Cannes Lions 2022
A Stage for our Show
This year Cannes invites us to create work that humanises brands and serves them over time. The author of Lemon and Look Out describes what he believes this entails and how companies might benefit
14 June 2022
“If no one notices your advertising, everything else is academic,” said Bill Bernbach.
One day last year when I was out for a stroll, I encountered a woman walking her dog in the street. Suddenly the dog jumped up at me and started barking. The owner restrained her dog and said: "I’m so sorry about that, he’s normally fine. It’s the cone." I looked again and the dog was wearing a veterinary cone around its neck, which has the effect of narrowing a dog’s attention. This can make dogs fearful and aggressive. And it struck me that in the last twenty years or so – in our digital age – something rather similar might well have happened to us.
To understand the nature of attention and what kind of creative work might capture it, I look to the research of the brilliant neuropsychologist and philosopher, Iain McGilchrist. He is perhaps the world’s expert on brain lateralisation. It’s not that the right and left hemisphere do different things, McGilchrist explains – an idea popularised in the 1960s and since dismissed – but that they do things differently, have different modes of attention. The right hemisphere presents the world to us through a kind of broad and vigilant attention. It is alert to what’s out there, just slightly off-stage. It grounds us in the world and the people in it, is particularly interested in the living, gives us our sense of space, depth and lived time, and enables us to understand context, narrative, metaphor and humour. Anything of interest is passed to the left hemisphere for narrow-beam attention to be brought to bear. The left hemisphere tends to abstract things from their context, to break them down into smaller parts, to flatten things, to categorise and manipulate what is passed to it. It has a poor understanding of people, a poor grasp of lived time or depth, little appreciation of music – only basic rhythm. It is rather literal and struggles to differentiate a joke from a lie. It is interested in things or tools with which to manipulate the world – language, signs and symbols are principal of these. These different modes of attention have a bearing on our perception and our judgement.
Our day-to-day behaviour has changed markedly in the digital age. We now spend on average three hours a day looking down at our mobile devices rather than looking up and around, not to mention the time spent looking at our computer screens. Our mode of attention has narrowed, we have become more goal-orientated, we have turned inwards, and new habits of thinking have emerged that are consistent with the left hemisphere’s preferences.
We can trace this narrowing of attention in changing advertising styles over the last 15 years, because advertising too has started to exhibit features that reflect the left-hemisphere’s preferences, and as my work shows, they are harming effectiveness. Advertising has become increasingly rhythmic. Narrative played out in lived time has been replaced by short-sharp cuts. Words on the screen tell us what to think and do, and people – if they are present at all – are devitalised or broken down into parts – just the hands, just the mouth, just those staring eyes. Advertising has also lost its humour. We are increasingly creating advertising for the left-brain’s preferences, for narrow-beam attention. The problem is, unless you are already in the market for the product, this kind of mechanistic advertising will cause you to look away.
In a world where it has become easier to target, we have mistakenly begun to assume that audiences might already have an inherent interest in our brand or product, and we are losing the knack of making advertising that might interest or entertain people. Well, people read what interests them and sometimes it’s an ad, said Howard Gossage, and as David Ogilvy put it, you can’t bore people into buying your product. As I will show, modern-day left-brain advertising struggles to elicit an emotional response, to capture attention, to lodge the brand in memory and it enjoys few lasting effects; it is therefore fleeting and wasteful. It is this change in advertising style – together with a move towards attention-poor media – that is no doubt to blame for the decline in advertising effectiveness described by Peter Field.
So, what is to be done? Well, at Cannes, I will be making the case for advertising for broad-beam attention. Advertising for broad-beam attention creates an interest in your product and brand, and lodges it in long-term memory. What kind of work will capture the broad-beam attention of audiences? Well, the right hemisphere is better connected to the limbic system, which helps us to experience emotion (emotion has the benefit of orientating our attention, placing things in long-term memory, and promoting one course of action above another in the future) and it is also better associated with memory, particularly episodic memory (for people, events, episodes in our lives).
This gives us our first clue as to what kind of advertising might capture broad-beam attention and lodge your brand in memory, and it all starts with the living – advertising that has ‘character, incident and place.’ The right hemisphere is fascinated by advertising with human uniqueness, human ‘betweenness’ and human movement, by context, metaphor and narrative, and is charmed by humour and music. And advertising works all the better if you have a long-running fluent device, as I describe it – a living character or a scenario that is repeatedly used over time.
As I will show, it is this broad-beam advertising that drives sales gain, market share gain and profit gain – lasting effects that all begin by lodging the brand in memory, so that your brand leaps to mind before any other, so that people type your brand into their search tool rather than conducting a generic search. And in a digitally disrupted world, the role of this brand-building advertising for broad-beam attention becomes more important, not less.
This means advertising with wit and charm, advertising with human vitality, advertising that entertains. Perhaps the kind of advertising that attracted many to the industry in the first place. And to achieve this creative dividend, you need to place your broad-beam advertising on attention-rich media – media that gives you a stage for your show.
Howard Gossage also said, “the buying of time and space is not the taking out of a hunting license on someone else’s private preserve but is a renting of a stage on which we may perform.” If Cannes is a time to start reframing our relationship with audiences, to reflect on our media choices and rethink the kind of advertising we prize, then this seems as good a maxim to live by as any.
Orlando Wood is Chief Innovation Officer at System1 Group, Honorary Fellow of the IPA and author of Lemon and Look out (IPA, 2019 and 2021). System1group.com monitors advertising for effectiveness and helps advertisers and agencies to create emotionally resonant advertising during creative development.