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HOW DID WE MAKE FUNNY ADS? The secrets behind successful use of humour https://grahamdaldry.com/2021/03/19/how-did-we-make-funny-ads/

MEASUREMENT – why data doesn’t behave the way we think https://grahamdaldry.com/2020/05/26/measurement/

DRIVING BACKWARDS – How the briefing process works backwards https://grahamdaldry.com/2020/05/26/drivingbackwards/

WAVEY ECONOMICS – Behavioural economics has a wobble https://grahamdaldry.com/2020/05/26/waveyeconomics/

GRAVY SONGS – These songs of freedom. Thoughts on racism in advertising https://grahamdaldry.com/2020/11/30/the-gravy-song/

How did we make funny ads?

There is only one way to sustain humour over any period of time. With brands, as with people, the consistently funny ones are those that can laugh at themselves. This is what we did. Opticians are serious people in a serious business. They help people see. They stop people going blind. They don’t save dogs from haircuts or stop old folk sitting down on fairground rides by mistake. Those things are ridiculous.

For that reason, people love them. It is true that Specsavers as a company was never made the butt of the joke, but we laughed about the benefits of optometry. We made light of what we did, and by making light of it we made it welcoming and accessible, as well as highly visible. We might not always have been ‘edgy’ but we were always irreverent, and this irreverence began as an attitude towards our own function and purpose as a brand.

The more irreverent we were, the more people liked it. However, there was one line we never crossed. The joke was always about the benefit of eyesight, and never about the person with poor sight. This might seem a strange distinction, but it is a critical one. We always cast our short sighted heroes as heroes. They were always noble and defiant and bold. And what they were defying, of course, was us. We were the people who could have saved them. We don’t need you, they said. Nobody needs you. We’re fallible. We’re weak. We’re human. Look on us, and be humbled. Venturing into this realm of fallibility enabled us to demonstrate that we were human too. This, of course, was a rich vein for humour, and proved to be an enduring way to persuade people that Specsavers was a warm, likeable and, yes, highly expert brand. Expert? Of course. Because we are sharing our sacred knowledge – you Should’ve gone to Specsavers – and putting it into everyone’s mouths. As the Chinese proverb says, tell me and I forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand. This is the power of humour, not just to show and tell but to involve and make shareable.

Was this just a one off, a felicitous way in which Should’ve happened to work? I think not. My theory is that humour is Darwinian. Laughter is an expression of joy mixed with relief. It happens in that wonderful moment when you understand that SOMEONE ELSE has made that mistake and fallen down the well or been eaten by the tiger or planted an aspidistra in the toilet. You didn’t see it coming of course but you still survived. And that is the most important thing of all. Survival is a by-product. It’s the not seeing it coming that we love. And, like children, we are quite happy to relive that blindness to consequences over and over again, because it’s not the outcome that matters but the experience of going through it. Its the blindness itself that we enjoy. Maybe that’s why Specsavers’ ‘Collie’ ad was made in 2008, and ran for an incredible eleven years.

Now, all this stuff about not seeing things coming might seem to relate very closely to opticians, but clearly opticians are not the only kind of brand that can be funny (although looking at most current ads you do begin to wonder if that isn’t true). But no, any unexpected or ridiculous outcome can be funny. You don’t see it coming, but that’s a figure of speech. Its the twist that does it, and this is the other critical thing if you want to be funny. Your story has to have a twist that is plausible while defeating common sense. This juxtaposition is critical, and doing it well is the key to success in hiding the unexpected outcome and creating laughter. Too often these days, you see brands shying away from this and settling for warm and emotional instead. VW’s Darth Vader ad is an example. It was more cute and clever than outright funny because the twist does not have that bit of magic about it. It’s just a trick played by a quick witted adult. I always wanted the kid to zap the cat or something at the end, just to show that smug Dad of his and really wake us up. When we made a joke about a remote control in a Specsavers ad (several years earlier) we gave it to the kid, and he accidentally smashed his Dad’s car up with it. It might just be me, but I find that a lot funnier. It’s also ever so slightly anti-cute.

