If you want to get your message out there, above or beyond the dizzying mass of content that pervades every field, you need to think differently - that much is obvious.
But how do you maintain that brave impulse through a risk-averse process that is designed to fit your work into a pre-existing mould? Animation Director Alex Mallinson is here to inspire courage.
Back in January I wrote a series of tips for prospective commissioners of animated or video content. The last and most important point was to urge the reader to be brave and opt for the quirky option.
Since then, of all the ideas I’ve submitted to prospective or existing clients, only the safest ones have been accepted. I’m not saying that the quirky or unusual ones were all solid gold, but as a trend, it’s frustrating, when so much shareability is predicated on surprising and subverting audience expectation.
Remember Dumb Ways to Die? Of course you do! This hugely successful campaign had at its heart the gutsy combination of a sweet, catchy tune with blackly comic lyrics over cute cartoon characters meeting a series of grisly deaths.
The traditional trajectory of public service adverts (PSAs) has been to steadily ramp up the shock factor to stay ahead of an increasingly desensitised audience. It doesn’t work - decades of drink-driving PSAs have failed to reduce the number of drink-related traffic accidents.
Instead, agency McCann, with a brief from the Melbourne Metro, took the opposite route - a wry take on the message and a desire to entertain. The payoff was a campaign that received millions of hits and led to a palpable improvement in safety.
Eat the Ice Cream
Blazing across my various feeds earlier this year came this marvelous advert for Halo Top Ice Cream, an American brand launching soon in the UK.
Instead of wearying the viewer with an over-lit young woman enjoying ice cream after yoga in her relentlessly beige loft apartment, they took a gamble and hired an offbeat director whose knowledge of advertising came from parodying it.
The result was the dystopian nightmare above. It quickly went viral. The director credits its success to having the complete trust of Halo Top’s boss to create something subversive and attention-grabbing. It’s delightfully risky and paid off.
It’s important to make the distinction between a brave piece of work and one designed to shock. The lasting appeal and impact of shock tactics are negligible.
I think the main distinction between a brave piece of work and a shocking piece of work is that bravery challenges perceptions, whereas shocking is easier, because it exploits our fears and prejudices.
Using race in the way Sony did above isn’t challenging perceptions at all, but it is exploiting those negative tropes un-ironically. Thankfully, this gets called out every time. We should create work we can imagine being displayed in a better world.
No filter. No hashtag
One of the most difficult aspects of creating something designed to buck trends and stand on its own, is the lack of familiar hooks to hang it on. Parody can help with that.
My very first animation, above, was a pastiche of the famous Citroen C4 Transformer advert (this was before Michael Bay rebooted the franchise). To my surprise, it went past a million views in the first month and crashed the original site hosting it.
However, parody, while it can be fun, is a fickle beast too and isn’t really brave, since you’re following in someone else’s footsteps. In fact, audiences want something new and original. That takes time.
If there’s one guarantee of getting something everyone’s seen before, it’s a tight deadline, because you have to find the simplest solution. Brave ideas aren’t quick ideas. They require thought and planning.
I get knocked down…
It’s clear that there are no guarantees of success. Look at the now infamous Cadbury’s Flake advert directed by Jonathan Glazer of that Guinness Ad, Sexy Beast and Under The Skin.
Cadbury not only binned the ad, but left the agency. Still, it was brave and embracing the controversy means it’s garnered a secondary audience online.
Like any successful campaign, the fundamentals still apply - we need a solid, unified strategy, as Dumb Ways to Die had, an understanding of the core audience, as Glazer’s Flake advert reportedly did not, and trust between producers and creatives.
It’s a tall order, especially the trust part, but worth cultivating in order to create more powerful work that reaches an increasingly jaded audience who has content flying at them from every available surface.
So go on, be brave. You won’t just surprise your audience, you’ll surprise yourself too!
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