Artful advertising: have brands forgotten about business and purpose goals?

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Advertisers and organisations are getting more artistic in pursuit of a captivated audience, writes Sérgio Brodsky, but great campaigns are capable of doing more than creating buzz.

Advertisers and organisations are getting more artistic in pursuit of a captivated audience. Sérgio Brodsky reminds us of the importance of tying campaigns to business and purpose goals, not merely generating buzz.

Something remarkable happened in the art world in 2015. For the first time the Turner Prize was not given to an artist. Architecture studio Assemble won the coveted award for combating dereliction of a rundown council housing estate. Another surprise this year was Ikea’s Better Shelter being awarded Beazley Design of the Year. The temporary, sustainable housing answered the refugee crisis ‘brief’, beating David Bowie’s Blackstar album cover.

Social utility is the emerging value in the arts. There’s even a museum for it! The Museum of Arte Útil, proposes new uses for art within society and is one of the drivers of a global movement shaping our contemporary art world. By demonstrating what the real use of art is in society, its image of being a ‘separate bubble’, esoterically distant from the everyday lives of everyday people, is gradually deflating.

So what?

Advertising has borrowed artistic values to captivate consumers. So why haven’t we embraced utility more vigorously? As noted by MONA’s creative director Leigh Carmichael “Shock for shock’s sake is shallow. The audience knows it.” Still, doing crazy shit for attention is one of adland’s most dominant success metrics.

Since its launch in July 2016, ‘Meet Graham’ has been one of the most awarded and talked about brand campaigns worldwide. Branded a “new weapon in the fight against death on the road”, the commissioning of a deformed humanoid by Australia’s Transport Accident Commission (TAC) to Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini was an interesting approach to promoting safer driving and reducing death and trauma on roads.

Despite all fanfare and a brand-funded art piece, what is the true value of ‘Meet Graham?’ Has it delivered on its promise? By December 2016, 270 people had lost their lives on Victorian roads, 36 more than the 2015 toll. Moreover, how did a hyper-elaborated, expensive and convoluted way of telling people something they already know become so unanimously praised?

According to research from psychology professor James Cutting from Cornell University, the magnetism exerted by certain art pieces is a consequence of the “mere-exposure effect”. This means that greater exposure leads to greater preference, evoking a principle that sociologist Duncan Watts calls “cumulative advantage”, where once something becomes popular, it will tend to become more popular still.

Take the Mona Lisa for instance. For most of its life, Da Vinci’s masterpiece languished in relative obscurity. It was only in the 20th Century that it gained universal prominence. What propelled it wasn’t a scholarly re-evaluation, but a burglary. Newspapers around the world made it the first work of art to achieve global fame. Then in 1919, Marcel Duchamp’s LHOOQ, or goateeing of the Mona Lisa only reinforced its status as the epitome of great art. From that point, the Mona Lisa came to represent Western culture itself.

However, a study in the British Journal of Aesthetics suggests that the exposure effect doesn’t work the same way on everything. Over time, exposure favours the greater artist (or advertiser). Just like the Mona Lisa entered the Louvre for its own merit, Meet Graham gained fame for its unparalleled hyperrealist uniqueness.

But we should be a little sceptical about greatness. Great and mediocre advertising (and art) can get confused, even by experts. That’s why we need to see, and read, as much as we can. The more we’re exposed to the good and the bad, the better we are at telling the difference.

A parallel can be traced with Fearless Girl, the bronze statue confronting Wall Street’s Charging Bull, which also earned a significant amount of media, yet simultaneous to delivering real business results. SHE – a fund established to support companies that invest in female leadership – and the statue’s ‘Maecenas’ (capital market for the arts) increased its average daily trading volume 384% in the days following the bronze’s release. Inbound calls from prospective institutional investors rose 15-fold in the four weeks after what could be called a cultural branding statement.

Sarah Minogue, a senior Australian marketer who was temporarily removed from her professional routine due to a car crash, holds a unique perspective about ‘Meet Graham’.

“I respect the creative approach to move away from typical sensationalised trauma imagery and messaging, however does ‘Meet Graham’ have social impact? While thought-provoking and buzz-worthy, it feels academic to me – and it also doesn’t deliver a very positive message. Rather, the campaign promotes our bodies as being the ‘problem’, which creates a sense of helplessness… So while I expect ‘Meet Graham’ tested well creatively, I query whether a more empowering message – offering a tangible solution – would evoke actual behavioural change.”

In this movement towards useful cultural interventions, ‘Meet Graham’ could’ve borrowed the effectiveness from previous campaigns that actually made roads safer:

‘Bad News Bag’: A Delhi Police campaign that used newspapers’ tragic reports on car accidents as the wrapping for bottles in local liquor stores’ points-of-sale. This happened on the night of 31 December 2012, when the road toll spikes up. As it turned out, drunk driving fell to 574 from 620 with only one accident reported on Delhi’s roads. Since then, the initiative now covers other celebratory dates and cities.

‘Tweeting Pothole’: Telemetro Reporta, an influential news show in Panama City, installed Tweeting devices inside potholes in 2015. Complaints were directly tweeted to the Department of Public Works’ account every time a car ran over the devices. As a result, potholes started disappearing.

Civic compliance is not easy to achieve and as shown above, it is dealt with more stick than carrot. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as local councils take money and demerit points from lack of civic compliance, why can’t we earn credits by being (overly) compliant? This is exactly what Volkswagen did a few years ago with its ‘Fun Theory’ initiative, using gamification to drive positive behaviour.

‘Speed Camera Lottery’: VW used speeding cameras at intersections to reward those who obey the speed limit with the fees paid by those who violated it. The average speed, which was 32 km/h before the test reduced to 25 km/h, convincing The Swedish National Society for Road Safety to adopt the idea in Stockholm.

Brand communications have borrowed plenty of inspiration from the arts. Yet, the real artfulness lies in implementing creative ideas that solve real problems. As said by Dutch artist-innovator Daan Roosegarde “We should do more, not less to improve our lives by combining creative thinking and new technologies to improve the landscape of the people.” And, this was what Roosegaarde achieved with Smart Highway (among many other works). Using paint that glows in the dark or when roads are slippery, interactions – useful and beautiful – occur precisely when needed.

Art is propaganda for what matters in life, a realisation that carries tremendous power. In this sense, the best use of media is one that shapes and frames brand communication profitably as well as for the benefit of the audiences with whom these interactions take place. As we enter the era of purpose-led brands, useful actions need to speak louder than buzz.

This article first appeared in www.marketingmag.com.au

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About Author

Sérgio Brodsky

érgio Brodsky is an internationally experienced brand marketing professional having worked for some of the world's greatest strategic communications agencies. Sérgio is a proven thought-leader, speaking at industry events, lecturing and regularly being published worldwide. He is passionate about cities and culture and the role of brands and technology in society. Sérgio is multilingual and holds a BA in IP law and an MBA in global brand strategy and innovation.

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