Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tuesday Tip No.61 - How To Avoid Contrivance

An accusation you may commonly hear against an idea is that it's 'contrived.'

To which the natural response is 'but of course it's contrived, it's made-up, it's an advertisement, not real life!'

However, the objection nearly always proves fatal. Although most people can't explain what they mean by 'contrived', it seems to be a massive problem for them.

What I think they mean is 'a coincidence that doesn't feel justified.'

As Creatives, we constantly need to play with reality, to engineer coincidence and unreality, in order to dramatise. But how to do it in a way that seems justified?

Probably the only thing I learned when I was screenwriting which is useful when I'm working on adverts is how to handle coincidence effectively.

It's a well-known principle in screenwriting that the audience will accept any coincidence - no matter how outlandish - as long as it has a negative effect on the protagonist.

In other words, if a movie hero has an immunity to snake poison, and then the treasure just happens to be guarded by snakes, the audience will feel the scene is unsatisfying, too convenient, mere coincidence... contrived.

But if the treasure is guarded by snakes, which happen to be the hero's very worst fear in the entire world... it's no more or less coincidental than before, but the audience reaction is the exact opposite - they find the situation to be dramatic, exciting and fulfilling.

Now let's apply it to advertising.

Lucky, the former More Than insurance Spokesdog, starred in a series of adventures in which, by sheer coincidence, a chain of potentially disastrous events ended up causing no damage. Guess what? Those ads were not good. They felt cheesy. (Sorry, couldn't find on YouTube).



Whereas in 'Drugstore', my favourite advert of all time, there is a similarly massive coincidence - the pharmacist who sells our hero his condoms just happens to be the dad of the girl he's taking out that night. And it's thrilling.

So that's the tip. When you use coincidence, make sure it's causing a problem, not a solution. Then your ads will seem dramatic, and not contrived.

52 comments:

provato said...

...well if I follow your advise then people will say I am negative... :-))

Mark said...

Plus... The protagonist in the levi ad is gorgeous whereas the protagonist in the 'More Than' ad is a complete dog.

Beauty always helps an advert.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and a group of cops taking cover behind a poxy little VW Polo wasn't contrived at all was it.

Scamp said...

Well, according to my theory, you'd have to say it isn't contrived.

The Polo's perceived toughness causes the protagonists to take action that could be negative for them - they'd be much better off if they weren't all crowding behind that one small car.

Actually, a lot of VW advertising understands the power of the negative rather well.

From a guy bumping into a lamp-post to a mechanic hiding under a psychiatrist's couch to a man who loves being stuck in traffic.

Anonymous said...

i guess your levis stuff is a more recent example.

Anonymous said...

erm yes....your theory.

Anonymous said...

That's your favourite ad of all time? Blimey. It doesn't come more contrived than that - it's like a throwaway plot device in an ITV sitcom.

What, he bought the very condoms that he's going to use with the girl off the girl's father? Fucking hilarious! Brilliant! Then what happened?

Ben said...

I didn't know you were a screenwriter in a previous life scamp. Can you tell us anymore about this? Personally I'd find this an interesting post going along with what Russell Davies was saying in last weeks Campaign about the doors that advertising opens and all that...

Anonymous said...

Completely off topic, but I've just been sent these rather interesting Polish Film posters, and thought you might be interested to have a look at them. Very weird, but some are strangely good:
http://wellmedicated.com/inspiration/50-incredible-film-posters-from-poland/

tom said...

jesus, the direction in that levi's ad is stunning

Scamp said...

2.11 - the point I'm trying to make is that Drug Store, while certainly based on coincidence, doesn't feel contrived. Not to me, anyway. Does it to anyone else?

Scamp said...

ben - I was a failed screenwriter. Not much of interest to add beyond that I'm afraid.

tom - agree with you about the direction. It was Michel Gondry.

Lunar BBDO said...

Ah, Drugstore...

In the nineties, naysayers would remark that Levi's ads were simply well-shot Benny Hill gags (I recall Nick Worthington failing to find the humour in this suggestion).

