Ordinary people in original thinking shock

There is a view, widespread amongst creative communications agencies, that consumers have a strong preference for the familiar, making it difficult for genuinely original ideas to emerge successfully from development research and biasing the output in favour of tired and derivative creative work.  My experience suggests otherwise – although, as with most incorrect assumptions, it has grown around a grain of truth.

Many researchers unwittingly stack the odds against original ideas through the way they structure their discussion in qualitative research.  They precede the discussion of new work with a conversation about existing ads in the market or respondents’ favourite ads, ostensibly to ‘warm up’ the group.  The effect is to create and solidify a consensus view about what works and what doesn’t and what makes ‘good’ advertising.  Inevitably, if you then show something fresh that deviates from the consensus ‘norms’, respondents find it difficult to contradict themselves by endorsing something that breaks the paradigm.

This scenario is easily avoided by ensuring there is no previous discussion of other ads, brands or the market; other research artifacts can also be eliminated through careful methodological design, in order to ensure new ideas are received with a more open mind.  However, there remains the view that, whatever one does to create a positive environment for new ideas, consumers are hard wired to prefer the familiar.  I don’t agree.

In my experience, in project after project, I find that respondents almost invariably prefer the fresh over the derivative, seeing originality and ‘cleverness’ as positive assets in advertising.  I think this has something to do with our advertising culture, in which the iconic and most talked about ads of the last 20 or so years are typically those that have adopted anything but a conventional approach.  This has generated an implicit expectation on the part of consumers that the best advertising is a rewarding experience that transcends the simple, dirty job of ‘selling’ to become a piece of the cultural fabric.

My experience is that consumers have a very good instinct for strong creative ideas – one simply needs to design the research format and stimulus well enough to allow this to emerge.  When an advertising construct, narrative or device delivers the brand impression or communication in a natural and engaging way, consumers spot it straight away.  The idea connects, they speak with enthusiasm, they compliment the creators.  Equally, they are absolutely able to tell when an idea doesn’t hang together, when it is contrived or gratuitous, when it lacks relevance to the brand or communication.  If a couple of different creative ideas are found relevant, originality is typically the key discriminator that leads consumers to favour one over another.  There is a huge appetite for freshness, for advertising that is involving and enjoyable through being challenging, surprising and unusual, all helping make it an experience worth sharing with others.

I have learnt to my cost that it doesn’t pay to ignore consumers’ suggestions that an idea lacks freshness.  I can think of researching a brand’s launch TV advertising, where the creative idea was clear, relevant and likeable, but delivered through a narrative and scenario that felt rather familiar.  I highlighted this in my research feedback, stating that, if the idea were to be pursued to production, it would be important to shoot it in a way that gave it a freshness the idea itself lacked, in order to ensure cut though and engagement.  My heart sunk when I saw the finished commercial on TV: pleasant, yes… but, frankly, wallpaper.

The brutal truth is that the majority of creative ideas that go into qualitative research are not fresh, paradigm breaking or exciting.  The reasons for this are many and varied, with no one ‘side’, client or agency, being ‘at fault’.  A great deal of the time, the reason why respondents seem disaffected and lacking in enthusiasm about the work is because there is nothing in what we are showing them to generate engagement and enthusiasm.  A good response to the accusation that consumers do not like challenging and original creative ideas might well be: ‘Physician, heal thyself’.

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