I believe there’s something more powerful than creativity. (I’m serious.)

More and more these days I’ve begun to think creativity isn’t the most important thing in an ad campaign. Heresy, I know, but I’m thinkin’  there is another way – possibly a better one – for a brand to stand out.

See, the thing is we’re a nation of eye-rollers. We’re cynics. Nothing is authentic anymore. We put finger-quotes around everything.

This national eye-rolling and “yeah whatever” didn’t happen overnight. Our sense of ironic remove is the result of a steady drip of lies from every authority figure we’ve ever set on every pedestal throughout history.

The heavens began to fall (in this writer’s opinion) when President Dick Nixon was exposed as the paranoid felon he was. That was in 1974 and ever since we’ve watched pedestals fall like dominoes as icon after icon was exposed as a liar, a cheat, a criminal, a pederast. Murderous policemen, horny congressmen (remember “wide stance”?), and priests PRIESTS, don’t even get me started. The Wall Street dirtbags, the Enron asshats … the nightly news is an endless perp walk of fallen heroes laid so comically low even our best satirists cannot summon the necessary irony.  Well, Fran Lebowitz came close when she wrote, “No matter how cynical I get, it’s impossible to keep up.”

Even as I write these words, on the news I am watching yet another Florida judge tell yet another pudgy white cretin after killing yet another black man, “Dude, we can’t stay mad at youuuu.”

And so we are a nation of skeptics, cynics and eye-rollers. It isn’t just that our bullshit detectors are set on high; it’s our truth detectors; those we turned off a long time ago. There isn’t any.

Okay, so here’s my question. Given all this, how can any brand manager continue to think people are going to believe his commercials? People don’t believe the news anymore. Considering all this, is more creativity really the answer?

Well, obviously, creativity’s important, but I’ve come to believe that right now the fastest way to stand out in this blizzard of bullshit is to tell the truth.

In The Art of Immersion, author Frank Rose wrote, “People today are experiencing an authenticity crisis, and with good reason. Value is a function of scarcity. And in a time of scripted ‘reality’ TV and Photoshop everywhere, authenticity is a scarce commodity.”

If I were a brand manager today, I’d at least have a go at accurately describing my product with candor and honesty, without superlatives, and maybe throw in a dollop of self-deprecation. And I’d publicly admit, “Yes, we have an agenda. We want you to buy our stuff.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-26 at 8.43.18 PMCrispin wanted you to buy Domino’s pizza and they brought the brand back to life with honesty (“We heard our pizza isn’t so great.”) and transparency (“Here’s what we’re doing to improve it.”) It isn’t rocket science, as Bogusky himself explained: “This generation knows you’re trying to sell them something. And you know they know. So let’s just drop the pretense and make the whole experience as much fun as possible.”

I’m reminded of one of my favorite ads, the ’60s VW ad shown here. While Detroit was selling “sizzle” and chrome and bullshit, VW shrugged its shoulders and went, “We don’t mind. Have fun at the party.”

So this is where I net out these days: the most unusual thing a brand can do to show up on a consumer’s radar is to be authentic. To be real. To cut the bullshit and quit trying to hide the fact that you’re trying to sell them something. Be authentic. Talk about about your brand the way you would tell a friend. You wouldn’t lie. You wouldn’t exaggerate. You wouldn’t use exclamation points. You wouldn’t oversell. You wouldn’t “spin.”

You’d say, “Hey, check this cool thing out. It works pretty well. I bought one. Maybe you’d like it too.”

11 Comments

  1. Great column, Luke. The creative revolution of the 1960’s was nothing more than creative ways of telling the truth. DDB cut through the fog of bullshit with ads that were honest. The VW campaign had the voice of a mild-mannered guy at the party, a little insecure but sincere. Avis did the impossible–– admitted to being #2, giving it a license to have fire in the belly to try harder. On and on DDB created magical, truthful campaigns.

    But the age of bullshit came back in succeeding decades, now wrapped in entertaining shells. Gags with logos, and precious little relevance or truth.

    Add to this the allure and attraction of social media–– more and more we’re discovering “likes” are fake and reviews are hired–– and we’re left with our bullshit detectors pegged in the red.

    Yes, done well, the truth shall set you free. And maybe even sell a lot of products.

    Reply
    • Yo Patrick: Thanks for your thoughtful addition to the page. ANd you are so right, we all need to bow to DDB. “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy.”

      Reply
  2. Really thoughtful column, Luke. And it really underscores the point that brands which have embraced transparency, real-time responsiveness, and even some kind of social mission are going to be the winners in this new world.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the note. I wonder if that last posting was a little too high-falutin’ and intellectualized. But damnit, I really think it’s true.

      Reply
  3. Damn, Luke, you are just figuring this out?
    1912, McCann- “Truth Well Told”
    Creativity gets attention. But, bullshit still fails. Always has. (Except maybe Joe Isuzu).
    That’s why our epic tagline, has only one more word than McCann’s- “Create Lust- Evoke Trust”
    You still suck, brother.

    Reply
    • What? I suck???? No….YOU suck.
      Ha.

      Reply
    • Not that Luke Sullivan needs someone to stand-up for him but…dude, seriously? You’re on his site (why?) saying HE sucks? He’s only one of the most respected people in advertising—and rightly so. If you don’t know why, take a look at his work. Then take a deep breath and, in your nicest inside voice, apologize to the man.

      Reply
      • Esrati and I know each other and like to give each other shit. But thank you just the same for your kind words. Appreciated. Plus, Esrati sux.

        Reply
  4. You are right on point. During my years as an experiential marketer, the success of our programs were predicated on my ability to connect brands to consumers through trial and live experiences. First, a brand must be committed to delivering great quality while meeting a current or future consumer need. Then it needs to get in front of those people and their peers, allowing them to experience the brand on their own terms. If you’ve got the goods, success should follow. In my current role as a brand strategist at a full service ad agency, I apply the same experiential marketing principles of brand sincerity in every strategic marketing plan I develop.

    I agree with you that people know that we want to sell them something and they may be inclined to buy it if they need it and find it valuable. Gone are the days of catchy jingles and slogans aimed at creating a consumer base that didn’t exist. Today it’s much harder to convince someone to buy something they don’t need or want.

    In short, we should be brand to consumer matchmakers, not snake oil salespersons.

    Reply
  5. Awesome post Luke. Just read “Hey Whipple” and hot damn it was good. You don’t need a schmuck like me to tell you to keep up the great work but keep up the great work.

    Reply
  6. Hi Luke, check out Barry Maher… If you haven’t already.

    Best regards, Peter

    Reply

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  1. Selling stuff – Something rotten - […] is why the cynic in me responded so positively to this piece on the state of the advertising industry…
  2. If This Is A Blog Then What's Christmas? - sneaky but likeable advertising - […] While I’m here, another blogger has explored honesty in advertising. […]

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Luke Sullivan

Author, speaker, and ad veteran available to recharge, reinvigorate, and refocus marketing, advertising, and branding firms.

I give a hugely energetic series of presentations on innovation, creativity, branding, and marketing. I spent 32 years in the trenches of advertising (at agencies like Martin, GSD&M, and Fallon) and I’ve put everything I learned into my book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. But for me nothing beats taking the message out and speaking to living breathing audiences at clients, agencies, and conferences. You can book me on the button below.

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