I think it’s that little bit of rebellion against reality that people really find liberating. You can see it again in our Zumba ad. I always remember getting a government leaflet about keeping warm in winter through my door just after we’d made that ad. The old folk in the ad were exactly the people pictured in the leaflet. But instead of sitting in front of unlit fires with rugs on their knees they were dancing around doing Zumba. When we ran that ad some of the team were terrified about upsetting old folk, but they loved it and they loved us for it. We turned their usual lives upside down and showed them that they could get up and dance. In this way, entertainment liberates people and sets them free.

Brands have no right to laugh at anyone but themselves, but when, like Specsavers, they allow themselves to find a joke in what they do, they sometimes find people reward them by attributing ownership of their entire marketplace. After all, if you can afford to laugh about it, you must own it. And really, this is all about ownership. If you use humour well it allows you to make the most of what you have got and become the undisputed champion for it. It allows you to make the things you have a right to talk about (because they belong to you) memorable, likeable and of course that then sells them, in the nicest imaginable way. And it works. It really works. It is absurd to think, well that only applies to an optician. It’s probably truer to say that if it can work for an optician, it can work for anyone.

Writing ratings

Writing does not get a lot of attention. In some work, writing seems to have been barely thought about. But words, whether spoken or written, are the parts of communication we remember longest. I thought it would be a useful bit of fun, therefore, to give a words-eye view of recents ads.

The ads considered below were viewed on David Reviews since 27th November. If you don’t agree, please comment here or on my LinkedIn page.

Gravy Songs

As we head unsteadily towards the ending of the pandemic and the coming of Brexit, bringing back both social freedom and the reality of our long-term economic difficulties, it has never been more important to talk about racism.

As advertisers, this most sensitive and urgent of subjects brings with it some new responsibilities. There is the old issue of the place of ethics in advertising, and what we do about it as creatives, writers and strategists. And there’s also the other side of the coin. What happens when a brand sees an opportunity in an ethical issue to self-promote?

Let’s be clear. Advertising exists to sell. If creatives and agencies have a conscience, they may avoid the more dubious brands, although thankfully the poisonous task of making alcohol and cigarettes look cool has mostly been taken away. (Betting is still a problem.) But what should we do about this new and equally invidious issue, when a brand decides it wants to exploit a cause? 

One principle we should never forget is that, when selling, it is always essential to be clear and transparent about doing that. Honesty is not just best for the conscience, but best for the brand. The first question we must always ask of any message we are given is, is it true? Telling the truth makes all sorts of things possible.

It’s always nice when considering these imponderables to be able to talk about an example of someone getting it right. As so often happens, Sainsbury’s Gravy Song isn’t a big statement. It’s just a good, honest ad. It succeeds where so many have dismally failed recently in pulling off the shot-on-an-iPhone look while remaining unforced and engaging. It’s beautifully executed. It’s well shot, brilliantly edited to combine all sorts of sources, and above all brilliantly written and performed using a recorded phone call. The script is wonderful. It manages to talk about the product without us even noticing. It’s a confident, laid back, brand leading piece of work. It’s the best Xmas ad this year by a country mile. At a time when a lot of brands have decided to abandon the blockbuster this ad hits all the right notes – warm, authentic and above all believable. 

To see how hard this is to do well, compare it with the Branston ‘Hit of Home’ ad that’s also just appeared. This uses exactly the same technique, with ‘home-made footage’ and voice over. There’s a lot of it about, and this one is not quite as good. It’s well cast but the footage falls between two stools – it’s not really home-made but it’s not particularly well filmed. The product feels shoe-horned in. The script has a couple of nicely observed lines but you can hear it ticking the boxes. Unlike the Sainsbury’s ad, you can see and hear the sell. 

I started off by saying that we should remember why we do this. What’s wrong with being selly? The answer to this is in the other point I made. If you’re going to sell you need to tell the truth or you lose your audience. If you show ‘real people’ but you can see they’re acting, you’ve failed. If you write ‘real voices’ but they sound like an ad voiceover (Hovis in this instance), you’ve failed. And if you show people forced apart and claim that their connecting moment is contained in a jar of pickle, well, maybe you make the pickle. The audience knows it’s not true, and they’ve seen it thousands of times before.

