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This Coffeemaker Can't Dance
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Is Creative Really At The Core Of Great Advertising?

I am digging the new Tassimo Brewbot! It's this innocuous-looking little device that sprouts arms and legs and opens packages of coffee, makes it, and then brings it to you. Who would have thought that such a simple thing could be improved so dramatically. I mean, it has a head with eyes and talks, so it's possibly sentient. And I'll tell you one thing: this is one kitchen appliance that knows how to dance! I've seen the commercial.

What? That's just marketing creative? You're telling me that all the machine does is brew coffee?

I feel so misled.

Of course, now it makes perfect sense. The ad was intended to illustrate the gizmo's functional versatility, the whole robot thing a symbol, nothing more. Tassimo's agency decided that an intelligent dancing robot is the best way to engage potential customers. The approach, broadly speaking, is a core tenet of advertising: creative ideas are the keys to unlocking consumer disinterest, overcoming their disbelief, and narrowing the distance between brands and the cash in consumers' pockets.

Great creative is great, but I'm not sure I buy the premise that it's the driver of great advertising or marketing, and here's why:

  • It can be a distraction -- How many times have you remembered the creative concept of an ad -- the setup, joke, or one of the characters -- and then couldn’t recall what product or service they were hyping? It's something to which brands actually aspire and then celebrate, like every year when they rate the entertainment value of Super Bowl ads. I wonder how many billions have been spent over the years making viewers laugh (or cry) with no net impact on sales or profits? It's kinda funny that the practice has survived as long as it has.
     
  • It skews to extremes -- It's really hard to be particularly thoughtful or nuanced in the brief window of a commercial (or viral video, for that matter). Brands have the opportunity to get a single idea across, and even that has to be abbreviated and possibly incomplete, and this means that creative ideas are usually pretty blunt. "Funny" or "sad" content can't be subtle when it's doled out in seconds. That's why the vast majority of creative ideas are 1) sexist, or otherwise exploitative, or 2) crude tugs at heartstrings, often including puppies.
     
  • It's often a lie -- Creativity is license to make the case for things that may not necessarily be factually true, like beer or taco chips that'll make guys more appealing to women, or an outright lie, at least by omission ("Our new product does XYZ but we'll avoid admitting that its predecessor was a bust," or “We spent ABC on preserving the environment while we spend a million times more on destroying it"). Inconvenient truths can be easily glossed over with soaring soundtracks and images of employees declaring their personal commitment to something about which a brand could care less...or focus the ads on humor or pathos and ignore truth completely.

The Brewbot is a great example of a missed opportunity to get people truly engaged in the pitch. How does it make coffee better? What about its operation is unique? How can the offering provide value available nowhere else? When will it make an experiential difference for consumers, whether through use, novel applications, and/or support? Any one of these all data points could have formed the basis for a compelling ad, and then the creatives could have gone to town to figure out how to make it immediately comprehensible and operationally relevant (i.e. ask people not just to remember the content but give them something that compels them to act).

It's heretical to suggest that the heart of great advertising isn't creative, but it just isn't. Creative is a solution in search of a problem to fix, and if the problem is that consumers aren't getting enough entertainment (or are too busy to pay attention) then you're going to get entertaining ads that command their attention...often at the cost of selling them anything. Ditto for so much of what passes for "social engagement" on the web. I'd suggest that the heart of great advertising is truth, followed closely by purpose.

If that were the way the folks at Tassimo had approached the Brewbot challenge, I don’t think they'd have elected to tell me the coffeemaker can dance when it can't.

Added: 13th December 2010

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