Not to oversimplify, but after years making thousands of ads, consuming millions, attending a boatload of award shows, judging numerous others, and winning my share of hardware, I believe most creative work falls into one of five stylistic buckets. Why is this important to know? If you want your work to have any chance of cutting through, then you need to understand these before wasting a lot of money. But I’ll get to that in a second.
Holy sh#t, look at that. Naked, offensive, bloody, there are many ways to shock, and these ads do it best. Their goal: elicit a squirming discomfort, and demand attention by their shear provocative nature. A small percentage of advertising falls into this bucket because a small percentage of advertisers are willing to go there…to turn off some in the hopes of really turning on others. A few examples: Video game makers often go for the gore, the more the better. Lynx/Axe pushes it with sex. Many public service ads try to shock you into behavioral change by showing people being hit by cars, or arteries oozing disgusting discharge caused by smoking.
You’ve got to see this, it’s absolutely hilarious. There are many ways to be funny, slapstick, witty, sarcastic, random. For that reason, this bucket is packed with work. But while everyone thinks they’re funny, it’s rare when someone truly delivers. Little Caesars did it over and over again, E*Trade Baby as well (worked on some of those). Bud Light has many classics including Real Men of Genius.
*Please remember comedy is the most subjective bucket by far, so fill in your own “funny” if you disagree with mine.
You cry, you hurt, you love, you empathize. These ads raise the emotional bar. They go all out to get you to feel something. Much Ad Council work plays here, including, literally, the classic crying Indian, anti-littering spot. Also, the P&G “Thank You Mom,” Olympics work. As well as the recent Apple Holiday spot.
These elevate the predominantly commercial endeavor of advertising to an artistic level, where it’s no longer an ad, but a work of art. They are often driven by art direction, and speak the universal language of beautiful. These are the ones people rip out and hang on their walls. Havainas, a Brazilian footwear company has turned flip flops into artworks. Sony Balls TV was quite beautiful. Many of the Absolut ads were gorgeous.
These are the great thinkers, the sharp and intelligent, driven by a brilliant insight, a clever headline or an ingenious product demo. If the “moving” ads make you feel, the “smart” ads make you think. Examples in this bucket: a lot of the Fallon work in the 80s, the Economist headlines forever, Dove Evolution and Real Beauty Sketches.
Now, I’m not trying to dumb this down, but if you think about most pieces of communications, they probably fit into one (or more) of these buckets. And while I proclaim a mere five categories, there are infinite possibilities within each, and of course overlap across them.
So why does this matter? Why should someone care about these buckets?
1. You need to figure out which is right for your brand. Not every brand wants or should have shock value. Funny certainly isn’t right for all either. Trying to truly move people with a basic, utilitarian product can be a real challenge, often times resulting in an eye roll. Which approach has the proper sensibility for your brand? Because if you try to be something you’re not, you’re a poser.
2. Once decided, you need to really full-on go for that approach. If you’re going for funny, is it really pee-you-pants, I-have-to-share-this-immediately funny? If you’re going for beautiful, is it really stunningly, stop-you-in-your-tracks beautiful? You can’t lie to yourself. Because there are a lot of really funny and really beautiful things out there. If yours is kinda funny or sorta beautiful, it has zero chance to cut through.
So decide which of the five buckets you are going for, then really, really go for it. If not, you cheat your brand, and your work will end up in the sixth bucket, the largest of all, mediocre.