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|Surrealism has been described as "a love of the absurd". But how great an influence has the avant-garde movement founded by Andre Breton out of an outrage for those "selling their soul to commerce" by producing ideas "at the behest of money" been on advertising? We asked some adlanders to comment|
MIKE GARNER, CREATIVE DIRECTOR, CHEMISTRY
Although we would never refer to it as such, surrealism is a standard feature of advertising these days. The first and most famous use of surrealism in adland was, of course, CDP's ground-breaking campaign for Benson and Hedges in the late 1970s. Cigarette advertising had been banned from British TV since 1965 and by this stage there were restrictions preventing advertisers from associating smoking with youth, glamour or lifestyle. CDP's response was to turn this increasingly hostile regulatory environment to an advantage by creating a series of photomontages and cinema films that owed more to the art movement known as surrealism than to the world of advertising.
The creative behind the campaign was CDP art director Alan Waldie. Featuring outsized versions of the iconic gold pack in unexpected situations, Waldie broke all the rules of conventional advertising. No people were shown and most shockingly in an industry still heavily dominated by the copywriter, not a word of copy was there to help the viewer decode the communication - apart from the obligatory government health warnings.
The result was a breakthrough in advertising language. Whether they understood the surrealist references or not, most consumers felt flattered by the way in which the brand communicated with them, because youth, glamour and lifestyle were all suggested implicitly rather than explicitly. Once the breakthrough was made, it soon became the formula.
Years later, I happened to be working with a copywriter in London, who had started his career in the mailroom at CDP, when the Benson and Hedges campaign was in full swing. Being a rather ambitious young man, he had gone to Waldie, with a very sad story.
He told Waldie that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had only a few months left to live. And that his one and only ambition, before he died, was to do a Benson and Hedges ad. (I'm not sure if he was actually suggesting that smoking B&H had been the cause, but that was certainly the implication). Being a kind hearted sort, Waldie let him have a go, because at this stage of the campaign almost anyone could do a Benson and Hedges ad. All the young man had to do was imagine a surreal context for the golden pack and cough a lot.
The resulting posters went on to provide the writer in question with a couple of D&AD pencils and a long and distinguished career in advertising. You see what had once been a groundbreaking approach to communication had soon become a standard formula for advertisers. So much so that these days we don't even think about Surrealism when we see a gorilla playing drums or waves turning into horses. It's just seems like advertising.
As for Waldie, years after giving that young mail room boy his big break, when anyone mentioned the copywriter's name, his response was always "is that fecker not dead yet?".
EOGHAN NOLAN, CREATIVE DIRECTOR, IRISH INTERNATIONAL BBDO
Surrealism is to modern advertising what cheese is to the pizza industry. It's an often used ingredient, but not necessarily the dominant one. Surrealism "aimed to express the unconscious mind by the irrational juxtaposition of images' and that seems to describe much of the hyperbole and light-hearted exaggeration that we've come to expect, if not demand, from advertising.
And surrealism is part of our culture. It's not that far a leap from Alice in Wonderland's white rabbit to Cadbury's drumming gorilla. You might trace a direct line from Flann O'Brien through Monty Python and into Tango, Guinness Fish on Bicycle or simply releasing 250,000 balls down San Francisco streets for Sony Bravia.
Ireland 2010 has something in common with post-war Britain which, with rationing still in place and the nation in recovery, saw a period in design known as ‘austerity binge'. Everything was basic, blunt and without ornament. Looking back on the advertising output of this recession might show some of the same mood. Conspicuous imagination is in danger of being as frowned upon as conspicuous consumption. Blunt price-and-item messages abound. On TV, 40 seconds is the new 60 seconds. Research is increasingly relied upon and the mood in the focus groups is lean and mean. Cut to the chase, say the mothers of four, with the result that some ad breaks have more in common with the news than with the movie. Never mind the quality feel the width is back. With so much grim reality around we just might need some surreality (the ‘sur' bit means ‘beyond' or ‘above') to lift us out of our economisery. We're so earthbound we need a flight of fancy-work that tickles the intellect and brings a smile to the face. The relevant unexpected will always be better than the irrelevant unexpected, but the work has to do whatever it can to grab attention, create recall and get people talking. There's a war on and it just might be the time to get out of the trenches and go over the top. Engage.
