Decoding Creative Advertising — Mining The Gestalt

Over my three decades in advertising I have recognized that advertising campaigns are of two broad types.

By far the more prevalent are campaigns that are driven by the undergirding of classical marketing and advertising fundamentals — USPs and product propositions at one pole and brand positioning and personality at the other. In my experience 99% of advertising campaigns fall into this category. The emergence of digital marketing and the incipient impact of AI in marketing has not changed the overwhelming dominance of this bread-and-butter type of marketing communication.

Once in a rare while however comes a campaign that breaks the mould. A campaign that is based on a mastery of the rules that allows for the campaign’s creators to break or transcend the rules. These are campaigns that are, to my mind, examples of creative advertising.

There is no set of rules that govern creative advertising. Decoding them is like decoding avant-garde art — literature, poetry. music, painting etc. Each campaign needs to be decoded on its own. The benefit of such decoding is not an emergence of a new set of rules but a refreshing of the sense of possibilities that are inherent in advertising when practiced as an art.

Creative advertising is never wasted advertising. By definition creative advertising works. Campaigns that evoke the same intensity as a great piece of art build brands like nothing else can. They do for a brand what Picasso’s paintings did for Picasso.

This post is the first of a series I propose to write that attempts to decode ad campaigns from across the world (including of course India) that to my mind are acknowledged as highly successful and which fit my definition of creative advertising.

Doyle Bernbach’s Volkswagen Campaign

There have been reams written about this campaign.

It is recognised by most advertising art directors as the campaign that rewrote the rules of print campaign design. Strategists have written about the brand positioning. One even created a new rule of positioning! “Find your product’s weakness and turn into a strength” !. And generations of copywriters have drooled over and tried to emulate the style and elan of Bernbach’s copy.

To my mind the creative leap of the campaign springs from the times it was created.

It was the early fifties. The US had won World War II and experiencing the biggest economic boom that world had ever seen. Dominant in the gestalt was a feeling of being big and unremittingly successful.

The campaign genius lay in rubbing against the gestalt and playfully reminding everyone how big is not always better and how no one can be unremittingly successful and that failure is okay as long as you recognise it and move on.

The wit of the campaign also ran counter to perceived dourness of everything German.

One route to creative advertising is a deep insight into the prevailing mood — the gestalt — of the society the campaigns needs to address. A gestalt that goes well beyond the context of a product or service but to the existential, emotional and spiritual realms where individuals actually live.

Planners at the ad agency FCB — these days Draft FCB — had evolved a planning tool called who core concept was something they called “Mind and Mood” where Mind was the context in which the product was consumed and Mood the larger context of life. In my experience however, in the making of bread-and-butter campaigns, Mood was more often than not conflated with a personality and attitudinal description of a typical consumer.

The next leap in creative advertising is in how you use the insight borne out of a true reading of the Gestalt.

Should your campaign reflect this gestalt? Or should it dig even deeper and address the lingering anxieties that lurk within the gestalt, as does the Volkswagen campaign?

There are no rules. It is an artistic impulse that will go where it will go. A freedom that is not free of the rules of bread-and-butter advertising but has so much mastery over them that it can transcend them.

If my readers have other examples of successful advertising campaigns that are based on a deep understanding of the Gestalt of its times I would be glad to mention them in my next post in the series “Decoding Creative Advertising”

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

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