with creative correctness. Where to start? Audi’s fantastic zombie movie makes the point that this $80,000 car has nice headlights. What a fantastic waste of money. But it is fully acceptable under the tenets of creative correctness.

Or Chevy’s “Happy Grad” ad with a bunch of meaningless celebration from which it was extraordinarily hard to get the message followed by a full negative close when the celebrant finds out he didn’t get that yellow blob in the back of the picture. (Was it a Chevy? Maybe a Camaro. Maybe a Corvette.)

And that’s just two that I can remember – the vast majority don’t even stick in my brain.

Another good example of creative correctness surrounds the Burger King ads. Check out this quote justifying these ineffective ads:

“The BK ads from CPB may not have moved the fast food middle child ahead in sales but the work was interesting and conversational.”

In other words, this elite individual is able to savor the work just like an art exhibit and then tells us that means it is good work. They claim it has clear impact because it is “conversational”. Too bad conversations aren’t profit.

Burger King had, in fact, only one reason to advertise: “move ahead in sales”. I’d agree that there’s tremendous grey area between moving ahead today and moving ahead over 5 years. But either way, profit is the only way to evaluate advertising.

Creative correctness thrives because too few people believe you can identify advertising’s business impact. The agencies who suffer most from creative correctness also quite often back their clients into corners where nothing significant is measured. And generally this is justified with the argument that nothing can be measured.

Worse, quite often they bully their clients into accepting their ads arguing, essentially, “if you don’t put this ad on air, you don’t have the guts to be a big time marketer – so don’t force us to fire you as a client or go to AdAge with our displeasure”.

But ad impact can be measured and estimated. It’s tough. And it always involves estimates and hunches. But it can be done.

Creative Correctness drives creation of “A” grade artistic values which cover up communication that gets a “D” – “F”. And that leaks out in interesting ways today.

Humor. Far too many ad professionals believe that the best ads are humorous. Interestingly, the most effective ads are generally not humorous. But there are studies showing that generic ad recall is high with humor. Yet, ads which say something meaningful are remembered WITH their product.

Edginess. Creatives are told to “push the edge”. And, we see the results in things like the Audi commercial noted above – edgy and extreme, but all the focus on edginess means complete loss of meaning for the consumer. In fact, the new edgy is to avoid edginess. Funny, huh, how edgy becomes the norm and, frankly, quite boring.

Beauty. I hate living rooms that are so beautiful you don’t feel comfortable sitting in them. Ad agencies need to remember that with consumer communication. A friend of mine observes that “neatness prevents engagement”. It’s very, very true.

Just like it’s political correctness counterpart, creative correctness started for good reasons (here, to raise the quality of advertising). But it has ended up killing exactly what it hoped to create.

One knee jerk approach fights back with “call this instant” aggressiveness that poisons any good long term value that could come from the ads. On the other hand, the airwaves, internet, and magazine pages are filled with highly creative drivel that achieves very little.

But there is a third way that fights creative correctness without losing long term impact. This approach starts with the messages & meaning that drives business results rather than the drive to make movie theater creativity. Interestingly, I’ve found that one of the things creative correctness has killed is product. The vast majority of advertising focuses on nebulous brand values that are usually devoid of connection to the product.

Worse, when product shows up it’s with earth shaking ideas like “an Audi has headlights” or “a VW can be started remotely” mentioned 10 years later than the rest of the world. In other words, features without significance. But because of the best creative wrappings, this pathetic work becomes the examples the creative elite worships.

This is very unfortunate – brands ONLY build through products (or services) and product experience. After all, it’s product that consumers experience – not brand.

So, go forth and advertise. But do so with a true independence – willing to shake off the shackles of creative correctness in order to deliver more long and short-term business impact for your clients.

Copyright 2012 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved.

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

10 Responses to The Tyranny of Creative Correctness in Advertising

  1. Steve White says:

    But, we pay them big money to do what they are supposed to know best: package our message and our vision so that we matter, so that we rise above the clutter. (And there’s lots o’ clutter.) And when we push back, they remind us they are the experts. Too often, we abdicate our responsibilities and let the experts rule.

    As CEO of a contact center for hire since 1983, I cannot count the number of times I’ve reminded our clients, “Pretty don’t count. Calls count.”

