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The ad industry doesn’t succeed by being the add industry. Yet we continue to pound and stuff our ads with the entrails of detail that nobody is willing to digest. Until and unless ads are not stripped to their bare essentials, they will fail to seduce the consumer’s roving eye.

Advertising is seduction. It’s the tone, style, charm, presentation and timing that’s effective. It’s more manner than matter. And like seduction, you know when it’s been successful or unsuccessful, in good taste or poor. More importantly, it cannot be accomplished with numbers. By reaching for the hard data, we miss the human data. Just because we can’t measure and store big emotions, feelings or spirituality in a hard drive, it does not mean we can continue ignoring the most powerful components of powerful advertising.

Even though we know that we should keep ads simple and single-minded, what we often forget is that competing elements within our own advertising space are equally detrimental to keeping the prospect glued to the message once his attention has been flagged. American designer and illustrator, Bob Gill, explains, “There are thousands of images competing with yours for the audience’s attention. If and when the audience gets around to yours, make sure the elements within your design don’t compete with each other.”

But how can we resist? We’re greedy. We include everything that’s not wanted. An average print ad, for instance, usually features the following competing elements: headline; visual (sometimes more than one); bodycopy; tagline; logo; and miscellaneous subheads, bold telephone numbers, pack shot(s), dealer panels, disclaimers, coupons, etc. Yet, David Ogilvy, whose famous Rolls Royce ad ran without a logo, warned, “Never use more than three elements in your design.”

The problem with all these additions is that the more there is to pull and randomly distract the eye, the easier it is for the attention of the reader to slip right off the page. If your communication isn’t economical enough in the attention economy, your audience will take your money and leave you with a fat chance.

But when faced with the daunting task of stripping down, middle management insists that they have to justify their salaries. So they cover every inch of ad space to — in effect — cover their ass. Not realizing that in the attention economy, advertising is an US$ 500 billion (plus, plus, plus) industry that only buys you a shot at the attention zone of your target. To get beyond that, you need to simplify, simplify and simplify to keep their attention. But, “how difficult it is to be simple,” said Van Gogh.

The trick is to minimize the number of distractions within your ad by ruthlessly and brutally subtracting the elements. Someone once accurately billed this as being a “clutter-cutter.” Because, like the Chinese proverb says, “you cannot leap a chasm in two leaps.” You can’t be a little simple. Or kind of simple. Or may be, sort of simple. It’s hit or miss. After all, it’s what you remove from an ad that often makes it more powerful. Input and output travel inversely in advertising. Michael Newman, global industry star and longtime creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi Australia, wrote it more memorably: “The bigger the eyeful, the less the mindful.”

Agencies and clients bent upon considering ads as handsome unions of diverse opinions should turn to Nietzsche (a man who was known for sporting an unusually large moustache) who said, “In the eyes of people seeing us for the first time … usually we are nothing more than a single individual trait which leaps to the eye and determines the whole impression we make.” Or even Henri Matisse, illustrator and painter, who earned a reputation for himself by treating the page he illustrated (its edges, textures, dimensions, etc.) as one and indivisible from his image.

The point is that no matter how heavy the client brief, how deep and wide our creative resources, it is clarity, simplicity and cut-through we should aim for where the entirety of an ad telecasts our communication in one single rifle shot and not shot-gun blasts.

Then again, simplicity isn’t simple. “Writing music is easy,” said Johannes Brahms, “what is hard, is knowing which notes to use, and which to let fall to the ground.” Likewise, Ernest Hemingway, the king of vivid brevity, observed that “It’s a good thing for a writer to have a built-in crap detector.” Michelangelo said the same thing — only more delicately: “Beauty is the purgation of superfluities.” But it was Tony Cox, award-winning English copywriter, who said it best: “Inside every fat ad there’s a thin ad trying to get out!”

With your ad having less than 1.5 seconds to make its point and presence felt, strip it naked. Real exposure, after all, is shameless.

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