Climbing Out of Oppositeland

[March 11. 2010]

In advertising, the winds of change blow constantly. That’s a good thing. If life weren’t dynamic, it wouldn’t be life at all. Accepting that, however, is not always easy. It takes a certain courage and, especially in a field where cause and effect is hard to pin down, it’s easy to see why so many people are desperate for The Answer.

Enter the theory of disruption, a tidy package of ideological toggle switches, which, like any philosophical system, promises a comfortingly reliable yardstick against which to measure success and failure.

As I see it, however, “disruption” itself has no inherent value. Like all ideological stances it’s simply the last resort of a bankrupt imagination. Look at it this way: If I start my creative process by noting aspects of the competitive market that might have become routine—that doesn’t mean I can revitalize my approach by arbitrarily running in the opposite direction.

Obediently defiant?
That’s because the opposite of a stale train of thought is not the opposite stale train of thought. The opposite of stale is fresh. Freshness can express itself in an unlimited number of ways, one of which is to take the traditional approach back to its roots and reinvent it. That is, not oppose it, but simply clean out the cobwebs and the mold, recaulk the tiles and open up the windows.

Or not, and that’s the point. Blind obedience to a belief system can’t produce a creative solution. A true creative solution connects on a deeper level than the Rule-Book-Of-The-Month Club allows. Sure, you might have a few successes. Shock value often leads to a spike in ratings. You might even start a cult of personality around the magic mantras that “guarantee results.”

Trouble is, over time, the results you get through animal magnetism aren’t sustainable—either with consumers or your colleagues. The mask slips and people begin to ask about the man behind the curtain—and, by the way, his broken promises.

Tools, not rules.
Now, as a way to jumpstart the imagination, there’s nothing wrong with ferreting out competitive trends. It can help you flesh out your understanding of why all the obvious messages aren’t cutting through. You’ll have learned something invaluable, even if—as often happens—you discover the source of the trouble in the hackneyed realization of a sound insight.

But none of that is meaningful unless it builds a lasting connection with consumers. Of course, in a world that celebrates stupidity, the most disruptive thing about “thinking differently” is that it involves thinking at all. But this is hardly a vote of confidence for Disruption’s dogma.

Touching a nerve.
Besides, it’s no revelation that shaking up cherished assumptions is a sure-fire way to attract attention. In the past few years, we’ve seen a gorilla pitch investment strategy, a duck hawk medical insurance and a gecko shill for Geico. Different, yes, but only effective because, beneath the startling surface, the message is clear as a bell.

These campaigns not only overturn the tried-and-true but also make a sincere effort to touch a nerve. Whom the gorilla, as a gorilla, speaks to most deeply is the advertising community. We, the bored, salute the new for its own sake, if only because it provides us with a fresh search term for the stock art engine.

At base, however, the only thing essentially disruptive about these campaigns is that they work. It wasn’t the trip down the rabbit hole to “Oppositeland” that provided insight. It was a grasp of the human equation, expressing itself, on the surface, as a twist on the ancient folklore tradition of talking critters.

Instead of saying: “Nobody’s doing geckos, so there’s our aperture.” someone realized they could connect to consumers by tapping into deep-seated cultural archetypes”—of which “Operators are standing by” is decidedly not one.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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