Of course, there are a lot of far worse examples than the Branston ad, and I feel slightly guilty about picking on it. It’s inoffensive, but that’s the problem. Because it doesn’t ring true, there isn’t anything there to make it memorable. Again, compare it with the Sainsbury’s ad. Where did the Gravy Song come from? 

What has all this got to do with racism? It has a lot to do with it, because it shows the importance and the impact of simply telling the truth. Sainsbury’s are selling food in a warm and funny way, and they have represented how we really are in order to do it. They have succeeding in talking about food the way we talk about food. The ad’s commonality, perhaps, is why it has attracted so much racist comment. The ad, and the way that the TV channel and other supermarkets have supported it, is a genuine mark of progress at a time when we sorely need it.

Measurement

I sat in a meeting, around five years ago, that changed my views about research entirely. Of course, I’m a creative, so my relationship with research has always been love-hate, but I’d always reluctantly assumed that data must be right. The meeting was a briefing for our biggest research company (one of the world’s biggest). We were discussing the questions we should ask people to obtain the information we wanted about their likely behaviour. Getting invited to meetings like this is one of the joys of being an in-house creative. It struck me very strongly that we were not just deciding the inputs but the outcomes. When I challenged this, the quite reasonable response was, “well, we need to define what we want to know if we want useful information”.

Way back in 1997, the anthropologist Dame Marilyn Strathern wrote a paper in which she summarised an obscure piece of economic theory written by Charles Goodhart into a more general rule: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”. This, unfairly I think, is named after the economist rather than after Dame Strathern, as Goodhart’s Law. 

It means, for instance, that if you have, say, a target to reduce child poverty, it then becomes impossible to measure child poverty without the target in mind. The target will define the way you measure and track your subject, even if there is no conscious attempt to influence or change the data. It “defines what we want to know”. It is the reason leading questions are not allowed in British law. “Can you walk ten steps?” asks a respondent to comply with a parameter, whereas “How far can you walk?” sets no expectation.

It may be objected that this problem with set targets might tend to undermine the science on which we depend to make decisions. In fact, it does not undermine science at all, but is strongly supported by it. In fact science can help us to understand when and how measurement might be useful. It is one of the key findings in Quantum physics that, as soon as you measure movement of a particle, the motion ceases to be measurable.

The reason for this surprising outcome in physics is that the subject of measurement is very small, and therefore difficult to see. The effect of small particles’ motion can be detected, but the motion of an individual particle is very difficult to trace. When it is, it is radically different to the general motion which was detected, and that motion is said to ‘collapse’. Without going into the complexities of this, the conclusion is well established and accepted: the act of measurement is not objective but is an intervention, in very much the same way as the setting of a target is an intervention. The reason it comes about is that physicists are attempting to deal with particles so small they cannot easily see them. Unlike other scientists, Quantum physicists have found it necessary to investigate a field where information cannot be demonstrated. The experiment which detects the gernal movement of particles is therefore based on understanding the probability of their whereabouts by observing the behaviour of a large number. When specificity is attempted the effects of the laws of probability naturally disappear. 

When I first read about this, I was strongly reminded of my impression at the research briefing. Our experience when investigating the unknown is perhaps unsurprisingly exactly the same as that of the scientists. Our researchers attempt to collect data to give guidance on what people will probably do in the future, and as soon as we attempt to measure this to be certain we create a moment ‘now’ which displaces that future action to the past. This is because probable action collapses as soon as we ask the question about it, however we frame that question. In fact, we can say that the uselessness of our activity is supported by science. 

As a footnote, we might observe that, in law, this does not matter. The law is only concerned with the past. No judge would presume to make a decision based on an assessment of possible future capacity. It would seem absurd.

Where does this leave us? I think it must frame our expectations, just as our expectations frame our research. Data can be good at giving us a picture of the past. ‘Real time’ data inches close to the present. It clearly does not, however, make a leap to the future, which is why overuse of real time intervention is destructive of trust. It is a transparently crude attempt to manipulate a decision about what to do next which people naturally resist. A leap to the future is possible, however. To do it, you need creativity and imagination, because you need to understand and empathise. It is a scientific truth that while data might inform this, only human beings can do it in a way human beings like.

