Once upon a time, many years ago, in the days before YouTube, if you wanted some entertainment, you invited a vacuum cleaner salesman to call. He had a great way of making an entrance. First he would wedge his foot in the door to force a way in. Then he would take out a bag of dirt and throw it on your carpet. And just before you called the police, he would whip out the vacuum cleaner and Hoover up the mess.
Advertising used to employ a similar approach. It would force itself into your lounge, insult your intelligence and leave a mess on the carpet. That’s why for years we told people at parties that we worked for the Mafia or the tax authorities.
In the words of the old joke, “Don’t tell my mum I work in advertising, she thinks I’m a piano player in a brothel.”
Well, looking at the work winning at recent shows I can happily say, those days are gone. The best work coming from the industry these days is so good we can start going to parties again. Not only that, we can raise our voices when we announce what our job is. It’s that good.
Consider the beautiful John Lewis penguin spots, or Sainsbury’s ‘1914’ for example. They don’t bother with tricks, or the sort of cleverness that makes people furrow their brows and go, Huh? These ads are big. They go straight for the heart. They make you go, Ah!
The heart has had a bad press in this super-rational scientific age, but in the communications industry it’s making a comeback. Why? Because of social media of course. In the social media age you can’t throw dirt on the carpet, you have to knock on the door holding flowers. You have to give people something they love, and want to share. The way to do this —as any five year old will tell you –is storytelling.
Shiseido ‘High School Girl?’ tells a riveting story that’s totally mind-bending. Or consider the amazing road safety spot from New Zealand, ‘Mistakes’. Two men who are technically dead, saying how dying sucks. Wonderful.
Storytelling is all about the look of wonder on a child’s face watching Tom & Jerry. I get the same look when watching the IKEA ‘Beds’ spot. The combination of the stunning imagery and Prospero’s speech from the Tempest, “Such stuff as dreams are made on,” is mesmerising.
But here’s the paradox. The rise of social media may have rekindled our interest in storytelling, but it is TV advertising which is feeling the benefit. Brands, it seems, have just started to discover an alarming truth: all that “engagement” online doesn’t turn into sales. As a result, TV is making a comeback. The biggest television event in the UK at Christmas used to be the Queen’s speech. Now it’s the unveiling of the John Lewis ad. In the US, a similar air of excitement greets the ads at halftime in the Superbowl. While digital gets lost in a blizzard of data and bots, real advertising is once again about telling great stories. The thing about a great story is, you want to see it again. It has “Rewatchability”, and that is Manna from Heaven for advertisers. That’s why we’ve all seen the Godfather so many times.
In fact, the humble television set—after being written off as so last century—is enjoying a renaissance as an entertainment medium. Screens are getting bigger and bigger and they are high def. Netflix and others are providing great programmes. In the wake of the Breaking Bad phenomenon, the Collins Dictionary ‘word of the year’ for 2015 was binge-watch.
For advertisers this is great news. TV is the perfect medium for us to generate big emotion. Are we entering a golden age? Well, it's certainly very sparkly. In fact, I think I might call my mum and tell her what I do for a living.
If you think you have a campaign that deserves a Pencil, enter your work into the D&AD Awards and see if our judges agree. When it comes to awards, nothing matters more.