Why brands can—and maybe should—retain their pre-COVID advertising

—Orlando Wood provides a clear explanation of how the pandemic is affecting our responses to advertising, says Mark Tomblin—

Orlando Wood is the author of the recently published Lemon, which is one of the most illuminating and important advertising books I have ever read.

His thesis is that we are in the midst of a developing “crisis in creativity” that is exacerbating the industry trend towards short-term activation. That trend has been well-documented by people like Les Binet and Peter Field (and the subject of an earlier column).

Indeed, put the two phenomena together, and it is clear that brands are losing the ability to create the distinctive, emotionally resonant communications they need for long term success.

The conceptual core of his book uses the familiar model of the two-sided brain, but looks at in a more sophisticated way. So, instead of the simplistic black-and-white world of “right = creative” and “left = rational,” Wood serves up something much more nuanced and useful.

As he puts it, the issue is not that the two sides of the brain do different things, but that they do things differently—and it is in these contrasting ways of processing the world that his explanation for our troubles lies.

His main theme is that we are living through a cultural time in which tropes that reflect and appeal to the left side of our brains have become much more prevalent. These tropes are focused on what Wood calls “flatness and abstraction,” as opposed to the “depth and betweenness” (or connectedness) of tropes that are processed via the right brain.

As these left-brain tropes have moved into advertising, the result has been creative that is often superficially striking but leaves the viewer with little that is emotionally resonant and even less that is distinctive—think endless fast cuts, partial images, stock-style people, no “story” as such.

This type of creative has crowded out tropes which appeal to the brain’s right side—recurring devices, whole scenes, relationships between characters, fully developed narratives.

These tropes are what generate the holistic, complex and deep responses that successful brands evoke by building long-term memory structures which reliably lead to increased salience in buying situations.

It’s a compelling and troubling read.

So it was especially timely when ThinkTV recently hosted a webinar with Wood on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the way in which people are perceiving advertising in this moment. (You can see the entire webinar here. As you may have gathered, I highly recommend both it and his book.)

Wood based much of his talk on comparative and up-to-date analysis of hundreds of recent commercials in the U.K. and the U.S. by the British brand consultancy System1, where he is chief innovation officer.

His message was that COVID-19 may have changed the world, but it has not changed the way in which people are consuming advertising. In fact, it seems to have increased people’s appetite for certain kinds of advertising—especially the kinds which appeal to the right-hand side of our brains.

Specifically, the kind of work that is connecting with people in this new world:

  • Contains character-based “fluent devices” (Wood’s term for elements of a campaign that are consistent across executions);
  • Contains scenario “fluent devices”;
  • Celebrates the “betweenness” of people’s lives and relationships;
  • Is set in or references the past; and
  • Has a strong sense of place or community.

And the kind of work that isn’t connecting:

  • Is all about the hard sell;
  • Focuses on things, to the exclusion of people;
  • Panders to narcissism and self-image;
  • Is reliant on words on a screen; and
  • Is aggressive, competitive or performance-focused.

He makes the telling point that not only does this mean that brands do not need specific COVID-19 executions (although these can work well), but that they can—indeed should—continue to use pre-COVID work during this time, provided that it was actually connecting with people beforehand.

A brilliant example of this is the inspired recent re-release of the original commercial in Budweiser’s wonderful “Whassup?” campaign from 20 years ago, tweaked appropriately for our strange times. Research shows that this ad has been welcomed back like a long-lost friend, and is in fact out-performing the brand’s current work. If only there were more campaigns like it today.

Wood’s thoughtful and deeply perceptive work shows us why we need urgently to rediscover our collective ability to create such advertising if we are to successfully build brands in the future—whatever that looks like post-COVID.

Mark Tomblin is the founder of Thinking Unstuck.