Keep it simple, silly

Australia, from which I have just returned, is a nifty place. It is greener than I had guessed, cooler than I had guessed and, if they ever decide to develop an 'I AM AUSTRALIAN' beer campaign, I can guess it won't...

Australia, from which I have just returned, is a nifty place. It is greener than I had guessed, cooler than I had guessed and, if they ever decide to develop an ‘I AM AUSTRALIAN’ beer campaign, I can guess it won’t be based on what the New Zealanders think of them.

They also don’t trouble themselves with any of this bilingualism stuff. There’s a main street in the capital city, Canberra, called Mort Street. Halfway down Mort Street, there’s a great, big sign inviting you to enjoy the delights of the ON MORT Café. Even if your French is as rudimentary as mine is, I hope you’ll agree that’s serendipitously very funny.

I had hoped, though, that I would discover a few terrific Down Under communications insights that I could bring home and share with you, my loyal audience.

I was disappointed. Oh, they do have digital signs that tell you how many spaces are left in the parking garage, which does kind of help your day along, but I’m not sure it really qualifies as a breakthrough.

The Australian CBC is called the ABC, but similar otherwise: its programming seems to have come from the same worldwide public broadcasters’ think-tank convention. There’s a big series on the historic events that shaped Australia. There’s a laid-back observer of Aussie life, sort of half Letterman and half Rick Mercer, who satirizes current events and spells his program ‘Pogram’ to make sure you know it’s funny. Even the promos have a ‘Bringing You Your Nation And Reminding You It’s Swell’ feeling that seems awfully familiar.

But then one day I drove around a corner, clinging carefully to the left side of the road, and saw a billboard that knocked my socks off. The headline had just four words:

DRINK. DRIVE. KILL. JAIL.

I have to tell you, I love communication that strips down the strategy and pounds you with it. There are no wasted words up there. There are no asterisks, no disclaimers, no weasels. In fact, you can picture – in your mind’s eye – an old-fashioned hangin’ judge pronouncing those words directly at you. And you can save your breath trying to cop a plea.

That Aussie billboard reminded me of a principle that we creative people too often forget. It’s this. There are times when the cleverest thing we can do is not be clever.

That’s hard. After all, we get big bucks for the brilliance of our lateral thinking. We love putting crazy spins and angles on things, like some out-of-position basketball star trying to will a tough shot through the hoop. We adore it when the suits say, ‘I’m not creative, but…,’ because it serves to emphasize the lovely fact that we are.

Mostly, we do have to be clever. Mostly, we do have to fight our way through the incredible clutter by applying a unique twist to a parity product. But not always.

When Crest became the first toothpaste to receive the approval of the American Dental Association, it didn’t create a spokesman with a mouth full of toothpaste to gargle you the message. When American Airlines invented the Frequent Flyer Program, it didn’t hire a bunch of singing pilots to tell you so. Was there a clever campaign introducing the CD? Automatic transmission? The pill? No.

When you have a really good story, the best thing to do is say it clearly and get offstage. DRINK. DRIVE. KILL. JAIL. Thanks, Australia, for reminding me of that.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency and a Cannes Gold Lion. For your creative needs he can be reached at (416) 693-5072 or burgwarp@aol.com