Giles Keeble: can creativity still function in a woke world?

Times have changed. Thirty or so years ago Ron Collins did a radio ad for Bergasol in which the voice changed from white to black. There was a Silk Cut ad recreating the film ’Zulu’ in which the cigarettes were promoted against a backdrop of Zulu warriors’ casual deaths. And there was a Timberland ad -‘We stole their land, their buffalo and their women. Then we went back for their shoes.’ Apparently a Native American chief liked the publicity but may not have appreciated the irony. This is tricky to write about and possibly inadvisable to show examples (but here goes.)

I’ve been thinking about this because so many ads now ‘embrace diversity’. This is to be encouraged so long as it rings true, rather than what is simply ‘woke’ casting. It is hard to see an ad on network TV that does not show a good mix of all types and colours. Exceptions are ads in breaks for cricket’s IPL, for example, which are for Indians featuring Indians. Were these written and shot by Indians? Does that matter? These are examples of sensible rather than PC targeting.

In the past, the idea that women should write ads for women was questioned in favour of the argument that ads for women could be written by good writers, which might include men. But as channels have fragmented I wonder how many good writers can write for the very different social and cultural groups now being targeted, however observant and in tune they are. Historically the advertising business in the UK and the US did not employ many black, Asian or other groups, at least not in the creative departments. There have been notable exceptions, and things have thankfully changed, though women have been well-represented in account management and planning for many years. I wonder though whether more diversity in agencies might have changed anything?

Many of the great ads of the past 40 years have used humour. But how many would have been made if they were done now, starting with the three above? Humour is closely connected to creativity. It is hard to analyse humour and I am not going to try, but those that have done so seem to agree that at one level it is ‘aggression robbed of its purpose’ and that it is (and certainly was in past ages) often cruel. Howard Jacobsen did a programme some years ago about humour in which he talked to bigoted (but immensely popular) comedians like Bernard Manning and Roy Chubby Brown. I think he concluded that it was impossible to prevent jokes, of whatever kind, and that even those that many find offensive can act as a safety-valve.

When I used to co-run workshops around the world we used to start with a joke to make the point that clients and agencies needed to have the same criteria for judging work. The ‘joke’ wasn’t always understood because of language or culture and sometimes simply because of a lack of a sense of humour. But in answer to the question ‘what is the criteria for a joke?’ of all the times we did the exercise, I think only one delegate replied ‘is it funny?’ The issue for advertising is that if the creativity of many ads is based on humour (or the combining of two things that aren’t normally associated – which is the essence of many ideas) and humour is subject to political correctness, what will the effect be on the quality of advertising? Steve Henry used to do a presentation in which he showed how easy it was to kill great ads, an update of the famous Bullmore and Bernstein video in which ‘The Man with the Hathaway Shirt’ was edited to destruction.

I don’t know what the solution is. For reasons I have looked at before, a lot of advertising has reverted to direct response. Given that the ultimate aim of advertising is to sell, this is not in itself a bad thing but it does tend to ignore the arguments for brand building and the view that advertising is an investment not simply a cost. Direct response does not lend itself so readily to humour, which takes many forms – from slapstick to the human observations in the classic Alka Selzer ads or the hyperbole of Heineken. I believe people in AI are looking at whether robots can not just tell jokes but create them. I don’t doubt they might randomly put words together that might be funny (maybe of the Christmas cracker type) but the humour in advertising is more than a joke: it has a truth that reflects human attitudes and behaviour.

Many advertisers now seem so afraid of offending anyone that they end up boring everyone. As Bill Bernbach once said: “If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.” You cannot stop people finding something funny even if it is politically incorrect. You cannot control thought, but we do control advertising. It should be truthful, decent and honest. These are all increasingly open to interpretation. But advertising needs also to be human and engaging or people will find more ways to avoid it, even while the algorithms get to work.

I realise this is a view based on another age perhaps and there is great and interesting work being done, not just for brands but for causes. I just hope agencies and their clients don’t forget that ideas are more than messages and still need human observation and creative connections.

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