    Once again, good stuff Doug.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Agreed, Steve. What I’ve tried to do in my agency is develop a humility that while we are experts in getting messages across in TV and have solid expertise in tools and tech, our clients are the experts in their products and their consumers. They only succeed when we listen to what they bring and developing creative that reflects our expertise and their expertise. I’ve listened to far too many agency discussions that are dismissive of clients and their skill sets. Sad.


  2. NJ Lester says:

    Doug, very good analysis. Here’s a question: why is reality TV so much more popular than big budget, big star, high production fare? Because over the years, slick has come to mean phoney… slick ads are telling lies… slick shows seem out of touch. Same with advertising — at this date I would argue that ‘raw’ (not edgy) and slightly amateurish carries more veracity than slick… just as reality TV is ‘more real’ than sitcoms and police dramas. You’ve got two choices these days: raw and real or wonderfully creative and produced (as Avatar was to films). Anything in the middle, too slick to be real, not clever enough to break new ground, is lost. The Superbowl ads this year were unanimously me-too — using ideas that broke new ground in 2005. The Eastwood ad was the only thing that had a chance to change consumer perceptions — the rest were self-congratulatory, vanity publishing agency pieces — no wonder agencies are struggling.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Good points about reality TV. I will add the economic factor. It’s more expensive to create a produced drama and higher risk – a smaller pcentage succeed. So in addition to their solid viewer value, reality TV offers networks a tremendous financial advantage.

      But it’s useful to look at the shows that do succeed – they tend to have clever stories, good writing, etc… And their production value is important, but doesn’t get in the way.

      And that’s one of the keys: no single creative element can ever be allowed to overshadow the meaning and message of an advertisement.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

  3. Doug:

    This is an excellent article and I agree with you on how hyped ‘good creative’ is. Major ad agencies know this at their core but are likely to avoid the DR conversation because it means a loss of huge budgets and revenue, thus DR is painted a cheap and anti-brand. I have directed and creative directed hundreds of spots, both DR and branded, and I always think a spot should have high production value and creative whim but at the end of the day, I always remind myself that I am there to move units for the client and there is no shame in admitting that. As I was once told on a set by a very good friend (and my client at the time), about how major ad agencies kept telling him that he ‘needed stronger brand and brand equity’. He looked at me deadpan and said ‘I need response, they will ‘brand’ the company to its death’. He was absolutely correct.

    What is exciting is to see major brands slicing off their brand budgets in favor of DR/Hybrid spots. No Fortune 500 is going to want a Telebrands type spot but its hard for a brand agency to argue with a CMO or CEO about what a campaign was worth when DR gives you CPA, RPO, lower lead gen, etc. and branded spots give you nebulous awards and million ad spends that have little accountability. And in a troubled economy, all the better for us in DR that have proper DR experience and major ad agency experience. I am happy to speak both languages. In the end, the branded ad agency of today will be forced to embrace DR and I look forward to continuing to be a part of it. Grandma is still right…pitch with ‘two ears and one mouth’.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Thanks for the thoughts, Michael. While I focused on traditional advertising’s version of the disease, I think our DR world has it’s own.

      In DRTV there’s that segment of the industry that demands everything have the same hypey feeling to it. As a bag carrying salesman, I find that the boardwalk hypey-ness hurts success more than it helps. Yet the same creative correctness instinct prevents some of our industry from seeing that.

      So my fundamental sense is that in every area of advertising the product/brand/situation needs to be treated by listening to it. And sensing what’s critical, then finding the right answer based on a range of options. It can lead to really interesting & fresh work that breaks through to the consumer far better.

      • I agree with that assessment of DR. There are many in DR that want to sell the same box of back end and support services in an effort to keep it easy. I think that is more a byproduct of old dogs not knowing new tricks, or worse, old dogs just not knowing more beyond a traditional DR campaign. And if a campaign doesn’t work, its the brand and not the marketing strategy that is at fault (same argument made by creative directors at agencies, no?). Your company does a great job of treating each campaign special, leveraging the best of the brand and offer. I think you have a proper perspective for your clients and I would love to work with you sometime.

      • Doug Garnett says:

        Thanks for the good words, Michael. We will have to watch for an opportunity to cross paths. Will you be at the Response Expo in May?

  4. Pingback: Advertising Awards: Protecting the Creative Status Quo | Doug Garnett's Blog

  5. Pingback: Advertising Awards: Protecting the Creative Status Quo | Doug Garnett's Blog

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