Driving Backwards

It’s a truism that great advertising always starts with a great brief, but in practice I often wonder how true this really is. Great advertising actually almost always starts when the creative team understand the product and critically its audience, preferably by talking to them directly (or by being one of them). How often does this happen at the beginning of a job, as part of the brief? And how often do creatives get given a brief written from a business brief and some data instead? This is at least two removes from the conversation that should happen, and it kicks off a process that works more or less backwards.

If you ask a creative what their main problem is when it comes to producing great work, most of them will say bad briefing. It’s always the problem, right? However, if you’re a creative, the solution is not to get the planning and account teams to come up with better work. This just perpetuates the problem. In fact, however good the planning team is, you won’t get a great creative brief if you just wait for them to write one. You have to go out and get it. I was reading, recently, about the creation of Volvo’s Splits ad, because it looks like a great example of how to use a product benefit in an ad. And it is. But if you read Forsman’s account of how this ad and the accompanying campaign was written you will find that the creative team spent a lot of time talking directly to their audience, which in this instance was truck drivers. The Splits ad is about the stability of the Volvo truck’s steering,  and it’s a nice demonstration of precision driving. So far so simple. What makes it work, though, is not just the way the ad is put together and filmed (and the large budget) but the fact that the message about driving really resonated with Volvo truck drivers. Because it was about driving backwards. This is the key thing in the film. It seems odd to make an ad about driving backwards if you’re not a truck driver, but apparently it is the hardest thing to do, and the time when Volvo’s system is most useful. That could only have come from someone who actually knew about driving a truck.

Driving backwards is, perhaps coincidentally, exactly what I am talking about. The standard process for producing an ad, from a creative point of view, goes something like this. The planners read the clients brief and look at data about the client’s business. If it hasn’t already been decided they talk to the media companies and work out where the message will have to go. Then they write a brief and sell it to the marketing team. Then they give it to the creatives. The creatives talk to the planners to work out what they can get away with and how much latitude there is in the media plan, then they try to come up with a decent idea the planners think the account team will think the marketing team might like.  Everyone checks this against the data, maybe by doing some research, and then they put it out there to see if it sells the product. 

Occasionally a decent idea will be squeezed out of this process, but it doesn’t happen very often. It’s a bit dysfunctional isn’t it? But my account is not entirely a parody. It’s uncomfortably close to what actually does happen in a lot of creative agencies a lot of the time, and it’s more or less the opposite of what should happen. This is because first thing creatives should do on any job is understand the product they are selling, mainly through talking directly with the client’s audience and the client. That is where the conversation needs to happen, between audience and client. That’s how you find out the importance of driving backwards. Then you can have an idea you feel the audience will like. It’s good practise to test this out on the audience to make sure you’ve got it right, but if you do, do it fact to face, not via some horrible online poll. Then you can post rationalise the idea by writing a brief to show the client marketing team. This will be a pretty easy brief to write because as creatives you will have all the knowledge required. You can sell it to the marketing team by explaining the brief and then the idea, and then you put the idea where your audience are most likely to see it. And this is really the most important point of all. You shouldn’t decide on the media until right at the end, when everyone has got the idea.

Why does this almost never happen? Well, to be honest, it happens more than you’d think. I was reading about the creation of the old Guinness White Horses ad recently. The creative team were told on no account to make an ad about waiting. On this occasion, both the agency and the client valued understanding of the audience above process. It may have helped that the creatives were part of the audience. 

This may seem like a one off, but it shouldn’t be. If you’re a creative, it is always essential to  remember where the important conversation happens and do your best to understand it. I always say that the creative’s job is to think like customers. Just remember that this is difficult, and very little understood, and that as creatives you may be the only team in the whole process who think that it matters. And that, if you want to do better work, it’s up to you to do it.

Wavey Economics

Behavioural economics is a brave attempt to fill a gaping hole in our knowledge by providing a science of human behaviour. It is brilliant at post rationalising the things people actually do, and of course it is supported by credible research. So it must be true. What has always fascinated me about it, therefore, is how useless it is in practice. This may seem harsh, but it is I’m afraid true that the best insights in behavioural economics always seem come when it is dealing with highly predictable behaviour, such as confirmation bias. If you want to identify how and when confirmation bias is disrupted, though, it has little to say.

