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August 5, 2010
More Advertising Needs to Smell Like Fun
 
Serious times like these call for serious advertising. Or do they?
 
I’m writing this a few weeks after the big Old Spice YouTube real-time response campaign. Clearly, the scent of the campaign will linger in the minds of advertising and marketing folks for a while.
 
Sure it was engaging, it was real-time, it was amazingly well-done, but it was also fun. Simple, pure fun.
 
It was funny without being corny, sexy without being offensive. No person, no group, or no stereotype was the butt of the joke as we see in so many ads.
 
If Proctor & Gamble -- notorious for analyzing each product down to the exact units sold in the West Sioux Falls Wal-Mart -- can have some fun, any client can. Right?
 
In advertising, why is it so hard to do work that’s fun? Why do so few ads set that kind of tone in a memorable way?
 
I’m not talking about so-called ‘edgy’ ads that make some people laugh but are off-putting to many. Those are everywhere. A lot of advertising humor, in its attempt to be really over the top, takes itself too seriously and pisses people off, and that’s not fun. Nor am I talking about games or other marketing tactics that people willingly participate in. That’s seeking entertainment, and fun, by choice. An overwhelming amount of advertising is still interruptive, annoying, and boring.
 
It’s true, the heritage of advertising isn’t one of fun -- it was serious hucksterism. The great David Ogilvy was quoting adman Claude Hopkins when he said, “People don’t buy from clowns.” (They probably weren’t friends with Ronald McDonald.) You can see an example back in one of the first episodes of "Mad Men": Don Draper is on the train, looking over at someone who’s laughing while reading a Volkswagen “Lemon” ad from DDB, and Don can’t figure it out. The work presented by Draper on the show, by contrast, seems so sadly serious. Most of it was then -- as much of it still is today.
 
These days, it’s hard to sell clients on fun ideas. They want results, and they want them now. And times are tough. The economy is still sputtering, we still have troops involved in foreign wars, oil is still lurking in the Gulf, and the stock market is on a roller-coaster ride. Not many marketers are willing to risk their jobs, or their brands, for the sake of a little levity.
 
Plus, most clients don’t have much fun in their jobs, even if they work in marketing. I’ve been in countless client meetings where you can see the look of relief or jealousy in their eyes because they get to think about creativity for an hour, and it’s more fun than they have the rest of the day. A creative presentation might seem like a welcome break from sales spreadsheets or the Q4 planning PowerPoint deck. But it isn’t. Too many creative presentations only remind clients they have objectives to meet, and goofy, wacky, and fun creative ideas won’t move that sales needle.
 
It’s the little things in today’s marketing tactics, too, that leave the fun behind. Like Web copywriting that’s intentionally matter-of-fact because it needs the right keywords for SEO optimization, or make the offer within five words lest consumers click away to something else. Banner ads and other messages splashed across the Web that display a sense of urgency above all else. The ubiquitous use of stock photos that feel hackneyed, like the typical businessman/woman looking over a laptop, or huddled with colleagues reviewing reports. There's simply more advertising out there, and more of it is fixated on instant clicks or making the message quick and to the point.
 
In advertising, being fun is hard work. In a world of straightforward versus fun, the fun headline, idea, visual, or ad will lose nearly every time. It’s so much easier to create matter-of-fact ads or work that conveys a sense of urgency, like, “We’re stacking ‘em deep and selling ‘em cheap!” Clients like them; they’re comfortable like an old pair of shoes. Indeed, when times are tough and sales need to be squeezed out of every last customer -- ads turn “hard-hitting.” Trust me, no one has fun when they’re on the receiving end of anything hard-hitting.
 
What’s unfortunate, though, is that hard-hitting ads can work quite well. If they didn’t, you wouldn’t see much of them That’s the rub: You can’t quantify the success of fun. For every study that suggests humor in advertising works, others suggest it doesn’t generate sufficient results.
 
But life is too short to create boring advertising, so one of the keys to getting more fun into your work is to set expectations early on in an agency/client relationship. Too many ad agencies gladly bend their work to fit the client’s comfort zone, whether it’s funny, serious, or hard-hitting.
 
If you’re planning on doing fun work, both agency and client need to agree on the definition of fun, the lines not to be crossed, and the tactical, visual, and verbal elements that contribute to the overall fun tone that's being aimed for. Otherwise, you’re headed for a sea of stony faces in a client presentation. You don’t want stony faces from your clients, and you don’t want them from consumers when they see your work.
 
I hope more agencies and clients take a cue from Old Spice and other fun work that’s out there. It’s a simple ethos: Leave ‘em with a smile. Make it a new version of a “monocle smile.”


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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.

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