The X Factor, Adverspectaculars, and lessons from Dr Seuss

It’s that season again… reality TV dominates the autumn schedule, as nights close in and people huddle round the warming glow of that screen in the corner.  And this year more than ever, the advertising world goes mad for the only reliable ‘Event TV’ spot left.

(It’s worth bearing in mind that before the internet came along, ‘Event TV’ was just called ‘Tuesday night’.  Or Wednesday, or whatever day.  Every night was Event TV night.)

Anyway, I don’t watch the champion of ‘Event TV’, The X Factor, for many reasons (probably good and bad).

But I do watch twitter whilst it’s on.  And, because of the company I keep in twitterland, I see a lot of tweets about the ads in between the acts.

Now, of course last night it was #yogurtwars in X Factor slots, and ergo my Twitter stream…

…and there was an Activia one with Tiffany from Eastenders too, apparently, but I’ll spare you that.  Basically because I can’t find it.

Now, clearly Britain’s being invaded by yogurt stormtroopers intent on spreading all sorts of new types of counter-cultures.

And I, for one, welcome our new yogurty overlords.

But, on a slightly more thoughtful note, I think it’s part of a slightly worrying, one-dimensional train-of-thought in agency land; the push for the ADVERSPECTACULAR, the greatest song and dance show it’s possible to put on in thirty seconds.

(Although better in sixty.  Though, actually, it only really works as a ninety…)

You can understand exactly why… because when they work, they really work.  Without dipping into exactly why and how you measure it, we can all point to the adverspecatular successes of the last few years (Sony Balls, Cadbury Gorilla, Nike Write The Future, etc etc), which did everything from galvanise supply chains and sales people to customers and marketing circles (to the best of our knowledge).

But it seems to be the driving force behind a lot of campaigns nowadays, and there’s perhaps too much gravity pulling people to the marketing model that says ‘make an adverspectacular, debut it on The X Factor, monitor social buzz…’

So what’s going on?

Mel Exon at BBH, behind the Yeo Valley ads, gave (and subsequently shared here) a brilliant presentation on the future of agency models at the last Google Firestarters evening (there’s two more excellent presentations from James Caig of MEC and Martin Bailie of Glue too).

Mel points out:

“At its simplest… ALL marketing – not just the rare handful of brands that regularly win awards – needs to be *genuinely* useful or entertaining.  If  not, marketing will become that thing that marketers and agencies fear the most: unseen and unheard.”

Which reminded me of something Ed Cotton posted about three years ago, off the back of an Emily Bell column – I borrowed it at the time, and it feels right to revisit it now.

It was rooted in what technologists are motivated by; entertaining people, being useful, educating them, or connecting them together.  Ed proposed that it was also a good model for working out what your brand should do:

I would propose that marketers and their agencies default to “entertain” far too readily.

There is nothing new or innovative in making an entertaining ad and putting it in a high rating TV slot.  That’s been modus operandi for years.  Of course, the infrastructure that can be placed around the spot is the interesting bit for me, and a lot of people are doing that really well, I think (e.g. getting the Yeo Valley song up on iTunes on launch night is simple, but really smart).

But conceptually, for a client, “make a really entertaining ad” is a pretty easy step to move to.  And it is something an agency feels utterly happy to execute, because they’ve got loads of people already who can do that.  It’s a brave decision that’s actually pretty safe to make.

The other three categories aren’t so straightforward.

Usefulness is more interesting, and difficult.  It unlocks a lot of the things around mobile, apps, service improvements that only a very few agencies genuinely get off the ground for clients.  The timescales on it are not campaign timescales either, whether you’re talking about development or measuring effects.

Education is again harder, trickier; how to impart knowledge, skills and ability to a group of people, leaving their lives better and more fulfilled, in a way that still satisfies the demands of marketing.

“Connecting people” I always think of the equivalent of running a party, booking a venue, paying for the food… but then just letting the guests get on with it.  They’re interested in each other, not in you, necessarily.
So of the four, you can see why Entertain is so appealing.  The other three are hard to define, extract value from, measure against the short-term effectiveness of “entertain”.

Howevre, I’ve been wondering… in so readily defaulting to “entertain”, are marketers and agencies are building up problems for the future?

Maybe a brand can only go so far down “entertain” before expectations (their own, and that of their audience) become unreasonable?  And at a macro-level, if EVERY brand starts playing the “entertain” game, does that universally dull the effect?

Every time, the joke has to be pushed THAT MUCH FURTHER… bigger, longer, more CGI, more preposterous, more inspiring…

It’s the problem The Cat In The Hat faced when playing “Up-up-up with a fish”…

“Look at me!
Look at me now!” said the cat.
“With a cup and a cake
On the top of my hat!
I can hold up TWO books!
I can hold up the fish!
And a little toy ship!
And some milk on a dish!
And look!
I can hop up and down on the ball!
But that is not all!
Oh, no.
That is not all…

“Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me NOW!
It is fun to have fun
But you have to know how.
I can hold up the cup
And the milk and the cake!
I can hold up these books!
And the fish on a rake!
I can hold the toy ship
And a little toy man!
And look! With my tail
I can hold a red fan!
I can fan with the fan
As I hop on the ball!
But that is not all.
Oh, no.
That is not all….”

That is what the cat said…
Then he fell on his head!
He came down with a bump
From up there on the ball.
And Sally and I,
We saw ALL the things fall!

The current state of the market means people will keep adding more bells, more whistles.  Because they have to, to look better than the rest.  Is this sustainable, though?  I wonder what happens if, or when, the ADVERSPECTACULAR model for advertising falls..?