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The power of poetry in advertising

In case you missed this, poetry and the spoken word have become popular in ads in recent years. We ask why.

By ian darby

The symbiotic relationship between advertising and the broader creative industries is well-established. Especially when it comes to music and movies.

But let's add poetry and spoken word to this because, in the past few years, there have been so many high-profile campaigns featuring talented people in that field.

And what stands out immediately is the sheer range of these artists. From Kae Tempest emphasising the importance of connecting with other people with the "We're Never Lost if We Find Each Other" spoken word track for Facebook, created by Droga 5 New York, through to Kojey Radical encouraging people to take a break from the norm in the "Where Different Takes You" Honda commercial from Wieden + Kennedy London, to Idris Elba reading Edgar Guest’s "Don’t Quit" to a quarantined nation for the BBC.

It's very clear from these examples why spoken word has captivated advertisers. This can be described in the shape of two powerful qualities: emotion and diversity. And perhaps there's room for a third addition - popularity. Raquel Chicourel, the chief strategy officer at Grey London, points out that the medium is currently in the midst of a revival. Poetry slams are popping up everywhere, and two-thirds of poetry buyers are younger than 34, and 41 per cent aged between 13 to 22. And, adds Chicourel, "the really good poetry, not the stuff you wrote as a heartbroken teenager, is so much more than a clever use of rhyming words."

One of her favourite films when growing up was Dead Poets Society and Chicourel says that while some of the points made in the movie can seem a little clichéd today they still resonate. Especially Robin Williams' standout speech:

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

Robin Williams's speeches from Dead Poets Society—the one about the value of poetry and contributing a verse to "the powerful play" of life - was used in Apple's iPad Air campaign in 2014 to demonstrates the machine as a tool or vehicle for creativity.

In terms of brands embracing this spirit, Nationwide deserves kudos for investing in its "Voices" campaign as early as 2016.

The advertising features people from across the UK speaking in their own words, rather than being scripted beforehand. The campaign really seemed to hit its stride during the pandemic, when authentic voices such as Maria and Matt, and Deanna Rodger, delivered "a message to myself in six months' time" as they spoke to provide themselves with the resilience to get through what was undoubtedly a testing period.

There's a current break from "poetry" in VCCP London's advertising for the brand at the moment. The latest work features documentary-style conversations that deliver insights from first-time buyers. Paul Hibbs, the head of advertising at Nationwide Building Society, says that this is consistent with the brand evolving the "Voices" campaign, moving through comedy and song, and then embracing spoken word as "a great way to bring a sense of drama to a subject." He adds that, throughout the various stages of the campaign, "we haven’t written a single script for a television ad because we believe it is more important to give everyday people the opportunity to tell their own stories. It is much more authentic that way.”

Using people's real voices has worked for Nationwide. But how do creatives at agencies feel about letting poets rule the roost when it comes to copylines? Mark Elwood, executive creative director at Leo Burnett London, says these gifted writers possess the ability to break through the occasionally "saccharine nature" of ad creative to deliver something that's potentially powerful. And he's adamant that spoken word is a good way forward in the sense of helping to make advertising messages more representative: "It's a great shortcut of showing the country's diversity. Poetry has been seen as something quite white, and quite stuffy, but now it shows the breadth of the country and the different accents, it's a great diversity play in a nice way."

On top of this ability to really reflect the range of people and voices across the UK, the biggest hit spoken word can deliver is undoubtedly emotion. As Grey's Raquel Chicourel indicates, emotion is a quality that works for brands. She points to IPA research that shows commercials with purely emotional content perform twice as well (31 per cent versus 16 per cent) against those with only rational content when it comes to actual sales.

She also believes in poetry's facility to dramatise and build suspense in a situation: "So when it comes to using ads with poetry, don’t hold back and really let it sing." Chicourel says that the classic Guinness "Surfer" ad, with its elegant and poetic copy inspired by Moby Dick, is a strong example of this. As is Prince Ea’s 'Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?', which he shared on social video platforms in a bid to encourage people to be less controlled by technology and their phones.

Leo Burnett's Mark Elwood made use of spoken word when he worked at the agency 101 and it deployed a clip of Alfred Hitchcock's distinctive voice in a Scottish Widow film. A similar voice track, which he says stands out, is from the philosopher Alan Watts in a commercial for Volvo created by Forsman & Bodenfors.

These uses of spoken word to build a sense of atmosphere chime with Raquel Chicourel's point that turning to poetry in ads succeeds most when it goes beyond literary affectation. As she puts it, "it's not all seriousness and pretentiousness" because similar poetic beats inform some of the most famous pop songs of recent times, from ‘Shake It Off’ by Taylor Swift to ‘History’ by One Direction.

Such reference points are more than matched by the advertising world when it embraces spoken word. As it has done with the likes of George the Poet (in commercials for both 02 and Coca-Cola), and James Massiah (J20 and Selfridges). Their special voices lend a real power and authenticity to the brands involved, and connect with a range of people across divides.


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