The most obvious reason for its uselessness is the one I have mentioned, which is cited in support of its validity. Basing something in research is all very well, but research is by definition retrospective. You are looking back at things people have said or done in the past, even if that past is recent and carefully constructed. You can’t research what they will do until the moment they do it. You only have to look at electoral opinion polls attempting to predict the simplest yes/no choices to see the futility of that. Almost always, understanding what people did is very different to understanding what people do.

This is because of the nature of cause and effect. Everything has a cause and happens for a reason, and that creates a number of fallacies about the extent to which we can determine future events. Looking back, events and actions seem to draw a logical path of cause and effect which might have been unexpected but which does appear, when you look back at it, inevitable. In fact, the only thing that makes an event appear inevitable is the fact that it happened. At every step there are choices and chances, and these are massively complex. This is because everything that happens to us is the result of multiple other events, most of which belong to entirely different chains of cause and effect. How we actually respond is down to our interpretation, mood and chance. This is why any given sequence of events has moments when a different path could have been taken, and everything could have been different. We often look at the events which lead to disasters like this. “If only,” we say. 

There are therefore many choices we make which are highly improbable and unpredictable. We don’t make them because we are irrational, but because they are posed by the way the world we live in behaves. Unexpected things happen all the time, and we react to them and anticipate them, rightly or wrongly. If we ignore this fact of life in our behaviour we are unlikely to survive, but if we get it right the rewards are great. Consider a plain of long grass containing food and a tiger. Survival depends on our assessment of a complex set of risks, some of which might lead us to be daring (admired) or stupid (dead). 

Critically, it is risky action that will be influential in either case. How did we get away with it, or why are we now dead, are questions that immediately draw interest and attention.

In the highly complex and connected world we now inhabit, this is all hugely amplified, if sometimes less life threatening. Improbable actions or events can change our world very quickly, and these are the most important actions and events in our lives. They have a permanent effect because an improbable event will make a subsequent highly unlikely event much more likely, and that revised probability will ripple down the whole chain of possible events and actions like a wave of water. 

This is a stormy sea, an unpredictable and volatile environment which means that attempts to make valid rules for the way we behave are extremely difficult. However, our brains are fortunately designed to operate best here. Unlike the crude binary computers we build, our brains don’t make simple either/or choices. We are able to understand, constantly and simultaneously, that any number of things might happen. We are contextual beings. We assess and re-assess risk and probability every second we are awake. The importance of this cannot be underestimated. We might invent and follow some rules, but they comfort us in a dangerous way. We know we are foolhardy to believe the old adage that tigers don’t appear within two days of rainfall. 

This is bad news for people who want to be certain of things, or are looking for the Holy Grail – a set of guidelines that will help us to predict and influence other people’s behaviour. 

The good news, for advertisers and marketers, is the fact that judging risk correctly gives us authority. This means that behaviour is still influenceable if you go about it in the right way, by ignoring rules and seeking out the improbable. Improbability is highly detectable precisely because it is highly influential, and it is detectable immediately if you are on the lookout for it. Better still, if you can work out how to make an improbable event you can start a wave of influence yourself. How do you do this? There are of course no rules. If you want to do something exceptional, though, you do have to understand two things. You have to be exceptionally aware of what is going on, not just around you but around the lives of the people you want to influence, and you have to have an exceptionally sensitive understanding of how those people feel. 

This is not rocket science, and many people who believe strongly in behavioural economics will say yes, that is exactly what we do, and it is why we do research. The caveat here, again, is that in order to really influence behaviour you have to be just ahead of events as they happen. Empathy is as important as data. To succeed, you have to think like the people you are talking to, and you have to use your imagination and creativity to see what might happen next. I said before that events influence other events like waves, so maybe we can think of it as surfing. Data and research can spot and even predict waves, up to a point, but they are just observers. By the time you have reported a wave it is history. To catch a wave properly you have to be in the water, and just in front of it.