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May 4, 2017
Should Ad Campaigns Be Open to Interpretation?
Why some ads garner endless debate while others don’t
I’m fairly certain that over the next few months, a nice big trophy case will be constructed to hold all the awards that the “Fearless Girl” statue will win. That’s the conventional wisdom in the industry right now.
What’s more interesting to me is not the idea itself — the statue essentially serves as an ad for State Street Global Advisors’ Gender Equity Index Fund (ticker symbol: SHE), but that people interpreted its meaning in so many different ways. There’s been a raging debate about its intent, its symbolism, even its physical placement diametrically across from a statue of a charging bull. Some people love it, some people hate it, some people don’t know what to make of it. I’d argue the debate has overshadowed the original purpose of the piece.
Such ads are a rarity in the business. But ambiguity seems to be something more and more ads are striving for.
So should we be creating advertising that’s open to interpretation? Is it better to leave consumers guessing rather than be clear in our message or takeaway?
Sometimes the opaqueness of an idea works, sometimes it doesn’t. Take 84 Lumber’s Super Bowl ad this year featuring a Hispanic woman and child fleeing their home. It was widely interpreted as a statement of opposition to a U.S.-Mexico border wall. That is, until after the spot aired during the game, when the company’s CEO clarified that the company supported a border wall and the current administration’s notion of a path to legal immigration. Thus, the intent of the ad was more a celebration of the immigrant spirit rather than the defiance of policies. Yet when the spot first went online (and viral) in the days leading up to the Super Bowl, that lack of explanation only stoked the controversy. It garnered both positive and negative attention for the brand and its ad because of its muddled message.
You won’t find many creative briefs where the objective is merely “get everyone talking and debating.” That may be the implied hope, but it’s not the directive. There are more defined metrics (or KPIs for you acronym lovers) that measure an ad campaign’s effectiveness or relative success.
But advertising is, at its core, a commercial art like music, movies, architecture, or literature. And all art is subject to some level of interpretation. Why does the Mona Lisa have that shit-eating grin on her face? Her appearance is an enigma people have debated for 500 years. Most advertising isn’t Louvre-worthy but sometimes, ads prove to be worthy of debate.
Plus, ad creatives have been told for decades that “consumers like to complete the circle. Don’t do it for them.” In other words, ads are more effective when there’s a little bit left to the imagination, or some dots left to connect that can put a consumer’s mind to work. It’s true to a large extent. People feel smarter or savvier when they work a little with a message and then “get it.”
But there’s a difference in getting consumers to fill in what’s missing and a message that’s intentionally vague. It’s part of the shift away from advertising that focuses on features and benefits to selling emotional appeals. Nowadays, it’s common to prefer that consumers feel something — anything — than to convey a substantial, and direct, message.
You can see this interpretive distinction clearly in some campaigns that had long-running taglines at their core. “Don’t leave home without it” was pretty unambiguous — get a damned AMEX card already. And it spawned some very clever, if direct, campaigns. However, “Just Do It” can mean anything — the “it” is different for all of us. The open-ended vagueness has allowed that tagline, and campaigns created around it, to evolve. As a result, it’s a tagline whose meaning has been inventively reinterpreted and refreshed for nearly 30 years.
But few marketers think in the long term anymore. It’s better, or trendier, to drop one ad or a small campaign into the world and try to stir up whatever buzz they can in a week or so before it’ll inevitably be forgotten. And in an era where creative work is often forgotten shortly after it’s launched, there’s an argument to be made for that quick fix.
So if a soft sell approach is often considered an oversell, we’ll see more ads that strive to confuse rather than clarify. It makes for more fodder on blog posts and Facebook debates. Attention — whether good or bad — has become a higher priority than sales or improved brand perception.
At least that’s my interpretation of what’s happening in advertising. Yours, of course, could be completely different. Maybe that’s OK, huh?

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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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