Bold Advertising Wins

3 min read

Think of your favorite TV commercial. (Imagine the theme to Final Jeopardy! playing. I’ll wait.)

Why is it your favorite? I’ll bet I can guess.

Most people’s favorite commercials are funny–laugh-out-loud funny. Funny commercials get passed around the Internet and nominated for awards and chosen for those awful World’s Best TV Commercials shows that used to be hosted by Dick Clark and are now most probably hosted by Mario Lopez.

You may be different. You may love a TV commercial that touches you deeply–something about kids or animals or a loving relationship. But chances are great that, if your favorite commercial isn’t funny, it at least strikes a deep emotional chord.

So why are so many commercials so unmemorable? Why are so many commercials so awful and boring? Why are most commercials forgettable, no matter how many times you see them?

The shocking answer: the primary goal of most commercials is not to sell you anything. The primary goal of most commercials is to be good enough that no one gets fired.

Think about that for a moment. (Cue Final Jeopardy! music.) Most TV commercials–most advertising, actually–is boring because it’s safer that way. If it doesn’t challenge anyone, it’s not going to get anyone into hot water.

TV commercials are usually developed by smart copywriters and art directors who know what works. But they almost always are approved–or not–by ad managers and marketing directors who have to report to somebody higher up in their companies. And most–not all, but most–ad managers and marketing directors are risk-averse by nature. They want to do work that “meets objectives.” But they really don’t want to do anything that might get people to sit up and take notice.

Because anything that gets people to actually pay attention could backfire. If you’re going for hilarious, you might end up with stupid. If you’re going for heart-rending, you might end up with cheesy.

I guess.

The fact is, bold advertising is really the only advertising anybody ever remembers. Even boldly stupid and or bizarre local ads–the sort created by Rhett and Link on the IFC show Commercial Kingsis better than the same, old crud you see night after night for investment services and toothpaste and car insurance.

It’s crazy to admit it, but when marketing people work on TV commercials, there’s precious little attention paid to what they want to outcomes of their spots to be. If marketers really wanted to get through to their audience–if they really wanted people to remember and act on their commercials–then 90 percent of the commercials you see wouldn’t be so crummy.

Which is lucky for you.

Because it’s always going to be this way. Always. I’ve been writing TV commercials for 30 years, and the situation has never been any different. Most clients don’t want good advertising. Most clients want a check in the box. TV commercial produced? Anyone raise an eyebrow? No? Check. Most clients won’t go to bat for a great idea because anything radical enough to actually get attention is potentially dangerous.

Which means that you have a chance to win. You have a chance to do advertising that turns heads, reaches people emotionally, makes them laugh or cry, positions your product and your company at the top of your customers’ minds.

You have this chance because your competitors are more worried about keeping their jobs than about whether their advertising works. They’re not interested in taking risks that might cause them to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

How do we know this is true? Experience. We exhort marketers all the time to be bold, take chances, have some guts. Mostly, they don’t listen. (Thankfully, we also have some great clients who do believe the same things we do.)

But you can be different. You can do advertising that’s memorable and smart–ads that people notice and like. Ads that help you rise above your competitors. Ads that take greater risks–and so have greater rewards.

We can start the Final Jeopardy! music in your head again. But we don’t think you should have to think long about this one.