On a recent trip to Paris and London, I saw so many things. I saw the Eiffel Tower glittering against the night sky, met my favorite Cézanne paintings at the Musée d’Orsay, met a few Rembrandt selfies at the Louvre, looked out over Paris from the top of the Sacré-Coeur at sunset, and shuffled through the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles on swollen feet.
Yet I don’t remember seeing a single ad in Paris.
I wasn’t necessarily looking for ads, but even as I walked the length of the Champs-Élysées, I don’t recall seeing any.
But, London? I couldn’t not notice ads. While riding up the escalator at the Charing Cross underground station, where the ads are strategically placed so they’re always at eye level, I specifically remember thinking, “Wow. Could they have fit any MORE ads onto this wall?” (No, they couldn’t have.)
And the U.S.? When I see a video, billboard, or a print ad, my eyes glaze over until it’s done.
So why didn’t I notice ads in Paris? Why couldn’t I stop noticing London’s ads? And why do I tune out U.S. ads?
“There is no need for advertisements to look like advertisements.” –David Ogilvy
It makes sense that effective, nicely done ads fit seamlessly into the culture and background without being forgotten or overlooked. A good ad isn’t an eyesore. It’s not something you want to skip over. It’s not something you want to unsee. A well done ad should be worth looking at—preferably more than once.
Paris, London, and the U.S. have different cultures, and therefore different types of ads with different goals—and even different products or services to sell. Let’s take a look.
France: Art, Engineering, and Beauty.
It doesn’t appear that the French spend much time reviewing and ranking their own advertising efforts (why is this not surprising?), but I did manage to find an ad produced by a French agency that was included in a “Best of 2015” list from AdWeek.
The ad consists of a 37-day time-lapse video of an Atlantic heater being used to grow a garden in a glass cube 8,000 feet above sea level in British Columbia.
It’s beautiful. It’s the type of ad you really notice, not just see. It’s certainly not forgettable. You can view the full ad here. I’ve watched it too many times.
The U.K.: Brand Recognition, Olympic Sports, and Trendy Songs
DFS, a well-known furniture retailer in the U.K., was a sponsor for Great Britain’s team in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. The ad they made is nice, but predictable: Olympic athletes suiting up while actors posing as DFS employees build furniture. It’s heavily focused on brand—unlike the French heater ad, in which we didn’t even know Atlantic heaters were the thing being sold until the very end.
I’ve watched this ad about three times, only because the song reminds me of something and I’m trying to figure out what it is.
The U.S.: Slapstick, Taylor Swift, Treadmills, and Drake/Future
This ad is slapstick comedy, crossed with Taylor Swift, crossed with treadmills, crossed with America’s disdain for cardiovascular exercise, and set to a Drake and Future song called Jumpman (a.k.a. Michael Jordan). Could this ad be any more American? No wonder it won. It’s so bad. I can’t stand to watch more than four or five seconds of it without skipping or pausing, so I haven’t really seen this whole ad yet.
“The more informative your ad, the more persuasive it will be.” –David Ogilvy
Ok, so what’s the takeaway here?
Advertising culture in Paris feels more informative, careful, and intentional—which, one could argue, makes ads more effective and less intrusive. And, given the nature of the French lifestyle, this makes sense. Dinner is an event that takes hours—even workday lunches seemed to linger on for 90 minutes or two hours. In France, the small moments matter. And, even more, the small moments become the highlight. So, maybe I didn’t notice the ads, because they just fit.
London, on the other hand, felt more like the U.S. What matters for these ads is the sale or the brand or the celebrity, not so much the journey, or the moments that build the experience, or the intrusiveness. It’s more like, “Here’s an ad whether you need it or not.”
So, should the U.S. change its advertising practices to be more intentional and informational? Should the French embrace slapstick ads? No, probably not. While there’s something to learn from each culture, the beauty is in their differences, right? (Right?)