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Advertising creativity is in crisis

Orlando Wood

Issue 54 | March 2020

In December 2018 I read a book that helped me to understand a great many things in my life that had always puzzled me. A book that gave me a new appreciation of the people around me. A book that gave me a new understanding of history and culture. A book that helped me to see and articulate something in my professional life that I hadn't until that moment been able to explain: what is happening to advertising?

The book was Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary. Iain is a psychiatrist and neuropsychologist, but began his professional life teaching English literature at Oxford University. Frustrated by the over-analysis of the great works, he decided to devote the rest of his life to understanding the brain, and how it attends to, responds to and shapes culture.

Left-brain/right-brain theory is making a comeback

In the book, he begins by explaining that the brain is asymmetrical and divided, and asks why this might be. The idea that the right and the left brain might do different things has been long dismissed. But McGilchrist cleverly reframes the question, and asks not what the two hemispheres do, but instead, how they do it? He finds something quite remarkable, that it's not that the two halves of the brain do different things, but that they do things differently; have different takes on the world – different attentional priorities.

Describing how this works in birds is helpful: a bird's left brain has a narrow, goal-orientated focus. It's what helps it to identify, categorise and abstract grains of food from their context; the right brain, all the while, is broad and vigilant in its attention, open to novelty, contradiction and ambiguity, and continues to scan the environment around it to guard against predators.

The same is true in people. Whereas the right brain is broad and vigilant, sees everything in context and presents the world to us as it really is, the left brain seeks to categorise things, and represent and control the world through flat, abstracted and linear models. For instance, in the same person, the right brain will draw a flower in its entirety with its stem and leaves, in three dimensions; whereas the left brain will draw just the flower head, as a flattened symbol, an abstracted representation of just the 'most important bit', as it sees it.

But the differences don't end there. The left brain is impetuous, dogmatic and seeks to manipulate its environment through tools, principal of which, is language. It likes to control things and gets rather angry when it can't get its way (anger lateralises to the left hemisphere). It likes things to be repeatable and uniform. All it can enjoy of music is very basic rhythm. However, being rather reliant on the right hemisphere to see the world as it really is, the left hemisphere is also rather paranoid and, without the right brain, can get caught in its own hall of mirrors. The right brain, ever broad and vigilant in its attention, sees the world as a series of relationships and connections. It is alert to the living world, understands people and the implicit communications of their gestures, intonation, their accents.

As well as giving us our sense of depth and lived time, the right brain is what helps us to appreciate metaphor and humour (seeing something from two different perspectives) and music (harmony is the aural equivalent of visual depth). We need both centres of consciousness (complementary and competing), if we are to flourish and make great creative leaps.

But here's the rub. The two hemispheres are connected by something called the corpus collosum. This bundle of fibres acts as a bridge between the two hemispheres, but it turns out its primary purpose is to inhibit one brain or the other at any given time. It so happens the left brain has a greater inhibitory effect on the right, than the right on the left. The left brain has a tendency to overwhelm its neighbour and can become too dominant both in individuals and society as a whole.

You can trace this in culture through history, from the ancient Greeks through to the present day. In left-brain dominant periods, society becomes brittle, angry, polarised, seeing things in binary terms, a sense that something is a truth or a lie, with nothing in between.

We live in left-brained times

Let's take two different periods to illustrate this. After a period of flatness that lasted around a thousand years, something wonderful happened in 15th Century Florence: depth suddenly appeared again in art. A whole-brained way of looking at the world emerged: perspective and empathy in art (empathy accompanies depth), the liberal referencing of other things, a heightened sensitivity to time and place, a sense of flow. We know this period as the Renaissance, which gradually spread north across Europe. Then came the Reformation, which bears many of the hallmarks of today's world, and which sought to strip things back to the 'authentic'. Characters (the saints), metaphor and ornament were removed, and the word of God was prioritised. A way of looking at the world that gave precedence to the left-brain's preferences had emerged. We are in just such a left-brained period today and it is particularly marked in advertising, which both reflects and leads culture.

'Lemon' is an appeal to the right-brain

In Lemon, I describe these cultural shifts through art of several periods to help us see what's happening in culture today. The book casts light on a marked change in advertising style, which first appeared in 2006. How might we characterise this shift? Well, we have seen a move away from whole-brained advertising (people, characters, metaphor, a distinct time and place), to advertising that is markedly flatter, more reliant on the word, that is devitalised, more abstract, dislocated from time and place, more didactic, more literal and more rhythmic. Largely gone are the characters of advertising's heyday; people today are reduced to things or props in the service of a unilateral 'me-at-you' message.

If this were simply a question of changing tastes, then it might not matter very much. But as I show in the book, the rather flat left-brain features we are seeing dominate advertising today, leave people feeling flat, whereas the right-brained features – depth, humanity, betweenness, a sense of time and place – generate a strong emotional response. This is important because, as I also show in the book, emotional response to a brand's advertising helps to explain subsequent market share movements. You need to entertain for profit gain. And in the period in question – since 2006 – the effectiveness of advertising has declined, as the IPA has shown.

So what has caused this shift in advertising style? It's not one, but many things, of course. We have experienced a digital revolution for one thing. The period in question has seen marked changes in the number of advertising platforms available, offering short-term feedback metrics that prioritise a certain kind of work and de-prioritise longer-term brand building. The digital world has sped everything up and timeframes have shortened for creatives. This has also been a period of consolidation, mergers and acquisitions, and the rise of the network agencies, which have, by and large, put enormous downward cost pressures on their agencies, stripped the value out of them and encouraged specialisation (the narrow focus the left brain cherishes). Then there's the global ad, which is required to work everywhere, and ends up working nowhere, because it can't play on local culture, reference time or place or show a scene unfolding with dialogue. The type of person working in advertising and media today is also very different from the modern mainstream, with a more analytical, 'professional' and orderly mindset, pushing out the craft and spontaneity that was once cherished and celebrated. You might also go as far as to say that the industry no longer appears to be that interested in the work itself; any advertising conference today seems more interested in ideas about the thing, rather than the thing itself, which is a recurring theme in left-brain dominant periods of history. As Rory Sutherland put it in Campaign magazine, 'Going to advertising conferences nowadays, I feel a bit like a man who has signed up to attend a poetry festival, only to find that most of the talks are about bookbinding.'

Brand advertising leads to better results in the long term

So what can we do about it? Well, any remedy should put the work front and centre, and, happily, we know now more than ever, what type of creative works well. The trick is to appeal to the right brain, which is responsible for four of the five types of attention that psychologists broadly agree on (the only type of attention that the left brain deals with is narrow, goal-focused attention). This means a focus on characters, dialogue, betweenness, depth, a distinct sense of time and place, lived time or a scene unfolding, the referencing of other things (pastiche or parody), music with melody and harmony, and piquing the natural interest of the right brain for the out-of-the-ordinary. These are the things that attract and sustain attention, that deliver an emotional response, that make advertising noticeable and memorable, that get people talking about your brand. This is the recipe for great brand-building work that evokes emotional response and delivers market share growth. And if they are important on TV, they are imperative online.

I have been touched by the strength and positivity of response to Lemon from all quarters. It seems to have struck a chord with advertisers, agencies (both planners and creatives), media owners and broadcasters. Let's hope that it's the start of something new. Perhaps even, a creative Renaissance.

Orlando Wood is Chief Innovation Officer at System1 as well as the author of Lemon. Lemon is available on Amazon and through the IPA, with discounts available for IPA members.

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