The Perpetual Debate Creative versus Hard Sell Advertising

For decades there has been a perpetual battle over the role of advertising in the marketing process. The war for the soul of advertising has been endlessly fought between those who believe ads should move people and those who just want to move product. On one side are the "suits" or "rationalists," who argue that advertising must sell the product or service and that the more selling points or information in the ad, the better its chance of moving the consumer to purchase. On the other side are the "poets" or proponents of creativity, who argue that advertising has to build an emotional bond between consumers and brands or companies that goes beyond product advertising. The debate over the effectiveness of creative or artsy advertising is not new. The rationalists have taken great delight in pointing to long lists of creative and award-winning campaigns over the years that have failed in the marketplace, such as the humorous commercials for Alka-Seltzer from the 1960s and 70s and the Joe Isuzu spokes-liar ads from the late 80s. They also point to the recent dot-com explosion that brought with it a lot of creative and award-winning ads but proved that great advertising alone cannot make consumers buy a product or service they really do not want or need.

There are many examples of creative campaigns that moved consumers' emotions but were terminated because they failed to move the sales needle and they put accounts and reputations on the line. In 1998 Levi Strauss & Co. terminated Foote, Cone & Belding, of San Francisco, from its Levi's jean account after 67 years because of declining sales, even though the agency had consistently earned rave reviews and awards for its creative work. The company moved its account to TBWA/Chiat/Day, which won accolades for its creative work on campaigns such as "Opt for the Original" and "Make Them Your Own." However, the popularity of Levi's among young people plummeted 74 percent from 1996 to 2001, with only 8 percent citing the brand as their favorite jean, down from 31 percent in 1996. In early 2002 Levi Strauss parted company with TBWA/Chiat/Day and moved its business to Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the agency that has handled advertising for Levi's in Europe for a number of years.

Another company that had differences of opinion with its agency over artsy versus more hard-sell advertising is Norwe gian Cruise Lines. The company's marketing director, Nina Cohen, felt that the sensual "It's different out here" campaign produced by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in the mid-90s was gorgeous but irrelevant. She said, "Every frame of those ads was frameable, but we're not in the framing business." Cohen added that "while there are some creative icons out there who feel they have some higher voice to answer to, as clients, we're the ones you have to answer to." However, the agency's co-creative director, Jeff Goodby, considered his agency's creative work for Norwegian both beautiful and effective and argues that the impact of creative and entertaining advertising on sales isn't always quantifiable for good reason. He notes: "It's where the magic happens in advertising, and you can never predict that. It's dangerous to be suspicious of that." Many of the "poets" on the creative side agree with Goodby and like to cite the teaching of legendary adman Bill Bernbach, who preached that persuasion is an art, not a science, and that its success is dependent on a complex mix of intangible human qualities that can be neither measured nor predicted.

Most of the "poets" who support advertising that connects on an emotional level insist that selling product is as much a priority for them as it is for those on the rational side of the debate. One top agency executive notes, "We've proven that this kind of advertising works; otherwise we wouldn't be in business, us or the agencies that practice the craft at this level." However, Brent Bouchez, founder of Bouchez Kent and Company and a creative director for 20 years, argues that the poets are losing sight of the fact that advertising is

Brent Bouchez

about selling things and that being really creative in advertising means solving problems and building interesting brands that people want to buy. He notes: "It's time we stopped teaching young creative people to consider it a victory if the logo in an ad is hard to find, or if the product doesn't appear in the commercial at all. It's time we stopped using "break through the clutter" as an excuse to say nothing about what it is we're selling or why you should buy it."

It is unlikely there will ever be peace between the warring factions as long as there are "rationalists" and "poets" who make a point of arguing over which approach works best. Steve Hayden, vice-chairman of Ogilvy Worldwide, says, "It's the ad industry's reflec tion of the essential Platonic/Aristotelian split in the world, pitting two groups of people against each other who usually can't agree which end is up." However, Nina Cohen, who has worked on both the agency and the client side of the business, is bewildered by the intense opinions held by people on each side and asks, "Aren't we all here to do the same thing?" meaning to build brands and business. While the answer is, of course, yes, the debate over how to do it is likely to continue.

Sources: Alice Z.Cuneo,"Bartle Bogle Tapped to Cure Levi's Blues," Advertising Age, Jan. 14,2002, p. 6; Brent Bouchez, "Trophies Are Meaningless," Advertising Age, July 30,2001; Anthony Vagnoni, "Creative Differences," Advertising Age, Nov. 17,1997, pp. 1,28,30

that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as in the effective use of any tool."17 Young's model of the creative process contains five steps:

1. Immersion. Gathering raw material and information through background research and immersing yourself in the problem.

2. Digestion. Taking the information, working it over, and wrestling with it in the mind.

3. Incubation. Putting the problems out of your conscious mind and turning the information over to the subconscious to do the work.

4. Illumination. The birth of an idea—the "Eureka! I have it!" phenomenon.

5. Reality or verification. Studying the idea to see if it still looks good or solves the problem; then shaping the idea to practical usefulness.

Young's process of creativity is similar to a four-step approach outlined much earlier by English sociologist Graham Wallas:

1. Preparation. Gathering background information needed to solve the problem through research and study.

2. Incubation. Getting away and letting ideas develop.

3. Illumination. Seeing the light or solution.

4. Verification. Refining and polishing the idea and seeing if it is an appropriate solution.

Models of the creative process are valuable to those working in the creative area of advertising, since they offer an organized way to approach an advertising problem. Preparation or gathering of background information is the first step in the creative process. As we saw in earlier chapters, the advertiser and agency start by developing a thorough understanding of the product or service, the target market, and the competition. They also focus on the role of advertising in the marketing and promotional program.

These models do not say much about how this information will be synthesized and used by the creative specialist because this part of the process is unique to the individual. In many ways, it's what sets apart the great creative minds and strategists in advertising. However, many agencies are now using a process called account planning to gather information and help creative specialists as they go through the creative process of developing advertising.

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  • Arcangelo
    What is the debate over creative vs hard sell advertising?
    7 years ago
  • sinit
    What are the argument over the debate of creative and hardselling advertising?
    4 years ago

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