Baseline: Is it brilliant? Only time will tell

Chu En-Lai, Chairman Mao's right-hand man at the creation of what we used to call Communist China was once asked if he thought the French Revolution had been a success or not. He chewed on the question for a moment. Then he said It's too soon to tell.

Chu En-Lai, Chairman Mao’s right-hand man at the creation of what we used to call Communist China was once asked if he thought the French Revolution had been a success or not. He chewed on the question for a moment. Then he said It’s too soon to tell.

Brilliant. Tuck this away for the next time someone asks you if such-and-such an ad campaign (or rock band) isn’t just the most brilliant one ever.

It has always struck me that it takes about 10 years before even people in advertising start saying yeah, that Avis We Try Harder campaign is pretty cool. I wish I’d done it. And as the years pass, of course, more and more ad people recall that they did do it.

The Beatles and the Stones acknowledged Buddy Holly’s brilliance. Ten years after his death.

Have we finally decided that advertising is art and not science? I do hope so. Sure, science shows up in a supporting role in all great art. We have not heard of any of Mies van der Rohe’s magnificent buildings falling down, even after 75 years. Let’s hear it for engineering!

But it’s not about the engineering, is it? Mies van der Rohe made buildings that can still knock you sideways in a way few others ever hit you before or since. That’s the difference, folks.

The Volkswagen campaign made us think about cars as transportation, investments, status symbols and pure machinery in a way nobody ever did before. There was a VW radio spot that contained just four words. It opened with a man’s footsteps clacking along a busy street. The feet stopped, and the man read a sign, U-s-e-d V-o-l-k-s-w-a-g-e-n-s. And then a beat. And then he murmured Who’d know?

As distinct from Award Winning Advertising, brilliant advertising sells stuff, for sure. That’s one way you can tell it’s brilliant. But sometimes shit sells stuff too. Sorry, but it does. K-Tel sold one bitchin’ great pile of song anthologies with really shitty advertising. Advertising that became a joke about bad advertising, if you recall the brilliant Second City parodies. Just imagine if K-Tel had good advertising. Or brilliant advertising. They could still be around!

Conversely, brilliant products have an uncanny (and for me, depressing) ability to flourish without brilliant advertising. At least for a while. Take Wilkinson Sword. Michelin, long before the babies, who were kinda brilliant. The Body Shop. (Okay people wanted to smell like food all along. Who knew?)

Brilliant campaigns undoubtedly make certain things more successful, and survive longer, than they have any right to. Think Polaroid photography. Think Marlborough Cigarettes. Think Chivas Regal.

Is the Mini Cooper stuff brilliant? The Bud Light Institute? The guy who’ll leave a light on for ya at Motel 6? Hmmm. I’ll get back atcha.

But hey, have you seen the new strategy?

Barry Base is president and CD of Barry Base & Partners, Toronto. He makes ad campaigns. This column is a loss leader, for Pete’s Sake. Barry clawed his way up through four major ad agencies and founded his own firm when still a small child. See highlights of his career to date on an egomaniacal Web site at www.barrybaseandpartners.com.