Hey, where’s the big idea?

In my first and third jobs as an advertising copywriter, I had a creative director who was fixated on the notion that an advertisement should have at its central core an idea.
You'd saunter into this guy's office and babble your little pitch for an ad or a commercial you'd thought up in the shower that morning. About two-thirds of the way through he'd go Yeah, yeah, yeah BUT WHAT'S THE IDEA?

In my first and third jobs as an advertising copywriter, I had a creative director who was fixated on the notion that an advertisement should have at its central core an idea.

You’d saunter into this guy’s office and babble your little pitch for an ad or a commercial you’d thought up in the shower that morning. About two-thirds of the way through he’d go Yeah, yeah, yeah BUT WHAT’S THE IDEA?

The idea that ads should have ideas that drive them is one which I have found to be invaluable, and one which is clearly not asked nearly enough.

Witness the current HSB Merrill Lynch radio campaign spots that start with Wouldn’t you like to delete…and then tells you a joke, like ‘wouldn’t you like to delete the time you got thrown out of the express line for having nine items? Well, we can’t help you with the law, but…’ And then it goes on to tell you how you should get an online trading account.

So what is the darn idea? The little joke is quite funny. It’s funny to think you would be thrown out of an express checkout line for having one item too many. It’s even funnier to imagine that this constitutes breaking the law! So what’s wrong? Isn’t funny good?

Yeah, funny is good, but funny is not advertising. Funny is only advertising when it is (a) really funny and (b) it drives home an idea that sells the product. What do check-out lines have to do with online trading? A joke is not an idea, unless it’s a joke about online trading in an online trading commercial. Or maybe we’re very old-fashioned.

Me, I’m so busy digesting the joke I miss the next five lines about online trading, if you get my drift. Now whoever wrote this might say like we’re creating a sympathetic environment for our message through the use of humour. Trouble is, the joke puts you in a supermarket and by the time you get out the commercial is over. You’ve only got 30 seconds, and if you feel compelled to use half of it to build yourself a little program in which to place your precious commercial, well shame on you. Go run on the comedy channel.

There are a few spots on TV currently that my first and third (yeah, same guy) creative director would have bought if I’d pitched ‘em, because they are driven by A Big Idea that drives the Selling Idea of the spot.

The first had only run a few frames last night when my 15-year-old son said Watch this! It’s sooooo cool! You know they’re on to something when a teenager who’s bang in the middle of the target audience goes Soooo cool instead of This sucks.

This is the Dentyne Ice spot. A wonderful and oddly moving little piece of film for chewing gum, which does a nice job for launderettes and kissing, too, come to think of it. Great writing, great casting, great acting.

It’s the one where some creep is trying to pick up a girl who’s doing her washing with one embarrassingly ghastly pick-up line after another. A guy comes in, turns to the girl and says Sweetheart, here’s the Dentyne Ice you wanted. She hesitates half a beat, then kisses him passionately on the mouth.

The creep stumbles out, defeated. When he’s gone, the kissing couple introduce themselves to each other. Turns out they’ve never met before. My son would give a million bucks to be that guy. He might even chew Dentyne to be that guy. The gum is hero. The idea is the kiss.

And there’s the McDonalds’ cellist. The adorable, slightly geeky young guy with the black coat and the big nose and the mop of curly hair who sets up to play his cello for quarters in what looks like a bank building lobby. Finally he’s ready to play. He’s sawed off no more than half a note when a toonie hits the plate. It’s like a lightbulb goes off in his mind. He stops, packs up the cello again, and takes off. The super reminds us that Big Macs are two bucks right now. The idea is the two bucks. A classy two bucks.

The third spot is really an ongoing campaign that sells as well as anything on TV these days. It’s the Moores The Suit People campaign. And everything they do drives the idea of old world craftsmanship, confidence, care and quiet pride that feeds their positioning line, Well made/Well priced/Well dressed.

The casting, the camera work, the writing, all conspire to create an aura of professionalism, even trust in tailoring THAT IS VERY OLD-FASHIONED INDEED but bang on the money, I suspect, if you want to sell inexpensive suits to average guys. You could screw this brand position up so easily just by adding a handful of the familiar devices commonly used to sell fashion. They don’t. No rock guitar. No quick cuts. Moores never misses a note. The idea is honesty.

Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He writes this column to promote the cause of what he calls intelligent advertising, and to attract clients who share the notion that many a truth is said in jest. Barry can be reached at (416) 924-5533, or faxed at (416) 960-5255, at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners.