The biggest lie advertising ever told

"Game of Thrones" is as popular as it is complex.
"Game of Thrones" is as popular as it is complex.

The president of Mullen asks why the industry assumes consumers can't handle complexity

For a recent new-business presentation, we took a look at our favorite campaigns over the past decade.

We found that we talked about individual ads more than campaigns.

We talked about Volkswagen's Darth Vader. Not about Das Auto. We liked Always' #LikeAGirl but were hard-pressed to name any other Always ads. 

This trend toward individual moments is not just true in advertising. We buy songs instead of albums. We watch shows, not channels.

Look at what’s happening in television. It’s being called the "new golden age." What’s most exciting is the improved way stories are being constructed.

Perhaps the greatest example can be seen with the second seasons of "True Detective" and "Fargo." Two of the most successful freshman shows of the past season will change their entire cast, setting and storyline for their encores.

"American Horror Story" promotes an unusual format, retaining the genre and cast from season to season, but switching their roles, the setting, even the era.

So what does this have to do with advertising?

We’ve been taught in advertising to "keep it simple." Testing companies make millions promoting the consumer "need" for ease and overt brand linkage. We build viewership algorithms and media prices with the assurance that a guaranteed percent of an audience will see your ads. Decades of research shows that a minimum number is needed to imprint the brand in consumers’ minds. Essentially, we’ve been working on the often believed but rarely admitted assumption that consumers are stupid.

It’s a lie we’ve told ourselves. We’ve bought into and promoted the ridiculous notion that consumers can’t handle too many concurrent ideas or stories. 

Evidence says otherwise. Evidence says we can pull apart the collective whole into pieces, telling individual stories with little linkage — without confusing the public. In fact, they are riveted.

"Game of Thrones" is HBO’s most-watched series of all time. A show with so many concurrent storylines, there are family trees and maps to keep it all straight.

"Fargo" and "True Detective" are two great examples of new series that surprised the industry with their chart-topping engagement scores as well as record-high viewership.

Because the truth is that consumers will embrace complexity if it yields compelling content.

The question your client might ask: Is it risky to abandon consistency and linkage for the potential rewards of increased engagement and buzz? 

And the answer is no. It’s not risky. The risk lies in assuming the old rules still apply. Today’s most-talked-about brands grow faster than the rest of their category: Two times faster, according to research performed by Bain & Company. Furthermore, analysis from McKinsey & Company found that personal recommendations drive purchase consideration. Not comprehension. To win in the modern world, conversation and buzz are mandates, not luxuries.

As modern entertainment is changing, so should modern advertising.

Be flexible with your creative. A diverse approach achieves likability.

Hold tight to your brand values. It’s the substance that drives preference.

Go forth, and craft compelling brand stories.

Kristen Cavallo is president of Mullen.


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