Messaging Strategy: The Myth of Simplicity

[June 19, 2012] 

“Keep it Simple” is a phrase often accompanied by a tight-lipped frown or a horizontal snap of the hand at the wrist. The idea being, of course, that whatever qualifies as simple is inherently better, faster and—holy of holies—brings you as close as possible to a thought-free existence.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find the notion of Simplicity one of the most complex social constructs we’ve got going on. For one thing, there’s the sheer mutability of the concept, the way it expands and contracts to fit the needs of the moment.

Face it, whatever you consider your irreducible minimum is what you’ll call “simple.” More than that is “cluttered,” less than that is “stark.” And your minimum shifts from context to context. If your concept of a simple lunch is cheese, fruit and a glass of wine, there’s no guarantee your idea of a simple house won’t include an acre of land, a swimming pool, three bedrooms, a finished basement, a patio deck and a two-car garage.

Fact is, Simplicity is a shape-shifting trickster, a phantom ideal with its origins in one strain of 20th century Modernism. Like it’s older cousin, “Naturalness” which emerged in 18th century France, Simplicity is the very exemplar of language as thought-control. 

Can’t actually defend your aesthetic or technical goals? Evoking Simplicity is the perfect way to silence opposition. That’s because, as a pseudo-modernist worship-word with no fixed definition or frame of reference, Simplicity can mean anything its smug advocate needs it to mean.

A delicate balance. 
Now, I’m all for having an aesthetic, a set of standards I can use to measure my work and a set of premises to establish a context for my ideas. But aesthetics alone have never produced a meaningful, much less effective piece of work. I’d go so far as to apply that statement to the highest works of art in any medium, the realm where, many people believe, aesthetics is everything.

But that statement goes double for practical, work-a-day advertising, including advertising intended to raise awareness of a lofty social cause. And that means there are times when Simplicity, as an ideal, must take a back seat to functional imperatives.

Though your preference might be for Zen-inspired spareness, you might need something as Baroque as an entire paragraph to make your mission, your product, your offer clear. So a preliminary discussion about content density needs to happen way before the design team starts cloning Piet Mondrian or Constantin Brancusi.

Keep what simple?
Speaking of density, know that a presentation can only be as simple as its underlying premise. A simple presentation of the amendments to the United States Constitution? Unlikely. You might strive for the fewest words, the most stripped-down imagery, but you can’t adopt the Mint.com paradigm. That is, unless your treatment is too top line to be meaningful.

And that’s where many an ultra-streamlined, One-Show candidate gets battered by a storm of content density and washes up on shore. To be clear, I’m not talking about content as in words on the page, video in the window or the polls, widgets and “interactive tools.” 

I’m talking about the core brand promise. You want simple? Start by recognizing that a simple surface can only rest on a clear, uncluttered foundation. Simple communication is incompatible with spraying 100, often contradictory, statements at users from a digital fire hose and hoping one of them “resonates.”

Cherchez L’anxiété.
Time was, when brands understood the true function of a tagline—as in “Pan Am Makes the Going Great“—a simple promise had more than enough elbow room to work its magic. Sure, every age of advertising has had its share of space-filling, benefit-bulleting baloney. But if simplicity is your goal, the irreducible minimum is a unified hook you can hang your pitch on.

In today’s ideology-driven theoretical environment, that’s difficult to achieve. In 2012, the old Pan Am tagline would surely spark of a firestorm of Marketing Anxiety:

• What if users don’t remember that Pan Am is an airline?
• Do we think people know that “Going” refers to air travel?
• We have research that says “Great” doesn’t resonate unless you put it in context
• How can an airline “Make” anything? They aren’t manufacturers, so this totally doesn’t track.

With all of that backstory going on, you’re asking Creatives to “keep it simple?” Fine. What you’ll get is the status quo—a babble of conflicting communications saying practically nothing by promising practically everything.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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