So wrong it’s right

Lenny Bruce once said that “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” For me, at the core of this observation is the key to what makes humour so potent. While on the surface, it often appears lightweight, flippant and fun, look closely at the mechanics of any good joke and you’ll find a powerful human truth. Which is why it’s the perfect tool for advertising. Comedy takes truth and wraps it in the unexpected; it disarms its audience of their preconceptions and forces them to look at the world in a different way…which is exactly what brands are trying to do.

When it’s a generic joke with a packshot and logo on the end, the gag might be remembered but the brand probably won’t. But when used effectively in advertising – with intelligence, insight and relevance – humour can brilliantly capture the imagination and sway people to your message. And when it’s unexpected for the product or subject matter, when ‘funny’ feels weird, wrong or unusual, it’s often at the height of its potency.

I’ve written before about ‘the power of total wrongness’ and I’ve tried to use humour myself with a serious purpose. It’s not easy to get right but I think the ad above, by McCann Erickson New York, is a brilliant example of laughter in service of changing people’s minds. It’s a simple observational piece that’s cleverly set in everyday middle American advertising land, with a rug-pull that delivers seven shades of wrongness and ten tonnes of toe-curling comedy. And out of that rare combination comes, ultimately, a terrifyingly indisputable point.

Emotion Trumps Idea

In advertising, idea is king. Big ideas. New ideas. Relevant ideas. Innovative ideas. Our days are spent coming up with them, crafting them, selling them. We praise and reward work built on ideas we love and rail against work that has ‘no idea’. But what’s so good about ideas? And is it possible for advertising be great without them?

This debate has come up many times over the years in the context of great ideas vs great craft. While Sir John Hegarty famously said great work is “80% idea and 80% execution”, advertising creatives have traditionally viewed craft as the slightly less important element in the conundrum and looked at craft awards as less prestigious than ‘proper’ awards – awards for ideas. On balance I’m with Sir John in that I don’t think you can have great work without both idea and craft. But there’s one thing that I think trumps ideas: emotion.

The point of an idea is to disrupt and engage, to persuade people, get them to think and act in a way which is advantageous to the brand. But what if you could skip the ‘idea’ bit and cut straight to the emotion? What if, like art – which is usually ‘idea-less’ – you could go straight to making people feel something…and then relate that emotion to your brand? This classic Levi’s ad by Jonathan Glazer kind of does that, but the line at the end pulls it into having a loose analogy-based idea. This Lacoste ad feels like it’s all craft and no substance, but it actually has quite a big idea at its core (reaching out to connect with people is like a leap into the unknown…but it’s worth the risk). Whereas the Coke ‘Parents’ ad, above, which won a Gold Lion at Cannes last week is literally idea-less. There’s no new or interesting take on a problem, no lateral thought and no how-did-they-come-up-with-that? moment. Just a slice of life brilliantly shot with the near perfect music track, talent and performances (particularly the guy from the 40-50 mark). It’s probably my favourite idea-less ad ever.

I’m absolutely not saying ideas are dead, let’s all make mood films. But I do think pieces that can shortcut the head and get straight to the heart have a great chance of being effective. The difficult bit is that they need to be a fusion of insightful thinking with bloody brilliant craft chops…which is seriously difficult without an idea. So unless you’re working on the next Coke ‘Parents’: Practice safe advertising. Use a concept.

If you’re feeling down, read this.

coutts tom and ev

It’s one of those pieces that puts the petty concerns of stuff like work issues and the little irritations of life into perspective. An everyday tragedy told with heartbreakingly brave and down-to-earth prose. Take ten minutes out of your day to read it and remind yourself about the crazy, random, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it luck of being alive on this planet and the joyful good fortune of having people around that you love and who love you. As the writer, Marion Coutts, says, “The project is to not go down.”

The book extract and image are from The Guardian.

“This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.”


It’s just over a year since I wrote my first post on this blog. So it seemed like an opportune time to pause and reflect. I’m a copywriter who’s always been as passionate about the craft of writing as the conceptual side of the job; I love words and the noble art of putting them together to create stories and inspire emotions. As my work life over recent years began to involve increasing amounts of creative reviews, finessing decks and writing documents that explain ideas rather than copy for ads, I started this blog as an outlet to do more writing. And, on that level it’s been tremendously enjoyable. The process of writing short pieces on something I’m passionate about is great fun.

