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The significance of topicality in advertising

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How to talk persuasively about topical and tactical advertising in a book? A medium more about shelf life than it is about plugging into the zeitgeist of whatever exact moment you happen to be reading these words.

Being topical isn’t so easy when the advertising process itself is so killing to freshness and immediacy.

An average ad is worked over an average of 30 times in meetings from concept to dispatch. No wonder so many end up so average.

Really, that any idea at all survives this proctology with integrity intact is remarkable. And in truth, only a handful of ads each year do manage to overcome the process and successfully go out into the real world and mix with the mainstream of life.

It’s worth the effort. Successful topical ads enjoy tremendous effectiveness compared to the spending behind them.

So even though the things I’m going to talk about in this article will break a few comfortable systems, the ROI is AOK.

However, let me start my saying that it’s a tough task. Hard for advertising ideas to compete with everyday news on the street; harder still, then, to be the news.

However, that’s precisely what I’m recommending your advertising strive to do. At least, occasionally.

Because, just as nothing’s as old as yesterday’s news, there’s most likely nothing is as fusty as your current advertising strategy.

Sorry, but it was, after all, based on yesterday’s perspective. It’s the age old, driving-with-the-rear-vision-mirror problem.

There’s so much process, time and effort involved in the preliminaries to running most every advertising campaigns today, that nearly everyone else in your category has had the same period so digest, and react to, the marketing situation as you.

In the meantime, they’ve read the same books, believed the same research, subscribed to the same journals and dealt with the same ever-shrinking choice of globalized, systematized agency networks.

On the other hand, nothing’s as powerful for a brand as an immediate, lively, topical idea that captures a collective moment and blossom around the water coolers and coffee tables of the world.

Passion the water coolers test’ (by now this is probably becoming the ‘SMS test’ in many young markets around the globe) should be compulsory on every brief.

Aim for fame.
“You can’t underestimate the water cooler factor” said Pepsi’s Dave DeCecco in the New York Times, in February 2004, when talking about the power of big events, “… to unveil new advertising.”

There’s no time like the present. Because, that’s what your customer is talking about; and thinking about; and coping with, the present.

If your campaign is good enough, it might become part of this constant flux of present-tense consciousness and, hopefully, even enter the vernacular.

If your starting point is what is actually happening today and, more importantly, if your advertising department has the necessary speed to market, then your brand will be in a world of your own.

A class of one. Out in the clear. On people’s lips. On the button. Of the ‘now’. Usually such ads are one-offs; a brilliant comment on the times that sparkles and resonates with the former Saatchi & Saatchi creative director, Kim Thorp.

He means better to have something savvy and scrappy than a tired and solid campaign that has the stakeholders all nodding their heads; while the consumers are nodding off.
Whilst Consistency is a Law, Predictability can be a Crime.

Great topical ads take a ‘newsworthy’ snippet of popular culture, and use it as proof of the brand’s campaign or promise, or claim.

This may sound more like jazz improvisation than careful campaign orchestration, but providing that good strategies are in place as a platform this is a more spirited approach than rigidly sticking to well-worn patterns. The sheer energy of an occasional Topical ad breathes life into a brand.

This is because people are more interested in the attitudes of a brand than its features these days. Features are table stakes. Show us where your heart lies.

We want the ground truth. The world over, in every category, we’re talking to an increasingly ad literate and media savvy consumer.

So a solid, plodding reinterpretation of last year’s execution isn’t always the most pungent way to build brand equity.

Yes, it is about planning spontaneity. Unfortunately, few organizations respond fast enough to take advantage of moments of shared culture.

There are exceptions, of course. A few have built their bran’s fortunes on an authentic dialogue with the world, conducted through media advertising.

Bennetton was one, Branson’s Virgin another, I guess. They outmaneuvered the big, slow guys; and that’s why every regional and domestic market has an example or two to talk about.

In the beginning was word of mouth
From international events to suburban book launches, from global sports involving millions of people right down to your a friend’s friend’s flat-Warming, ‘partied communication’ is integral to our lives.

Humans, more than any animal, have invented events and social gatherings – rocks concerts, religious celebrations, birthday parities, engagements, weddings, seminars, football matches, rallies, graduations, hen parties, buck’s nights and the rest; it is all about shared experience.

Social circuit breakers; opportunities to flaunt status, to pool knowledge and opinion.
Shared experience is one of the essential values we enjoy about relationships with fiends relatives and marriage partners for generations.

According to the Danish linguist, Otto Jesperson, there are five theories on the origin of language.

The Bow-wow Theory, that speech arose through people copying the sounds of their environment.

