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A friend of mine told me he was shooting a video for a client in LA. “How’s it going,” I asked.

“It’s awful,” he replied. “You know how I can tell it’s awful? Because the client loves it!”

The purpose of management is to reduce risk. That’s why managers write plans, prepare budgets, implement procedures and create reporting structures. On the assembly line, anything unexpected that happens is often expensive and probably bad, so companies take great pains to prevent anything unexpected or new from happening. That’s why large organizations can be such terrible bores to work at, and why they have to create small “skunkworks” projects to get anything new built. 

Marketing, like many human endeavors, operates on a risk/reward curve; nothing ventured, nothing gained. By the time everyone in the company has approved the advertising, you can bet they have snuffed out every glimmer of distinctiveness, every spark of creativity, any hint of risk and all likelihood that someone seeing the ad will be amused, surprised or endeared.

As viewers, we forward links that are shocking, surprising, insane, unexpected, sexy and (less often) genuinely useful (like coupons). We talk about ideas and images that touch us emotionally, but emotional content is risky. It provokes controversy and sometimes outrage or, put another way, audience engagement. The very fact that people are talking about something means that they have differences of opinion. You can’t spark a discussion by saying that the earth is round, but you can create a social media firestorm about a swimsuit made out of an American flag or a live fish dropped into a blender.

By the time you have sucked all of the controversy out of your message, it looks like “We care” or “Go with the original.” Nobody will ever remember those messages. Great advertising looks like this:

  • Volkswagen, “Think small” and “Lemon.” These were messages that everyone “knew” American car buyers wouldn’t listen to.
  • Avis, “We try harder.” This was the first time in American advertising that anyone had ever admitted they were not number one at something.
  • Maidenform, “I dreamed I went shopping in my Maidenform bra.” Imagine this in 1950!
  • Benson & Hedges 100s, “The disadvantages…” This cigarette ad totally made fun of the product being too long.
  • Sunsweet Prunes, “Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles, Sunsweet marches on.” How do you get people to watch a prune ad without sniggering? You don’t. You take advantage of it.

The next time you are reviewing an ad concept for your company (or presenting one to your client), take a look around the room. If everyone likes it, drop it quietly into the trash and move on.

About Rick

Rick Scherle is a founder and Senior Managing Partner at Zoe Street.

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