I’m catching up on the first stunning series of Mad Men. About 15 minutes into Episode 1, the tremendous Don Draper declared to his tobacco client that
Advertising is about happiness…it’s the reassurance of driving past a billboard that tells you, whatever you’re doing, it’s OK.
When old faithfuls like cigarettes suddenly became dangerous, “it’s OK” could be a comfort. Brands are a comfort. They reassure the brain that they are a safe choice, like our primeval brains became hardwired to know that certain berries were tasty and others made us distinctly poorly.
Comforting advertising is all around us today. Brands are falling over themselves to remind how long they’ve been around, and how that makes them a friendly familiar in these times of trouble. Hovis was one of the first last year, and Persil have also done it: beautifully made films, evoking history and our relationships with the brands, who hope to assert themselves as timeless, irreplaceable parts of the fabric of the nation. On the other hand, the gruesome crowing M&S ‘celebration’ ad must surely be the self-congratulatory nadir in the genre…
But is this conservative, reassuring nostalgia enough any more? Whispering ‘It’s OK’ softly in our ears is one thing. But aren’t those days gone? These adverts disconnect us from reality, harking back to the smell of Bird’s Custard on a Sunday lunchtime and making us feel better. But today is different.
The sepia glow of nostalgia can be stripped away far more easily these days. Hundreds of TV or radio channels and millions of websites provide the real context for our lives. Their existence has made us all too aware of the gulf between nostalgia and reality. Ideas, adverts, jokes, scams can all be communicated worldwide in seconds, which makes us more knowing, more aware, more marketing-savvy, more stimulated, challenged and challenging.
Advertising is about happiness. But more importantly it’s about relevance. It needs to resonate with today, indeed with this very moment. This doesn’t mean you can’t do ‘heritage’ advertising, but that history needs to have a purpose and a meaning for today.
Despite the bickering with M&S over who was first with avocados(!), I like the Sainsbury’s ad much more. It integrates their ‘Try Something New’ campaign as though it’s been at the heart of their business for decades, with issues that feel relevant today. A massive piece of post-rationalising maybe, but still very nicely done.