The Pooh-pooh Theory, that people started emitting instinctive sounds caused by emotions like pain, anger, frustration or similar.

The Ding-dong Theory, that people reacted to external stimuli to produce sounds that were harmonious with the environment – arguably ‘mama’ is the sound made when the lips approach the breast.

Then there’s the Yo-yo Theory, that argues speech arose as a collaborative effort as people worked together communally, their physical effort producing rhythmic runts that became in time, chants and eventually language.

The La-la Theory suggests the romantic side of life was the primary agency for the development of language. The love, play, feeling, need for song, soaring emotion and poetry.

You won’t be surprised that, in 1866, the Linguistic Society of Paris resolved that, because of the noisy, vehement and disorderly meetings, any further formal discussion of the origin of language was to be banned.

Word of mouth has been making people feel more comfortable with their environment for about 100,000 years – nowadays, by talking about and recommending brands.

According to The Anatomy of Buzz by US marketer Emanuel Rosen, Recent surveys show that 58% of young people rely to some extent on others when selecting a car, 53% of moviegoers follow the recommendations of friends and 65% of the people who bought a palm organizer wee inspired by the enthusiasm of others.

Everyone knows word of mouth adds fame and currency to the brand when ordinary people say, “Did you see that ad last night where … ?”

The new cleaner in my city apartment was quite interested when he heard that I was a partner in an advertising agency. “Really,” he said, as he swept the floor, “I know all about advertising.”

“Really?” I responded, thinking of the many clients who’d also said that.
“Yeah,” said the cleaner, “it’s all about getting people to talk about your product.”

He was right, I said immediately. Then I thought how many marketers should be sweeping floors. And there it was in a nutshell: The significance of Topicality.

Just as “new” is the most powerful word in advertising, so “news” is the ultimate aim of advertising.

Because if you’re newsworthy, you’ve got the most powerful advertising technique in the world working for your brand.

Look at it like this. What do people talk about? The weather. What they have to do later in the day.

What somebody said about what they’ve been doing. Current things. Contemporary, ordinary things. Things that texture the ebb and flow of the times. Flotsam and jetsam.

‘The now’, in short. So, as Shakespeare’s Edgar said to Gloucesor, “Ripeness is all. Come on!”

In the middle was the process
A certain pretentiousness, it’s been noted, overtakes marketing people when writing about their product.

Maybe this jargonized frame of reference has somehow led to advertising’s own clichéd language, and its limited set of category-imagery.

Advertising is using fewer and fewer words and images, of less and less variety. To worse and worse effect.

We arrange words and images about so-called real aspects of people’s lives, and shallowly and cheese ily tangle tangle and abuse them.

The same old thing regurgitated with less imagination than last time. We take the lively soil of real life and sanitize it until it is heavy as a cold. Yet as Samuel Johnson Wrote, “Words are the daughters of the earth.”

Too many advertisements lack dexterity and lifeblood. They lack a wide enough brand vocabulary to do any thing other.

Most brands attempts at tapping into popular culture are as insightful as turning a baseball cap around backwards and thinking that’s cool.

Heavy handed, method acting. Undemanding, hollow, with all eccentricity and quirky liveliness eradicated. Originality as anathema.

This contributes to the wall of advertising sameness, and the audience sees only the usual comfortable, expected patterns. So it notices little.

Similarities merge into formula. Like in Hollywood. As someone once asked: “Those “Rocky” movies, how can you tell them apart?”

The answer came. “It’s easy: they’re numbered”. Ironically, consumer choice and worldliness has expanded in inverse proportion, as the marketing vocabulary has shrunk.

And it’s getting worse, with a breed of myopic brand –nazis now rising, who are rigidly keeping new life from campaigns in the guise of being so called ‘brand guardians’ Both agencies and clients have them.

They exert relentless daily pressure over every nervous aspect of their charge. Yet, there’s no prize for mere uniformity. A mere C.L. (Corporate Identity) is not a strategy or an idea.

Brands die of stasis. Legal departments also deserve a heavy sentence here. With more lawyers than art directors involved I advertising, many companies are askance at the notion of actually being in the news.

That usually means shaping to deny something bad that’s happened. No, no … you see we try and avoid publicity.

As one Compliance Advisor recently said to me: “Of course, we don’t expect our marketers to be lawyers.”

“Why then,” I couldn’t help asking, “do you let your lawyers to be marketers?” Legal fees are now very important items in marketing budgets, and so many want to be seen as having their existence justified. So, for one reason or another, many wheels are spun but little forward progress is made.

Brand language should be creative and rigorous. Not sullenly predictable and impoverished of spirit.

