The drive to be clever
Guilty as charged.
The earliest creative people in ad agencies were quite successful with “just saying it.” But there were three problems:
- When everyone “just says it,” everyone says the same thing.
- Creative people tend to be a competitive lot.
- It’s hard to get away with charging big creative fees for taking a client’s free TV offer and returning with a headline like Free TV.
So perhaps inevitably, most ad agencies compete less on their ability to sell products and more on their ability to out-clever one another. They have even managed to convince clients that clever always beats straightforward. It’s an easily defended claim, provided you don’t mind resorting to selection bias.
I have no argument with cleverness when it serves. Once or twice, even I have written something clever, or so I flatter myself. But part of being clever is knowing when to just say it. Another part is being able to tell the difference between cleverness that enhances a message and cleverness that only shows off how clever the writer is.
Take the above-pictured billboard, an attempted clever way of telling people that driving buzzed is unsafe. I have my doubts about the strategy, which is to make you resolve to drive sober for fear of having to apologize for killing someone. I have my doubts about the execution, too. The average driver looks at a billboard for about three seconds—if he or she bothers looking at all, which is a big if. That’s not much time to figure out what the crossed-out fine in I feel fine replaced by so sorry I killed your daughter means. And that’s assuming drivers will even try. One of the hardest advertising lessons to learn is that people aren’t interested in what you have to say, much less in working to decipher it.
But that's not the worst part. The worst part is that the headline doesn’t bother telling you what not to do. For that, you must read another line of type—the one in the lower left that’s small enough to be dismissed as insignificant or to go unnoticed. If you bother and manage to read it, you will see that it says Buzzed driving is drunk driving, itself not a little obscure.
That’s three seconds to consume a nine-word headline, figure out what the cross-out is doing there, and then read and decipher five more tiny, hard-to-find words. Then, as your vehicle moves on, you are supposed ponder what you just read and suddenly say, “Gosh, they’re right. Next time I’ll call a cab.” All while minding your driving. I hope.
So, while I support the objective, perhaps you can see why I doubt this is the right way to go about it.
Back to people like me, the trouble with whom is that we “just say it.” Assuming a billboard truly has the power to make a would-be drunk driver reconsider, which is debatable, I’d prefer this: Driving even a little drunk kills. Here, I'll mock it up for you: