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” to “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.


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