After the CBS broadcast from Superbowl XXXV111 in 2004 (in many ways, a spiraitual home for the wonderful one-off topical ad since Apple’s ‘1984’), there were complaints that ads for Bud Light, Charmin, Cialis, Lay’s, Levitra, Sierra Mist were almost as tasteless as the antics of the performers, Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake and Nelly, in the halftime show.

This uproar led to calls that the big event TV programs, like the Grammy Awards and future Super Bowls, be more controlled.

The ABC network, which broadcast the Academy Awards in the US, already had a system in place to scrutinize every TV commercial scheduled to run during the show.

Commercials have to undergo two separate screenings for ABC, from script stage and storyboards right through to finished ‘tapes’. This is Spontaneity Hell. And it may be your future.

In the End, You’re Either Famous or Just Making up the Numbers
William Goldman, the illustrious US film maker. Once commented on those trying to analyse the success of his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “They tried all kinds of ways to analyse why it was so successful; but I’ll tell you why.

The only reason some movies are successful is that people like them. If they’re not successful, it’s because people didn’t like them. The rest is pathology.”

Famous can also be infamous. All in equal under The Law of Topicality. The Church of England in Birmingham recently ran a campaign with poster headlines like: “Body piercing? Jesus had his done 2,000 years ago.”

Blasphemous? Probably. But the Anglican High Church answered criticism by saying: “Anything which makes an impact on the secular society is of value.”

American actress, Demi Moore, had just done her striking Vanity Fair cover while heavily pregnant, but that didn’t stop this Toyota Camry ad becoming the most complained about print advertisement in Australian history, at the time.

And it only ran once. However, the new concept of a “wide-body car” was successfully introduced, both economically and quickly, before a cent of the main campaign budget had been spent.

Everyone involved on an advertising account – the creative, suits, clients – should scour every newspaper, every morning, with a mind to finding some buried ammunition that might be turned into a topical or tactical ad.

Of course, topical ads can be used q1uite aggressively. For example, we once bought an outdoor poster site for Toyota that was positioned opposite the entrance to the ford factory, and could be seen by every one of their executives as they drove into work each morning.

Deliciously competitive tactics. You can contrive the moment, as with the Cannes winning “Bugger” commercial for Toyota Hiluz: to avoid over-exposing the famously popular ad, the agency took the TVC off air; then spiked interest in it again and again with a series of topical and tactical reminders in other media.

For example, after the huge fireworks on the spans of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at midnight on New Year’s Eve, we ran a full-page ad the following morning showing a retouched shot of the bridge in cinders, and the caption: “Bugger.”

That’s an example of a topical ad you might be able to plan for. It’s not hard. Every Valentines Day, my local florist has a chalk sign that promises: “Flowers today, fireworks tonight” The richness of eventful life should be celebrated by advertising brands.

Other examples, like for Land cruiser, sometimes fall into your lap. The brand’s indestructible image was far from dented when a Landcruiser was destroyed by the Australian Air Force.

They accidentally dropped an unarmed bomb on it. The photo was on the front page of every newspaper.

Next day, we ran a topical ad admitting that, yes, perhaps there is one way to destroy a Landcruiser.

In 2004, a campaign for coffee in Australia, by M&C Saatchi, was launched using hotly debated social issues, like the refugee question, as the platform.

In December 20-03, a brand new advertising agency network called DNA opened its doors.

Happily for everyone, quite soon after this, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was found and identified … by his DNA. You may have seen it on the news?

Anyway, two days later, this ad was on the newspaper and suddenly everyone was talking more about the new agency than the old dictator.

Topical P.S. – In today’s newspaper (my today, not yours) is an interview with Sun Microsystems vice president of global communications and marketing, Andy Lark, Who suggests advertisers and their agents have for too long toiled at making marketing buttoned up and perfect.

He asserts that fear of failure clogs the system like cholesterol filled artery that ultimately and drastically reduces the company’s performance.

He advises us to develop a ‘Kill it fast’ mentality. “We grew up in a culture of let’s get the brochure perfect, the ad has to be perfect –that you can’t fail as a marketer.

“It needs to change to fail it fast.” This theory might sound drastic, but who can argue that Campaigns need to deliver quickly these days? Attention spans are shrinking, magazine readership is falling and TV viewing is fading.

Maybe the future is not about sustained, low level activity. But something far fresher and energetic. You tell me. After all, you’re already there.

Keywords: topicality, advertising, advertisers, topical advertising, tactical advertising, ad, ads, customer, marketing, topical ad, brand, La-la Theory, Yo-yo Theory, Ding-dong Theory, Pooh-pooh, Bow-wow Theory, word of mouth,


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