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Advertising does not do what most people think it does. It does not sell. What advertising does is create the circumstances, the atmosphere, in which selling might be done. The best that advertising can do is make people feel well disposed towards X, and perhaps think that X might be just what they need. Most people, including most clients of advertising agencies, do not understand this. There are, I suspect, people who work in advertising who do not understand this. Which is probably why so much advertising is bad.

The best illustration I have seen of this, the best demonstration of what advertising is about, is the film No (Pablo Larrain, 2012).

No is the third part of Larrain’s trilogy loosely based around the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. In this film he tells the true story of events surrounding the fall of the regime in 1988. Pinochet had been in power for 15 years, ever since his murderous US-backed coup that overthrew the legitimate government of Salvador Allende. But by now he was facing increasing international isolation, and he was under pressure to make his regime legitimate. To this end, he agreed to hold a plebiscite. The question was simple: should Chile reaffirm General Pinochet as President? The Pinochet government had very good reasons for assuming they would win the vote easily. For a start, the middle classes had enjoyed steadily increasing prosperity (in the film we see Rene Saavedra, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, presenting a TV advert for a new Coke-like soft drink, and working on a campaign for the exciting new invention, ‘the microwave’, both illustrating that this is a new and confident consumerist society). Much of the population, of course, had not shared in this wealth, but they didn’t count, they were cowed and polls showed they were highly unlikely to vote. Meanwhile, the opposition was split into something like 17 different groupings (you couldn’t really call them parties), who were as likely to attack each other as the government.

However, to give the plebiscite legitimacy in the eyes of foreign observers, Pinochet made one concession: both the ‘Yes’ and the ‘No’ campaigns would be allowed 15 minutes of television time every day during the campaign, which would last just under a month. Again, there was a lot of calculation in this. The two daily broadcasts would be late at night when it was assumed that not many people would be watching, and of course the government message would be broadcast the whole of the rest of the time. Nevertheless, this was an opening, and the opposition had not been allowed any access to the media for the previous 15 years.

Of course, the No camp had no expectation of winning, but they weren’t going to turn down the chance to get on television. They set out to express their outrage at the regime, their solidarity with those who had suffered at the hands of the regime, their righteous anger. They do not see this as a campaign to win, but simply as an opportunity to get all this pent up resentment off their chests.

But the co-ordinator of the No television campaign, Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), calls on the son of an old friend, Rene Saavedra, who is now an advertising executive. At first Rene refuses to get involved, but then he agrees to take on a consultancy role. For me, the most significant scene in the whole film, and the one that best sums up what advertising is about, comes when Rene watches a preview of the campaign’s first television effort. It is wonderful stuff, full of impassioned fury, images of the regime at its worst, incontrovertible facts and figures of the horrors Pinochet has inflicted. It is exactly what you expect, a knife pointing at the heart of the regime, a litany of wrongs to be righted. No-one could see that and wish to support Pinochet. And yet, when the film is over, Rene looks around and says mildly, ‘is that it? There’s something missing.’

No-one in the room understands, but I knew instantly what he meant. The most important word I learned as a copywriter was ‘benefit’. The way to judge a piece of copy you have written is to read it as one of the intended audience, and then ask yourself: how do I benefit. If it is not immediately obvious how, or indeed that, you benefit, then the ad fails. And I do indeed mean an immediate benefit; something that makes you feel like you are occupying the moral high ground, or that is promising some vague general benefit at some indefinable point in the future, might win over a few people, but it will have zero effect on most of your intended audience. What Rene immediately saw in the film was that it was all moral high ground stuff, it gave the audience thousands of excellent reasons not to vote Yes, but it didn’t give them a single reason to vote No.

Rene, of course, takes on the No campaign, recognising that his real purpose is not to decrease the number of those voting Yes, but rather to increase the number of those voting No. There are, of course, obstacles. The film directs us mostly to political obstacles. The loose and disunited coalition that is the No campaign don’t really understand what Rene is doing, and do not fully support him. The regime resorts to simple intimidation. And Rene’s boss is working on the Yes campaign, and is able to counter much of his most effective work. But I do think the film rather glossed over what was for me one of the more interesting problems faced by the campaign, the creative problem.

There are many things that an experienced copywriter simply does not do. You do not, for instance, put a question in a headline, because that simply invites an answer you don’t want and the advert has failed before you’ve even had a chance to get started. Even more significantly, you do not use negative words: avoid ‘not’, ‘never’, ‘don’t’, ‘no’ like the plague. Positive words, not surprisingly, get a far more positive response from people than negative words, and in the main you want people to respond positively. In any referendum, the Yes campaign has a built in advantage over the No campaign. This is neatly and comically illustrated by a little vignette towards the end of the campaign. The No team include a sketch in their broadcast that shows a couple in bed, the man asking ‘yes?’ the woman insisting ‘no!’ until both end up declaring ‘no!’ This is ridiculed in the next Yes campaign broadcast, which replicates the couple in bed but ends with them both crying ‘yes!’, a far more recognisable consequence of the situation. That advantage was magnified in the Chilean plebiscite, so Rene and his team had to find a way to send a positive message designed to get a negative response. In terms of creative advertising, that is actually a very tricky prospect. Rene’s decision to go with happiness was, I think, inspired, and I think I would have liked a little more about how they arrived at this message.

There are problems with all of this, of course. The film skips over the massive voter registration campaign that was going on at the same time. And the use of advertising in this context represents a commodification of politics that is probably not a good thing. And yet, don’t you just wish that any of our current political parties might at some time remember to tell us, the electorate, what’s in it for us if we vote their way? Politics is, after all, about the everyday hopes, fears and experiences of every single one of us, and it would be nice if some politician recognised that fact and addressed those hopes and fears and experiences. In the end, the No campaign in the Chilean plebiscite did something wonderful, and this film is a wonderful record of that achievement.

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