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Countershape Marketing

Looking the other way: Paul Fusco and the power of implication in marketing

Paul Fusco
Paul Fusco, 1968 Robert F. Kennedy’s Funeral Train.

Paul Fusco is quoted in The Guardian this morning.

In 1968, I was assigned by Look magazine to get on the train bearing Robert F Kennedy’s remains from New York to Washington DC. Barred from photographing the Kennedy family in their private car, I took note of the people lined up along the track to pay their last respects, and decided to photograph them. I was surprised that the other photographers on the train either failed to notice them or chose not to take pictures. These photos, first published more than 30 years after RFK’s death, are among the among most important I’ve ever taken.

In these poignant photos, you begin to appreciate the full weight of what Senator Kennedy’s assassination meant for some of the ordinary people of the USA, for this the most important part of the news story. This is a lovely example of what I call Countershape territory. By countershape I mean what is being suggested rather than what is immediately obvious – is an elite skill for any creative person.

Other examples are easy to find once you get your eye in. Composer John Cage’s revolutionary piece 4’33” (1952) eliminates the sounds of instruments. While each musician within the performance has the potential to break the silence, they restrain themselves; they remain tacet. Cage (in what he considered his most important work) instead invites us to listen to the absence of music as if it were music.

In visual art, the countershape it is easy to spot. In Robert Mapplethorpe’s black and white photographs, beautifully-lit skin is surrounded by a dark negative space, which as a shape is as pleasing as the model’s body and contributes equally to the photograph’s composition.

While British artist Rachel Whiteread’s work solidifies the countershape and on famous piece House, (1993) casts the interior of an entire Victorian house in concrete – so that  the interior spaces of the rooms inside became solid objects.

But what about Marketing and Advertising? It takes chutzpah to omit the product completely such as in this example of a press execution for Volkswagen[i]. Its copy reads Volkswagen City Emergency Brake. For when you get distracted. The image is of the distraction: a partially clad woman in a window, and you’ll notice how the car with the special brake is absent.

Volkswagen Das Auto
Volkswagen Das Auto

Not a bad example of the use of countershape territory, although it seems to be fairly sure that its potential audience will find themselves attracted to women.

[i] Adam&Eve DDB Credits – Executive Creative Director: Jeremy Craigen. Art Director: Matt Gay. Copywriter: John Long. Head of Art: Daniel Moorey. Designer: Pete Mould. Group Account Director: Jonathan Hill, Jason Lusty. Account Director: Josh Davoren. Photographer: Jason Hindley.

Categories
campaign Campaign Fail Copy Marketing

5 ways this HMRC marketing tactic is not okay

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HMRC at the ATM

1. This is not okay because despite it being a threat to tax dodgers, its imagery unambiguously accuses you. It’s aim as a piece of marketing is to deliberately make you feel paranoid.

2. This is not okay because it is intrusive. This tactic has been chosen to threaten you as you are about to embark on the private transaction of getting your cash out. Despite the best efforts of Seth Godin, and his permission-marketing acolytes, we are all accustomed to be interrupted by marketing. But this is just unpleasant.

3. It is not okay because it is straight out of George Orwell. Here is Big Brother’s all-seeing eye representing the state. Does the state really want to be seen like that? Isn’t there another territory this can belong to, that is more positive and less reliant on poorly executed 1984 based-concept?John Hurt as Winston Smith. His own personal sadness helped him

4. It is not okay because of the physical context of the message. You may be getting money to buy some food, a fluffy kitten or something else utterly innocuous. Nevertheless this requires a cash transaction, a vulnerable moment in a busy street or public area. A great moment for the government to threaten you? No, actually.

5. It’s not okay because it creates anxiety. An agency of the state uses the old copywriter’s trick of stating the negative ‘If you’ve declared all your income you have nothing to worry about’. But it seeds the idea of ‘worry’ nevertheless. And even if you take the line at face value it is overpowered by the imagery and headline.

And, by the way, it’s not okay to threaten individuals while vast corporations get away with it. 

Categories
Announcement Copy

Whoah! This Click Bait Will Make Your Head Explode! Number 4 Will Stun You.

The Slow Mo Guys-WaterMelon Exploding-6
This click bait will make your head explode

Like a fish that never learns, I’ve lost count of the times I have swallowed this kind of click bait headline. Here is the click bait headline formula in five easy stages.

