Are you a ninny?

When I left university back in the late 1980s, the world of advertising enjoyed an extraordinary reputation for intelligence, wit and glamour. People spoke in hushed tones about the generic J. Walter Thompson account director, whose seemingly supernatural ability to span the worlds of commerce and creativity came with Foreign Office-class poise and tact. Across town, walking into Bartle Bogle Hegarty was akin to entering the loading bay of an interstellar cruise ship. And in boardrooms and artwork cupboards throughout adland, people nodded along sagely to utterances about the pen of Tim Delaney, the eye of Peter Harold, the mind of Tony Kaye, and the hair of Graham Fink. The industry was in love with itself and what it did, and that was hugely alluring to a generation of students soaked in postmodernism. Whither the novel? Who cared when you could get semi-famous putting words in the mouth of the great British public.

Around this time a new breed of sharp, young agency appeared. These were adroit at disrupting advertising conventions as a way to sidestep people’s cynicism about being sold to – or more accurately, advertised at. Of course, these new wave agencies were really reformists rather than revolutionaries, as you could tell from the names they selected for their companies. The likes of Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury asked profound questions of the advertising industry, but still adopted the brand identity of a conventional agency. I remember hearing someone discuss the possible merits of a merger between brash hotshop Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow and Johnson and established business Still Price Court Twivy D’Souza Lintas. It never happened, probably to the relief of their switchboard operators (younger readers can discover the exciting world of switchboards here). And let’s not forget the acronyms. CDP. DDB. BMP. VCCP. WCRS. ETC.

Unlike their modest cousins in design, advertising agencies played a clever game of talking themselves and their industry up. Campaign read like the newspaper of a busy, thriving village where everyone knew (and had possibly recruited, sacked, vomited over or slept with) everyone else. Brilliant myth creation went on each week. Big name creative directors were feted like footballers and paid vast sums. Start-ups and mergers sprang into life faster than you could say Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters. And so the industry attracted some of the very brightest of my fellow graduates, including one who seemed to be in demand from every blue chip profession that had a home in London, including the FCO. I mostly watched all this from a safe distance, although I did – briefly – edit a magazine about advertising called ads international (a publication that hovered in the liminal ground between cult and obscure).

This is all a preamble to a question that keeps nagging at me, on and off: why is so much print advertising so very bad? Still. Today. After all these decades when Advertising with a cap A has enjoyed such success, adulation and influence? When awards schemes, industry magazines, admiring TV shows and books from greats like Ogilvy and Bernbach help form the DNA of marketing? I’m not sure it was any different back in the making heydays I’ve just described, but I do find it astounding that so much of what is produced still misses the mark. And by ‘misses the mark’ I don’t mean ‘narrowly misses out on Gold at Cannes’, I mean misses the opportunity to persuade me to think something positive about the company that has paid for the ad. Or – hold on to something steady while I say this – buy something from them.

Such queries came to mind again this week when I was accosted by a vertical triptych in the window of a branch of Cheltenham & Gloucester. I have no strong feelings about C&G, or its parent Lloyds, but was willing to be nudged towards the warmer end of the emotional spectrum. Instead, I ended up staring through cold glass trying to work out what they were telling or selling me. This took some time. Is conflating the shrinking of home buying costs (a good thing) with the shrinking of a t-shirt (a bad thing) an effective way to attract customers? What’s more, if the t-shirt shrinks the ‘Free Legal Work’ promised will shrink with it, so the ad seems to suggest that the benefit will reduce if you take them up on their offer. Compelling. Perhaps I’m missing something, but the message of the copy seems at odds with the visual. Which is a shame, because you could have lots of fun with the shrinking theme (perhaps the agency involved should get in some good novels, like this one).

Then there’s the trio of ‘FREE LEGAL WORK’ slogans. I’m a great lover of threes in narrative, and repetition is one of the most effective ways to make a message memorable, but there has to be some craft involved. This is repetition ad nauseam. If you were to wander into a branch of C&G and a member of staff greeted you by repeatedly shouting ‘FREE LEGAL WORK’ you’d probably call for a shrink.

Later in the week I walked past this billboard from Air New Zealand. Now this is a brand that already interests me. The style and friendliness of the people in the shot reflect the brand I’m hearing about through editorial coverage and word of mouth. But, once again, I had to stop and spend time teasing out what was being said. Unlike passing drivers, I could stop, and that was necessary if I was to decipher the hand-held lettering. At first, the proximity of the two ‘An’s had me reading the key words as ‘aninny’ and ‘anouty’. I wondered whether they had, bravely, used some te reo. By mentally adding the space that was missing, I saw they meant ‘inny’ and ‘outy’. So I understood that we were talking about seating, and I could tell that this was part of a longer conversation they are initiating with potential customers. I have to say, I did feel in need of a business class seat and a glass of 2008 Craggy Range Te Kahu after working all this outy.

Is it just a Kiwi thing, or a typography thing?

Air New Zealand’s is a nice approach to tone and design, so it’s a shame this particular billboard requires you to do your own letter spacing. It’s not so very bad as an ad, it just asked me to work too hard. With people driving past (often at speed, often while smoking, talking or working out how to shrink their mortgage) I can’t see how they will read ‘an inny’ and ‘an outy’ in time. I might be wrong. I might be a ninny. But billboards surely demand absolute typographic clarity.

I don’t want to sound like an ad cynic, especially as my last piece on advertising looked at a load of balls from Dyson. Good advertising is still being made. I think Dentsu London is generating some really lovely communications ideas, for example (and no, I haven’t recruited, sacked, vomited over, slept with or even met anyone from there, as far as I know). I just feel rather surprised that many of the print ads we see today either don’t make clear sense, or don’t make the most of their opportunity to persuade. Much print advertising seems a long way from the idea of the urbane genii of old JWT, but perhaps it was – and will be – ever thus.


PS Did I mention the FREE LEGAL WORK?

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