Decoding Creative Advertising — Addressing The Highest Common Denominator (HCD)

This is the second of the series “Decoding Creative Advertising”. The first one was published on June 26th and was about the Volkswagen Beetle campaign from the 1950s.

Any good advertising person will tell you that successful advertising holds up a magic mirror to the consumer — not a mirror that reflects who she is but who she wants to be.

Sometimes the difference between merely successful advertising and advertising that is both creative and successful is that creative advertising has a very different interpretation of what the consumer wants to be.

In 1943 Abraham Maslow created the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs a durable concept that remains as useful today as it was then.

The strategy that drives most successful advertising is to determine the rung on the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at which most of the target audience lies (that is the level at which her needs are currently met) and address the advertising to the aspirational needs of that rung.

Usually the aspiration needs of an individual are taken to be one level higher than the the rung of the hierarchy that she is currently at.

In most consumer and market segments across the world the largest mass of people are at either at a stage where either their “Safety Needs” are fulfilled and the lowest level of aspiration is to find “Love and Belonging” or they already have their “Love and Belonging” needs fulfilled and the lowest level of their aspiration is to find “Esteem”.

Even a cursory analysis of successful advertising campaigns from across the world will yield the insight that most such campaigns are keyed to the aspirational needs of “Love and Belonging” or “Esteem”. My term for this kind of strategy is the “Lowest Common Denominator” (LCD) strategy.

However once in a while comes a campaign that is both successful and creative by breaking the LCD strategy mould and flies high with a strategy I term the Highest Common Denominator (HCD) strategy.

It is strategy that is keyed to the highest rung of Maslow’s Hierarchy — The Self-Actualization need. These campaigns do so regardless of where the bulk of its target consumer lie — whether at the Safety needs rung or at the Love and Belonging rung. It does so regardless of the fact that in any market or consumer segment the proportion of people who have their Esteem needs fulfilled is small.

Such campaigns are based on the insight that every human being operates with a concurrent set of aspirations. Regardless of whether an individual is at the Safety Needs stage or the Love and Belonging stage at the deepest level the individual aspires to “SelF-Actualization” and that brands that are keyed to this highest of aspirations have the deepest most lasting appeal across the life of consumer as she transits from one stage to another.

However not every brand can be keyed in to this highest level of aspirational need of Self-Actualization. The brand that can successfully key into this need needs to meet the highest standards of quality and creativity. In effect the brand itself needs to be at the highest quality and innovation level of the product category that it occupies or, as is the case with many such brands, the category it creates.

Apple is one such brand and successful advertising from Apple over the past 25 years has many campaigns keyed to the HCD strategy.

One commercial put the Apple brand and its advertising on this HCD track.

On January 22, 1984 the Ridley Scot directed commercial “1984” stunned the audiences of Super Bowl XVIII. The girl with the hammer personified not just this brash new computer company but reflected the deepest aspiration of nearly young person — to rebel, to breakthrough, to self-actualize.

Apple’s “1984” Ad

The company, the brand and the advertising then lost its way.

In 1985 Steve Jobs was sacked from Apple and did not come back till 1997.

In these years Apple’s advertising slipped back into the LCD Mode — not surprisingly with a dyed-in-the-wool consumer marketer like John Scully of Pepsi fame in charge. The result was good advertising but not really creative. Case in point being the “Think Different” campaign with its obvious appeal to the “Esteem” seeker — the ones seeking to see himself in other people’s success.

Apple’s “Think Different” Ad

Once Jobs got back the company and the brand got back its mojo.

In 2001 Apple launched the iPod beginning the disruption of the music industry.

Apple’s iPod advertising was based on the insight that at the deepest level a person’s favorite music penetrated beyond a person’s social persona into the very heart of her being and thus freed her to be herself. The iPod advertising positioned iPod as the means to carry this private space of self-actualization out into the world.

A collection of Apple iPod Ads

The Jobs magic worked on the Mac ads too. In the well-known Mac vs PC campaign, Mac was as much the machine as he was the user of the Machine. And the reason why the campaign worked so well was that while Mac has superior abilities he is not at all conceited about it and ever ready to acknowledge the good in others . The campaign tickled the self-actualization bone because, at the deepest level, who wouldn’t like to be Mac.

A collection of “PC Vs Mac” Ads

And then came the iPhone.

Movies occupy a special place in modern civilization because the best of them are fields of dreams. Hours spent in a womb like auditorium drawn into worlds where we can be what one wants to be. It was appropriate that Apple pre-launched the iPhone at the 2007 Oscars Awards ceremony with a commercial that associated it with an entire phalanx of Hollywood movie’s most loved characters — not the stars but the characters they played.

Subsequent iPhone campaigns were good but not really keyed into the HCD strategy that was at the core of the earlier campaigns for iPods and the Mac.

Which is not to say that the later iPhone campaigns were not very good or not very successful. But they were designer campaigns selling a designer product. They were more Jonathan Ive, the legendary design guru at Apple and less Steve Jobs, the purveyor of dreams.

A collection of Apple iPhone Ads

The trend has continued with later campaigns from Apple including ads for iPhoneX, Apple Music, Apple News+ and Apple TV.

Apple’s iPhone X Ad

Two Apple Music Ads

Apple News+ Ad

Apple TV Ad

The HCD magic of the iPod campaign was kindled back in the AirPod ads. AirPods are well on their way to being among Apple’s most well-loved product among grumblings about the new iPhones and the company in general. Is there a lesson in there somewhere?

Two Apple AirPod Ads

Have there been other successful and creative campaigns that are based on the HCD strategy. One other comes to my mind. The red poster campaign of “The Economist”. Founded in 1843 “The Economist” is a high-brow weekly magazine (they insist on calling themselves a newspaper) known for informed well-written pieces completely immune to the contagion that afflicts most modern media — the tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator and genuflection at the altar of celebrity. Therefore “The Economist” the product itself is keyed to the HCD strategy. As a result all its award-winning campaign (mostly no body-copy poster type press ads and outdoor) has to do is celebrate the HCD way of life with inimitable wit.

A sample of The Economist campaign

I see myself as a pursuer of the truth that within and without

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