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November 14, 2006
Be Borat or Be Boring

I once had a client who made exurban starter houses. Our audience was first-time homebuyers, people who’ve saved and budgeted and are ready to make an investment. When an ad I wrote referenced the term “401(k),” our client said, “A lot of our customers are truck drivers and schoolteachers. Schoolteachers don’t know what a 401(k) is.” Coming from a family of teachers who’ve built up some nice pensions, I most assuredly knew our client was mistaken about the savvy of her customers, whether they had a 401(k) or not.

I was reminded of this as I went to see “Borat,” as I’m sure many of you have. Among others, the film makes fun of Kazahks, Uzbeks, Gypsies, Jews, feminists, homosexuals, Pentacostals, and drunk frat boys from South Carolina. I’m quite aware that people don’t see the humor in that, which is fine. It’s not a movie for everybody.

But there are deeper controversies surrounding the movie. Before “Borat” even hit the theaters: The Anti-Defamation League released a statement which said: “We are concerned, however, that one serious pitfall is that the audience may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”

In other words, while people at the ADL think they’re smart enough to get the joke themselves, it’s the rest of the population that’s stupid--they’ll walk out of “Borat” thinking Khazakstani cheese is made from human breast milk and they’ll be eager to sponsor their own “Running of the Jews.” (For heaven’s sake, don’t ever take them to see “The Producers” or “Blazing Saddles.”)

It’s this same sense of “concern” expressed for “Borat” moviegoers that we’ve seen time and time in again in advertising: Clients who demand ads to be dumbed down so no harm is done if the ads are interpreted literally.

“Don’t complete the circle for them,” I often heard in ad school. “Consumers like to complete it for themselves.” Advertising, like music, movies, or any other creative endeavor, is often subject to interpretation. To me, the Mona Lisa is just a painting of a chick with a smirk. But other people have spent their lives figuring out what she’s thinking about. (Oh, and if you think I’m comparing the ad on your desk to the Mona Lisa…keep dreaming.)

This isn’t about being edgy or risky or taking big creative chances. It’s about giving people the satisfaction of drawing their own conclusions. It means that people will actually take the time to think about something if their curiosity is piqued. Tell them something in a straightforward manner and they’ll hear it, to be sure, but they won’t think about it ever again.

Many successful ad campaigns have an element of exaggeration, tension or dissonance—not to be taken literally. On the ‘80’s TV show “Night Court,” when Mac, the court clerk found out his Vietnamese-born wife Quon Lee was running up a huge credit card bill. He asks her how that happened, and she holds up an American Express card. “Don’t leave home without it!” she says. “I thought it was a law.” Now, imagine if that campaign had been killed by a moronic Marketing Manager who thought consumers would think there were legal consequences for leaving home without an AMEX card.

Frankly, any ad professional or client who makes decisions based upon some version of the notion that “people are stupid” or “our audience won’t understand that” are themselves the stupid and ignorant ones. The smug self-righteousness of the ad industry is only one of the reasons much of the work we turn out is so bad—we’re not nearly as sophisticated as we think we are. And consumers are often able to see an ad or an idea and understand that creativity means not taking it literally.

There’s always the safe route. The ad or idea that clients know they can sell to their bosses because it’s been done before and it’s non-threatening. So long as dollars and jobs are at stake, anything open to interpretation is a risk many clients won’t take, and many agencies won’t advocate.

And the safe route isn’t limited to advertising. You could tell that right from “Borat’s” opening weekend at the box office. It was #1. “Santa Clause 3” was a distant #2.

I’ll interpret that as a good sign.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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