Notes on non-correlation; Advertisers take a freaky leap in the face of massive marketing burn-out.

If you’ve been other countries or seen the British Advertising Awards here in Minneapolis, you’re hip to a glaring reality that we play it pretty safe here in the States when it comes to TV ads. Dog food commercials have happy dogs in them. Clothing commercials have pretty clothes in them. Bacon commercials….well you get it. “Show the product” has been the American way and both the rule and the battleground between “creatives” and clients as long as I can personally remember.

Based purely on observation and absolutely no scientific research, however, I’d say a change is a comin’. I’m seeing more experimentation, even a few Hail Mary long shots as advertisers scramble to deal with a marketing-bludgeoned public. And clients seem to be more likely to go along with it. I’ve been intrigued by the leaps from “Advertising 101” to non-correlating visuals and product.

Tasty car insurance from Geico
The Geico taste test, an early ad true to the Geico brand in which ______ (taste tests, cave men, etc.) have nothing to do with insurance. In a good way.

My two favorite examples are Geico and Old Navy. It makes sense. Heavily saturated and over-marketed industries (insurance and fashion) are the mother of invention. I can’t think of a single Geico ad that starts out with an image that suggests “insurance” to me. Old Navy has long been in on the non-correlation game with bizzarro ads that, yes, show clothes, but do it in a very tongue-in-cheek way. They invest way more in developing campy, sometimes odd imagery and themes than they do in saying “we have pretty clothes.” They are dancing along the non-correlation continuum a bit, still starring their product but in an off-the-cuff, irreverent way that wins points in my book for risk.

The only reason for this, of course, is the growing sophistication of the TV-watching public. Instead of straight-forward, linear shows like Happy Days or whatever else we used to watch, shows like 30-rock and Modern Family are setting the bar for rapid-fire, witty writing, unique themes and messaging that develops through complexity and synthesis versus a conk on the head. Most viewers in our aging population also are thoroughly versed in how ads work. They know about emotional manipulation, about aspirational imagery and all the rest. In their non-TV-watching hours, people are bombarded with ads on their phones, at the gas pump, when they glance at the side of a bus, on email, when they turn on their radio, check Facebook, at the mailbox, as they drive down the highway, basically at every step they take during a waking day (if they’re city dwellers). They get it, already, and are used to the rhythms, phrases and techniques of the last ten years of advertising. To paraphrase Monty Python, a master non-correlator, it seems to be time for something completely different. If you’re ready to mix it up, here’s a few thoughts to either get you started or send you charging off in the wrong direction. Which may actually be exactly where you need to go.

Very very important tip #1. Figure out if it’s right. The wacky approach, the arty approach, or the surprise approach doesn’t speak to everyone. Non-correlating for the sake of being different won’t work. I recently saw an for a feminine product that was mostly about how other ads for feminine products tried so blatantly to market to women. “Yeah, you really get me Mr. Marketing Executive,” said the star, who presumably represents me – “marketing-savvy female consumer.” It didn’t work. In the end, it was a promise to be a different kind of ad that was exactly the same kind of ad. The talent was all still beautiful. The messaging was the same as any traditional ad in this arena. It was another feminine product ad that was just a bit more self-conscious.

So be careful. If you’re going to break correlation you have to mean it, you have to do it for a reason, and your have to go for it without a self-conscious reference to the fact that you’re doing it. Whether that’s right for your audience is up to you.

Very very important tip #2. Accept that your customer is burnt out and doesn’t really want to hear from you at all. If you’re going for this fresh approach, you’re going for the ad-wary viewer. I’m a decent example. I want to get away from advertising as much as I can (even though I’m in the field!) If you want to get my attention you have to delight me, surprise me, show me that you’re confident enough to take a risk, and best of all make me laugh. The schmaltzy emotional tug is completely worthless to me, and like many I may actually be irritated by the attempt to manipulate emotion. The worst ad to me is the sing-song, list ad (at least I call them “list ads”). A series of statements followed by a (presumptuous) emotional payoff.