I also really enjoy the autonomy of putting up what I want, when I want: no-one else’s opinions to take into account, no client feedback to build in and no deadlines. I’ve written before about my theory that, in the world of advertising, “nobody knows anything”; I’m greatly in agreement with John Cleese’s statement that “you realise as you grow older that almost nobody knows what they are talking about.” Bearing that in mind, the blog is a place for purely subjective ideas and opinions to live, breathe, stimulate debate and, sometimes, vehement disagreement.

In another life, I created gonzo Situationist fanzines. These mentalist photocopied rags were the ramblings of a moody baby Hamlet, a mash-up of half-understood philosophies, part-read novels and an endless diet of Public Enemy, Dexys Midnight Runners and The Clash. They came off like The Communist Manifesto rewritten by Travis Bickle. But, essentially, they were – like this blog – an outlet for unfiltered, unedited, uncensored ideas and writing. Which I’ve come to believe is such an important thing for the creative mind – and a forum that the WordPress platform provides.

WordPress is such a great example of technology putting the means of production into creative people’s hands. I love that blogging enables anyone with a rudimentary technical knowledge to get ideas, arguments and points of view published. Whether you’re obsessed with ads, music, film, cooking, literature, sport or Star Wars figures, it enables you to get those passions out there. In many ways, it reminds me of the DIY ethos of the punk movement, when musical dexterity became less important than ideas and attitude. Although, the key watchout is that having a voice and having something interesting to say are not the same thing. One of my favourite bloggers, the Ad Contrarian, reflecting on his learnings through blogging recently, said, “Being effective at social media means having a voice that is interesting and different. Most people aren’t interesting and are afraid to be different. Readers will give up on you very quickly if you are boring.” Which is a sobering thought and one I’ll keep top of mind as I head into my second year of blogging.

Creativity and technology can change the world

I’ve been meaning to write about this campaign for a while now – it’s one of my favourite pieces of work from the last few years.

As quickly as technology and the internet have developed, the one thing that always seems to keep pace with and leverage change is people’s capacity to find heinous uses for it. It’s depressing to think about the grim depths that humanity is capable of plumbing but over the last few years, a new form of child abuse has started to run rampant online: Webcam Child Sex Tourism (WCST). This grim phenomena involves paedophiles co-ercing children in the developing world into performing sex acts in front of web cameras. The Dutch agency Lemz worked with the international children’s organisation Terre des Hommes to raise global awareness about the issue of Webcam Child Sex Tourism (WCST), track down these predators and rescue the kids.

Rather than a traditional ad campaign that could be easily ignored or a new form of internet security that could be bypassed, they created something that brought the paedophiles running to them: a 10 year old Filipino girl named Sweetie, who popped up online and made herself available for ‘chat’. Sweetie looked and moved like any other cute little kid and as soon as she went online, the predators flocked to her. What they didn’t know was that ‘Sweetie’ wasn’t a real girl sitting in front of a computer in the Philippines – she was an amazingly lifelike interactive 3D model created and controlled by Lemz/Terre des Hommes from a warehouse in Holland. While ‘she’ engaged the paedophiles in chat, Terre des Hommes traced their location to an exact address, recorded any personal details they could get and took videos of them.

Using Sweetie, Terre des Hommes were able to catch 1,000 online predators from 71 countries in the act. Their identities were handed over to Interpol for investigation. A film was made about the process and posted online – it currently has almost five million views. Sweetie was covered on news channels around the world and Terre des Hommes estimate the campaign has been seen by a billion people.

Although the Sweetie campaign is far broader in its reach and aims, the ‘honeytrap’ nature of the idea reminds me of the ingenious police operation to catch criminals in North London a few years ago (which was one of the most popular blog posts I’ve ever written). Like that idea, there are ethical grey areas around privacy and entrapment but I’d argue those moral dilemmas mean nothing in the face of such fucked up evil. The work has pushed the issue of Webcam Child Sex Tourism onto the international agenda, with law enforcement agencies, global organisations and governments debating it and considering various changes in global laws to enable more prosecutions and child rescues. And while the issue is depressing and heart-breaking, this campaign is ultimately a brilliant example of the seamless blend of creativity and technology making the world a better place.