Monthly Archives: April 2009

Simplicity vs Complexity II

I wrote a Marketing Society paper recently about how complexity can be ok in communications, provided that those communications are also useful in some way. The paper was talking about the Watch Your Own Heart Attack and Yoobot campaigns for the British Heart Foundation. One was a two minute film with about eight key messages; the other was an online game where you could feed a mini version of yourself all sorts of crap (or salad) and learn about healthy eating in the process.

We thought there were interesting parallels between the two campaigns. Not least because they both ignored one of the most basic rules of advertising: that you have to be single-minded to be remembered. Both campaigns achieved very, very good recall scores and all that jazz. As well as landing lots of complicated key messages with tough audiences (Yoobot was aimed at young teenage kids). More importantly, both campaigns made people take action.

But the most interesting thing about them for me was the fact that they both attracted voluntary audiences. I think that’s becuase they were much richer and more rewarding than the stuff typically produced by comms people. (I should say at this point that I had nothing to do with either of them, so feel perfectly ok about bigging them both up.)

In the case of Yoobot, kids were playing with it for the sake of the gameplay, and because it let you kill yourself with salad. (Though those kids that accelerated their mini-avatars to an early grave often came back and tried to be kinder.) With Watch Your Own Heart Attack, it was probably morbid fascination that made 6 million people tune in during Midsomer Murders, but it was the compelling depth and detail that made people stay tuned in.

So I don’t know why we’re so scared of complexity. Looking outside of advertising, there are others (ahem) who seem to be embracing if it it’s required. Adam Gopnik talks about language in his book Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life. Talking to Flavourwire, he says

Faced with a crisis in his own campaign, with Jeremiah Wright playing 24 hours a day on Fox, instead of simply rejecting and denouncing Wright or defending and justifying his own conduct, Obama made a very complicated, nuanced, subtle argument about the history of race in America, the role of the black church, how it was possible for a good man to say stupid things. Then he then extended that same argument and asked his own followers to apply that logic to people on the right, even on the far right, who were also good people saying foolish things. I thought that was an immensely respectful, serious, complicated explanation in argument about a subject that it’s very easy to vulgarize. When he made that speech and made it as successfully as he did, I genuinely felt that there was a kind of revival of the eloquence of explanation that I’m trying to describe in this book.

Maybe he’s on to something. And maybe we should take note.



I’ve just discovered Hank Williams Thomas, who has been “unbranding” ads featuring African-Americans since the 1970’s.

He’s not trying to make a point about good advertising. Far from it. But it did strike me as quite a good test for good communications: does the ad work if you take the brand out?

This is the opposite of what I was taught when I started: that if you remove the brand from the ad, it should fall apart. If it doesn’t, it means the brand has no role and is simply sponsoring a piece of entertainment.

But I don’t think that’s always true anymore. Perhaps communications should have a role to play by themselves. Like the heart attack film we made for the BHF, which is now being used as a training film. Or this great tool from the Guardian, which within hours of going live was apparently reappropriated on the Spurs fan forums and spread like wildfire from there.

Both those pieces of communication, as well as doing all the things pieces of communication are meant to do, like raise awareness, actually have a role to play in people’s lives. Quite often, though, I think the presence of a brand we all care deeply about as its guardians can mask the utter redundancy and irrelevance of some communications. Removing the brand would show up pointless ads for what they were. Anything genuinely entertaining should still shine.