Stephen Pullen, creative director, Young Euro RSCG
The role surrealism plays in today's advertising is much the same as the one it has always played; being one of the areas that creatives find inspiration in for crafting advertising that stands out from the pack. We remember that which is unusual and outside our normal frames of reference. So a real life dog that can say "sausages" lingers in some trivial corner of your consiousness as a man in a gorilla suit playing Phil Collins.
For surrealism to be effective in a commercial context though it really should be anchored to a product truth. Whether a drumming gorilla or dancing eyebrows truly represent the ‘joy' of eating a bar of Cadburys is debatable. Extremely memorable, highly entertaining, but a more tenuous connection to any real product truth, it seems to have done little to persuade more chocolate lovers to choose Dairy Milk over Galaxy.
Two other points about the relevance of Surrealism in the current economic pit of despair. One is that surrealism provides an outlet for much needed escapism. Nostalgia can be the easy creative sell on this one, but surrealism offers us a myriad of directions with none called ‘backwards'.
The other more pragmatic factor is that historically, from Tony Kaye's Dunlop epic to the legendary Guinness surfers riding their white horses, surreal has a tendency to cost.
It relies on post production and CGI. What will be interesting is how many of us can rise to the challenge of exploring this off centre world armed with good ideas rather than big budgets.
DONALO'DEA, CREATIVE DIRECTOR, OWENS DDB
When surreal ads are done well they are highly effective. When they're not, they're truly awful. Good surreal ads get talked about. In today's world of mass media, new media and social media it's more important than ever to achieve 'remarkability'. Good surreal ads get talked about and word of mouth is the best form of advertising.
Is its use in advertising the work of lazy creatives or a genuine way of getting a message across? Lazy creatives feed back the work that clients expect,without ever challenging those expectations.
A lazy creative doesn't think about how their audience is going to consume their communication. They don't take into account the fact that the average consumer will see up to 3,000 advertising messages every day, most of which they will subconsciously block out.
An effective surreal ad will deliver the message in an entertaining manner with plenty of cut-through, making it a highly effective way of reaching an audience. Lazy creatives know that a surreal ad that does the job is an extremely difficult thing to deliver.
It has to adhere to the same brief and work off the same brand insights as a straightforward ad. Not surprisingly, surreal ads are the hardest ones to pitch to clients, who invariably want to see their brand pushed to the fore of the communication.
Lazy creatives don't do surreal. While consumers are looking to tried and trusted brands in these times of economic doom and gloom, the way in which we communicate the advertising has to be contemporary.
I'm not advocating surrealism for every brand. There are times when you need to knock the consumer over the head with your message and there are times where you have to be more subtle.
JOHN PEACOCK, CREATIVE DIRECTOR, INFERNO LONDON
Question: "How many Surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: "Fish". We all know the joke, but what about Surrealists selling the light bulb? Advertising is clearly full of surreal imagery. Juxtaposition, animation, metaphor and hyperbole give us such marvels as talking parrots with insurance advice, cars that become dancing robots and more.
Surreal (small s) is defined as bizarre or dreamlike, the unbelievable or fantastic. The word comes from Surreal (capital S), the 1920's art movement known for its an irrational, fantastic arrangement of material.
The imagery arose since the Surrealist movement demanded the ‘absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern'. But this means advertising cannot ever be truly Surrealist since it always has an ultimate aim and purpose of selling a product.
It can be surreal, but it can't be Surreal. But it doesn't mean advertising can't directly reference Surrealism. The Stella Artois film ‘Bench' nods furiously to Louis Bunuel. In the flickering mono film, men take turns to sip the beer. One is turned into an egg, from which ants hatch (Hello Dali). A second drinks and becomes an ostrich. Not to be outdone, the bottle turns into an apple. The end line then explains: ‘Reassuringly elephants'.
The influence and demand for surrealist imagery to help cut through the clutter and conventions in adland has never been greater. More and more we crave the extraordinary. As the founder of Surrealism, Andre Breton, said in his 1924 manifesto: "The marvellous is always beautiful, anything marvellous is beautiful, in fact only the marvellous is beautiful."