As you probably know, those crazy kids at BBH Labs are running the World Cup of Advertising this week. It’s a brilliant and entirely pointless bit of fun in which a meta-list of the greatest ever ads are pitted against each other in a Twitter tournament, in which marketers vote for their favourite from a list of alternatives until we arrive at an eventual winner.
Far be it from me to steal BBH’s thunder, but I’ll be very surprised if Apple don’t walk away with the Grand Prix at the end of the tournament for ‘1984’. After all, Apple is the advertising equivalent of the German national squad: consistent, annoyingly unbeatable and admirably superior in almost every respect.
You don’t even need me to even tell you about the 1984 ad or the legendary story behind it. Or that it signaled the coronation of creative director Lee Clow and the arrival of Apple, and elevated Superbowl advertising to the predominant place in the promotional pantheon. It’s a campaign every marketer knows about.
It’s 35 years since Ridley Scott shouted “action” and watched that iconic red and white figure run into shot with her sledgehammer in hand. But what strikes me about the 1984 ad is that, despite its age, it continues to build brand for Apple. We’ve all seen it but for 99% of us it was not during its original and very limited handful of TV spots all those years ago.
We were shown it in school, or on a TV show, or by a friend, or before the next paragraph in this column, and its message of creativity, individuality and making a difference is as relevant now to Apple as it was three decades ago.
Similarly, despite years – often decades – passing since the last pound was spent on media, many of the ads in the BBH World Cup are still building awareness and communicating brand associations for their sponsors. When you see Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ reel or the Guinness’s ‘Surfer’ for the first time, or for the 50th time, the impact of the ad and benefit to the brand remain significant and valuable. The sight of the Tango man dodging and weaving around that red letterbox one more time immediately reinvigorates the salience and stupendous sense of fun that surrounds the Tango brand.
The impact of great ads
We have been talking a lot in recent months about short-termism in marketing. The words of Les Binet and Peter Field have opened marketers’ eyes to the increasingly short-term, targeted tactics of most big brands. Nothing wrong with that, except that it comes at the cost of the longer-term, mass-targeted and more effective campaigns that accrue their impacts over time.
That longer time period is never defined by anyone. Its longer than a year, less than five, and usually about two or three in scope. That might seem an eternity to today’s CTR-addled digital marketers but it’s not that long a period of time when you really think about it. And my point is that, while it might be hard to plan for that kind of longevity at the outset, it’s clear that many great ads continue to deliver a return many decades later – long after even Field and Binet have stopped counting.
A scan of the BBH World Cup playoffs, above, reveals even longer time frames for effectiveness, which no one ever talks about because it goes beyond the tenure of most agencies and the longevity of even the most loyal marketing director. I am talking about the impact that great advertising occasionally achieves over the long, long term – many decades after the campaign’s inception and execution. Great ads leave a significant impact on consumers that continues to affect their behaviour throughout their consumer lives and that impact often continues each time they are re-encountered years later.
It’s not an unending period of effect. Nothing lasts forever, even in advertising. The great ads of the 18th and 19th century have no continued impact on today’s world. That’s partly because the consumers that once remembered them are long gone and because almost all of the brands are also no longer with us.
The World Cup of Ads has its fair share of great ads for brands that are either dead or so different that the impact of a once great ad is now nothing more than a thick slice of nostalgia and a remembrance of purchases past. The Smash ad remains one of the great British commercials, for example, but its brand disappeared aeons ago. No matter how sweet and delightful we find JR Hartley still sitting in his armchair searching for half forgotten books, its unlikely many of us will turn to the Yellow Pages again with gusto as a result.
While it might be hard to plan for at the outset, it’s clear that many great ads continue to deliver a return many decades later.
But for brands that do carve out an enduring and consistent position in the market there is long, long-term effectiveness from the accumulated effect, impact and incredible ROI of ancient ads. Coke’s ‘Teach the World’ spot or Boddington’s ‘Cream’ showreel aren’t just iconic examples of once-great communication, they make me want to buy the brands again. And those ads still get big audiences on a daily basis for free.
I think we underestimate this long, long-term effect of ads. And its not just advertising. Product placement remains, for me, the ultimate slow-burning medium with the longest half-life because, if you can insert your brand – organically – into one of the great works of content, there is a huge initial effect combined with an extended payback that can be multiplied across millions of consumers and scores of years.
Almost no one in Australia, let alone the rest of the world, was even aware that Qantas had never lost a passenger in a plane crash until Dustin Hoffman delivered the news in Rain Man. That association of safety now sits squarely within the brand position of Qantas, not because it was reinforced by Rain Man, but because it was instigated by it. And today, like every other day since that film first aired, thousands of viewers will have the message of safety delivered to them in the most authoritative, attention-grabbing manner possible as they watch the movie.
I can trace my own brand loyalties to that slow burn and long, long-term effect of several product placements. I am writing this column in Calvin Klein boxers for one simple and ridiculous reason: when Marty McFly awoke to the Oedipal nightmare of his own mother hitting on him in Back to the Future she called him Calvin because of his underpants.
That movie is a classic slice of 80s and 50s nostalgia these days but to a 14-year-old boy escaping the rain in West Cumbria in the Gaiety Cinema back in 1985, it was everything that America, modernity and coolness was ever going to be. I made a formative mental note back then that Calvin Klein was what cool people wore and that thought, and those pants, never left me.