1. Opening ejaculation. This mimic the reaction of crazed, bug-eyed excitement the person who has just seen this list of images must emit. Sometimes these ejaculations are inarticulate Wow! or Woahs! If the ejaculation is allowed to forms itself into words then it must reflect how the target audience will speak. So… Too cool! OMG! Awesome!.

2. What it is. Right after this expression of unconstrained excitement you get to the meat of it. Sometimes this can be quite prosaic as in 54 “Colorized” Photos Will Blow You Away. The blow you away part is there because the notion of colourised photographs may have momentarily dampened your clicking ardour.

3. The number.  People love lists, of course, but they also like to know that they are letting themselves in for. The click is a tiny leap of faith, and one only to be taken when you know you are going to get 20 photos of RiRi’s wardrobe malfunctions for example, before we take our life in our hands.

4. The Special One. The final part of this formula is The Special One. I know I promised Number 4 would stun you, but it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it is far enough down the list to keep us scrolling through to reach it. Is it that special? Clue: it ain’t.

5. Click bait tempts us when we are aimless. It isn’t called bait for nothing. There’s a hook in there somewhere, able to snag in and drag us deeper into endless, ever more meaningless lists.

While click bait headlines are an effective formula to meet the standard marketing challenge of having to announce something, they are cheesy. Is it just me, or is this formula already on the wane? One thing’s for sure. There will come a day this click bait formula will seem so quaintly retro, that people will shake their heads in wonder that we ever took the bait.

Categories
Comedy Drinks Industry IT Postmodern Irony TV advertising

Somersby Cider wobbling on the shoulders of a giant?

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The Somersby Cider advert is funny, and quietly remarkable. For it relies on a knowledge of  Apple stores, and the Apple brand.

It is no coincidence that Apple’s fanboys and fangirls are stuck to the flypaper of creative departments everywhere. It subverts the seriousness of Apple stores, replacing customers with drinkers examining pints of cider with intensity and fascination. At a stroke it makes other cider marketing appear creakily old-skool.

A win for Somersby?

Yes. It is getting Somersby talked about, and making people laugh. Then yes it is as great result.

But here’s the caveat

What we are doing is combining a streak of comedy – and this was one of the few ads that actually made me guffaw when I saw it – with Postmodern Irony. This is an advert that is busy nudging us in the ribs, and making us co-conspirators in the knowledge that we are watching an advert.

The danger in combining comedy with postmodern irony is that you can disappear up your own marketing fundament. For the Somersby ad is as much about advertising as medium, than it is an advert for cider.

The ultimate winner from this marketing spend is Apple. Hitching a ride on a global brand is an interesting strategy, but not without danger. I watch Somersby’s progress with interest.

Categories
Financial Postmodern Irony TV advertising

The Barclays squirrel of postmodern irony

Postmodern irony is one of those terms whose meaning depends on which academic discipline the Hogwarts sorting hat chose for you. For our purposes, however, Postmodern irony stands for ironic self-reference and absurdity, and it is a territory that advertising and marketing regularly dwell in.

Nudge-nudge, wink-wink

The 2011 Barclays Tracker ads with Stephen Merchant’s voiceover. One example, started… ‘Ere we go. This one’s about Barclays Tracker Mortgages that’s why these people are on some kind of track. Cut to a laboriously symbolic hill of rail track with two people on a pump truck.

Barclays Tracker
Barclays Tracker Mortgages

Now being on a tracker mortgage when the going’s good is good – there’s a squirrel – but if times get tougher… The random squirrel is glanced at for less than a second – and then we get back, um, on track with the information. Luckily the random squirrel has also jolted us out of a mortgage talk coma. Later in the ad the voiceover says: I don’t know if the squirrel’s relevant. Is the squirrel relevant? The squirrel’s not relevant. Ignore that.

Barclays' postmodern squirrel
Barclays’ postmodern squirrel

Merchant’s voiceover is spoken as if he is viewing the execution for the first time and saying what he sees – in the way that people do when commenting on the TV at home. This marketing trickery puts the endorser of Barclays side by side with its customers on the sofa, watching the advert together.

Barclay’s self-depreciating positioning

Given a backdrop of unprecedented hostility to the banking sector, the choice Barclays made to situate their products in Postmodern Irony territory was calculated. This self-depreciating approach made it less vulnerable to attack from a public more disposed to taking offence.