Steve Henry, the advertising legend behind “You’ve been Tango’d” and other iconic ads, on why advertising should stop advertising
I was in Lisbon last week, giving some creative workshops at the European Advertising summer school.
I met a lovely bunch of kids there, as bright and eager as a Labrador puppy with a toilet roll.
My only problem was that they wanted to create advertising.
As Hugh MacLeod once put it, if people talked to other people the way ads talk to people – they’d get punched in the face.
When will advertising stop advertising? It’s a ridiculous way to communicate.
Watch an ad break – no really, I mean it. Sit down in front of the telly and watch a break full of commercial messages. See if you can survive the entire break without wanting to throw something at the screen. The ads are full of people talking crap at you.
It’s like being in the room with somebody who is taking too many drugs and who keeps asking if they can borrow your wallet.
It’s like being addressed by an over-optimistic Tigger, after he’s been injected in the bum with an anti-truth drug that makes him talk gibberish.
The brief for the week-long workshop was Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the World Cup in Brazil. But the briefs I gave the kids to warm them up were for Zacapa rum (Coca-Cola being a good drink to mix with rum) and Weight Watchers (Coca Cola not being unconnected to the obesity epidemic).
Probably the most interesting thought for Zacapa came from one young woman who announced that “the history of rum is tied up with the history of semen”.
I think she meant sailors.
But with the iconic Pogues album “Rum, Sodomy and the Lash” playing in my head, I’m actually not so sure.
One great idea for the rum was a set of Google-Glass-type glasses which, having rated your own attractiveness at a mean of five, told you how many people in the bar were six or seven. Then – using face recognition technology and social media – they told you about those people and what they liked.
If it’s not possible to make those glasses yet, it soon will be.
Ironically, they could actually encourage long term relationships – since the factor which most damages a potential relationship is waking up and realising that you’ve spent the night with someone from two divisions below you.
Another idea I liked was to celebrate NOT getting drunk – to say that this is a rum for sipping. You could celebrate that state of just having a couple of shots, but never going further.
In a world of massive over-consumption, you could make moderation cool.
Which it is.
The line they presented – “this is the rum that’s not for scum” was wrong. But funny.
Another line that struck me as funny but not quite right was on a board in the city’s main square. It read “The sexiest toilet on earth”. And it led to what was in effect quite a pleasant toilet where an attractive woman told me about the toilet paper there. It’s called Renova – and it claims to be the sexiest toilet paper in the world.
As she said to me “the sexiness is less about the bottom and more about the paper”.
I would have liked to argue the point with her, but actually I was desperate for the toilet.
The line is very entertaining – but in danger of just being glib advertising.
If Renova had spent their money providing better toilet facilities in the developing world – thus saving millions of lives – or if they’d powered a light show in the square from the stuff going down the toilet – I’d consider those as far more interesting marketing ideas.
Another advertising line that failed to convince me was the line for Lisbon itself.
On a poster in the square were these words – “Who never saw Lisbon, never saw something good.”
Maybe this line heralds a new, and rather attractive, modesty in tourist advertising.
“London – not bad, I suppose, for what it is.”
“New York – all right if you don’t have anything else to do.”
“Tokyo – a bit ho-hum.”
Anyway, back to the workshops.
The best thing for Weight Watchers was probably a campaign that used guerrilla marketing to surprise and hassle people with the line “We’re watching you”.
Like Kato in the Clouseau films.
Women will tell you in research groups that they want non-challenging support from smiling fellow dieters – which is why every website in the sector has that identical visual identity.
But you’ll never create anything interesting by listening to conventional research.
Nobody would have told a research group that they liked S&M sex – and yet “50 Shades of Grey” is the biggest selling work of fiction of all time.
Unless you classify the Bible as fiction.
Which brings us neatly back to Coca-Cola. Because, when Nietzsche said that God was dead, that created a job vacancy.
Coca-Cola recently produced some very interesting vending machines – called “small world machines” – which created interaction between people in India and Pakistan.
Two perpetually warring countries.
I love this idea. Why shouldn’t a fizzy drink try to heal the political rifts between countries?
Brazil has real problems – and the protesters in that country are using the World Cup to bring those problems to light.
Why can’t Coke address those issues?
Rather than throwing buckets of money at, say, a TV ad with a bunch of footballers?
Which is what every photocopier, pair of shoes, pair of socks, and hemorrhoid cream will do.
At some point a brand is going to take over the historical role of the trade union and help stand up for the oppressed and exploited.
Until then, I’m afraid you’ll just have to put up with a whole load of crap.
You need to read:
AdMan: Has advertising stopped being sexy?
Ad Man: What would you do if Lance Armstrong was your brand spokesperson?
Richard Branson reveals “world’s best complaint letter” about Virgin Atlantic
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