“We’re the dream-builders.”
“The hand-holders.”
“The ones who make a difference.”
“We’ve got your back every step of the way. We’re ______” (stupid company X that I now hate)

I don’t want to be told how I’m interacting with your product and how you are now claiming a meaningful relationship with me. You’re a product. The days of being able to insert an emotional connection through a series of inspirational images are over. Consumers are exhausted and turned off by the play for their emotions. Don’t do it! And if they’re too young to be burned out by years of marketing, then they’re even more immune to it. As everyone knows by now, marketing to the under-30 crowd is OVER – it’s all about engagement.

Very very important tip #3: Do. Not. Presume. Anything. This goes with #2. Be careful about attempting to build an emotional connection, and definitely don’t presume there already is an emotional connection the way this fridge company did. Unless you are Chevy, Coca Cola or McDonalds, this presumption will backfire on you in about 100 different ways. And Chevy, Coke and McDonalds should tread lightly. Yes, there is a bond with brands. But it’s not what it used to be.

Look for any hint of presumption in your approach and use that as grounds for throwing it out. Think of Old Navy. There is no presumption whatsoever of a bond with that brand. Their entire goal is to entertain and surprise with their ads. I like to think of ads as a first date. It’s time to put every ounce of charm, graciousness, appeal, humor and humility into it, given that someone has agreed to spend a bit of time with you. Never assume there will be a second date. Give it a shot with generosity and humor and ask for nothing in return. For more dating tips, email me personally.

Very very important tip #4: Think of who you are and who want to be not what you want to say. I can’t emphasize this enough. By the time the viewer sees your ad, they have seen dozens upon dozens of other ads, telephone numbers, facts, URL’s, and product specs. Have they retained any of it? No (unless they are actively in the process of searching for that product or comparison shopping). For 99%, the only thing that will linger is an impression of who you are or in company-speak, your “brand.” Are you confident and wacky? Are you willing to take risks? Are you desperate for customers? Are you emotionally manipulative? Do you have integrity? Do you appreciate your customers? Do you respect yourself? Again to go to the Old Navy example, after watching their ads I have very little memory of what stuff they’re offering (unless I’m in the market for a kicky dress). But I have the impression of a company that respects my intelligence, is confident and bold, and in some ways doesn’t care if I shop there but is enjoying itself. They’re creating something authentic and with some artistic integrity with their ads, not just pandering. I “like” them as much as I can like any company, and I won’t resent shopping there. That’s a strong impression they’ve left on me. Kohls, Macy’s, Walmart, even Target lately….I can’t remember a single ad. I think they had pretty people in them.

Very very important tip #5: Think of traditional correlations. Burn them. Make a list of all the imagery, messaging and approaches that have been used in your category. If you’re a pet food company, for example, list them out. What images? What messages? What tactics? What colors? You’ll usually see they’re pretty obvious and fairly narrow (and you will start to be amazed at the industry’s lack of creativity!). Keep this as a list of what not to do. Use it as a springboard for out-of-the-box thinking. What’s unexpected? Go ahead and get goofy, then go back and weed through to see what you’ve got.

Very very important tip #6: Correlate to an emotion or something abstract, not a product. If you’re not feeling confident enough to make the full leap into complete randomness, make a conservative leap. Correlate to something intangible, such as comfort, sensuality, joy etc. Use imagery that relates to that non-tangible versus your product. The phone company (T mobile, methinks?) correlated to speed but still managed to surprise because the imagery they chose wasn’t their product. It went for an impression of super-duper, rip-roaring fast. That’s it. A simple, strong, clear impression tied only to the product at the end.

In short, we’re never going to survive unless we get a little more crazy. The human brain is going through some wacky stuff right now with media saturation, we’re emphasizing filtering and synthesis versus old-school, pow-bam stimulation. We’re making connections in bizarre, non-linear ways. Be worthy of making it through that filter with something fresh, surprising, authentic, unique, sassy or wondrous.

And ALWAYS wait at least two days to call.