I am doubly ashamed to say that I drive a Porsche not because of its handling or associations of clean, efficient German luxury. I drive one because 30 years ago Tom Cruise hammered a metallic grey 928 around the streets of Chicago, evading Guido the killer pimp in Risky Business. That movie, the plot and almost everything about it have faded but not the distinct memory of Cruise pulling up to the sidewalk in that glorious car, flashing his megawatt smile and relaying Porsche’s then popular strapline, ‘There is no substitute’.
Of course, you can argue that many of these placements back then were random acts of cultural significance that must be separated from strategic planning. Sometimes. When I worked in wine and spirits I met the one or two legendary Californians whose job it was to ensure that ‘random’ acts of movie coverage consistently went the way of our brands. The good guy drinks our champagne in a movie moment that fits the brand and its target audience perfectly. The villain drinks the competition and loses.
These placements did not happen because of some crass direction from a brand to change or create a scene. They happened because the placement people were on top of every script and every director in Hollywood and were waiting, poised, for the perfect few seconds in a film where they could propose the right brand for the moment.
And when it pays off the impact is long, long-lived. I continue to believe that Jerry Maguire remains one of the great movies of the 20th century. Before you remonstrate, watch it again and if you hate it I will personally send you the rental fee in the post. It beats the shit out of Braveheart, which won all the Oscars that year. And when Jerry marries Dorothy in that lovely, ill-fated ceremony mid-way through the film you see two bottles of Moët et Chandon on the table after the guests leave.
There those bottles still sit; there for eternity, or as close as we ever get to it in marketing. Untold millions will watch Jerry Maguire marry and that two-second shot of a couple of bottles of empty Moët will weave their magic for decades to come.
A mixture of memory and heritage
I’m acutely conscious that this is a very 80s, very Tom Cruise, very masculine set of examples. That’s not because this is the sweet spot for long, long-term impact but because these effects are inherently biographical. I grew up in the 80s, Cruise was ‘the man’, and therefore these are the long, long-term effects that I now recall.
For other readers the ads, the era and the celebrities will be different but the impact will be the same. Right now, some 10-year-old is watching a Ryan Gosling movie or seeing an ad for Tesla and discovering a brand that they will not be able to afford for decades to come, but one that they will one day own nonetheless.
The official name for this is ‘positive wastage’ meaning ads that hit a target that is not yet, but will one day, become a consumer. It’s an awful, oxymoronic name for something we should celebrate more openly in marketing. A form of persuasion so enduring that it lasts a lifetime and yet which comes with the greatest ROI of all, because by the time a new generation see an ancient ad or 20th century product placement the cost is literally nothing.
I think Apple’s 1984 ad or Moët’s product placement in Jerry Maguire work on two levels. For old fuckers like me they reinforce and reconnect us with the brands of our youth, and the memories of that time help bolster these brands in our present. When I see those Boddingtons ads from the 90s I wonder at their genius but then I am immediately hurled back to a hundred different pubs and a thousand different occasions when a lovely, thick pint of Boddingtons was the start of a big night out. And I want a six pack for my fridge.
Watching Clive Owen thwang a BMW around a city in its short film ‘The Hire’ reminds me of how I loved those ads and how they made me drive when I lived in America. And my fondness for BMW is bolstered by that far more than by any of its current advertising. We relive an ad we loved and the attraction to the brand is reinvigorated with it.
For younger consumers there are none of these initial memories to conjure and then commercialise. But original recollection is replaced by something perhaps even more powerful in younger consumers – unattainable heritage.
If you weren’t born when 1984 was released you probably gaze at Apple all those years ago and wonder what it was like to buy the first Mac. I wasn’t born when Sean Connery’s Bond starting drinking Dom Perignon but, by God, I still cannot pick up a bottle without a pang of desire for the feline reassurance and ancient cool of Connery from a time so long ago it exists to me as only a technicolour dream.
So, I propose a third vector of the impact for advertising and promotions. The short of it, as we know, is the most popular time frame and usually qualifies as anything with a quarterly deadline or less. The long of it exceeds an annual time frame and throws its net out for two or three years. But let’s add a further period; the long, long of it. These are the ads and placements that handsomely paid back their investment in initial efficiency, then more enduring effectiveness, and finally – long after the media budget has been exhausted and those responsible have moved on – continued to build brand.
Anja Major, the young British athlete that ran into the 1984 ad and threw her Apple sledgehammer into the monochrome screen of conformity is approaching 60 somewhere in south-east England. But a 19-year-old version of Major still sets off on her sprint, sledgehammer in hand, thousands of times a day all over the world, each and every time 1984 is played.
For those who know the ad from the old times it’s a chance to smile wistfully and reconnect with Apple and all it means to them. For those seeing the ad for the first time there is ancient evidence that Apple preceded them and has that most valuable of brand assets – heritage.
In both cases I’d argue that the biggest value of the 1984 ad, the zenith of its effectiveness, came not with the initial buzz of its first or second paid appearance. It came later, across the decades that followed, in which a truly great ad played out and worked its magic across not the short, not the long, but the long, long of it.