The plot of Drugstore is featured in the 1988 remake of The Blob. But, strangely, that doesn't seem to lessen the brilliance of the commercial.

Other Drugstore ephemera: the end shot with the dad is looped because they didn't have enough footage to make it last. Nice accidental effect.

It has been suggested that it did not take home a Black Pencil at D&AD because the person responsible sent in the 'wacky' alternative version where the hero has been replaced by a girl. Not sure how they were going to make use of the condoms.

The signs (including the one that says 'Trespassers will be shot') are real. It was filmed in a very scary place.

Anonymous said...

Lunar-"It has been suggested that it did not take home a Black Pencil at D&AD because the person responsible sent in the 'wacky' alternative version where the hero has been replaced by a girl."

Yes, that could have been the reason. More likely, however, is that it's just not very good. You and Scamp sound like a right pair of codgers getting misty-eyed over a crappy Levi's ad. The reason it's even remotely interesting is down to the way it was shot and edited. But you know, so what? A million pop music videos did exactly the same thing (and had less contrived 'plots'). Remember you two - we are supposed to be talking about advertising here, not short filmmaking. There is a difference.

Anonymous Tom said...

Scampy, you're such an old queen. That Levi's ad is a crap urban myth/joke, it's a lame story, and nothing to do with anything. Gondry was the smart arse not BBH.
Stop watching Youtube and trying to justify that thieving is sort of OK if you add an intellectual gloss.
Take this equation, YOUR SALARY divided by the amount of minutes you watch YOUTUBE looking for 'inspiration' , times the amount in grammes of cocaine you took at the last DandAD evening. If the answer is greater than 12 and a half, you're a cock.

Lunar BBDO said...

Yes. Maybe it's just not very good.

By the way, It was in the Guinness Book of Records for being the most awarded ad of all time.

Lucky you don't sign your posts, eh?

Meaghan Fitzgerald said...

Wonderful post - very useful advice, good examples and fun to read. I'm sure you can get into a debate as to how to use planned contrivance to your benefit (being self-aware and purposefully stereotypical is a tough line to walk, however) but this is a great, no-frills starting point to a discussion of what makes something feel contrived in ads (or films and other media).

Anonymous said...

"By the way, It was in the Guinness Book of Records for being the most awarded ad of all time."

If you're seriously suggesting that this somehow means anything, I'll have to stop taking you seriously.

If you have a look in the Guinness Book of Records you'll see that Westlife are the most successful male group of all-time. With loads of awards too.

But go on - look me straight in the face and tell me that you'd use the same argument to prove that Westlife are the very best.

Anonymous said...

Scamp.
Agree.Fallon killed lucky the dog. Because it was contrived. They then ran a campaign called ‘normal is beautiful’ it wasn’t contrived. But refreshing for the category. See if you can track it down.
Ads that are contrived simply try to hard.

Lunar BBDO said...

It means that it won more awards than any other ad up to that point. This includes best ad of the year and several golds at the BTAA's and D&AD pencils for best 60 second ad and best cinema commercial. The public loved it (are you quite young? Do you not recall it?) and it routinely appears on many great ad people's lists of favourite ads of all time.

That combination of facts means that your opinion is in the very small minority.

Also, your Westlife argument is, ironically, contrived.

Anonymous said...

Those of you that say this ad's shit etc are nothing but twats, seriously.

Probably seriously Jealous too, i know for a fact i'd fucking love to have this on my reel as would about 99% of creatives out there.

Looks stunning.

Anonymous said...

"It means that it won more awards than any other ad up to that point. This includes best ad of the year and several golds at the BTAA's and D&AD pencils for best 60 second ad and best cinema commercial. The public loved it (are you quite young? Do you not recall it?) and it routinely appears on many great ad people's lists of favourite ads of all time."

So. Fucking. What.

I can't believe you're still trying to suggest that we should measure something's worth by awards and public votes. That my opinion is in the minority - and I don't know how you can't grasp this - doesn't necessarily mean that the ad is objectively good. My opinion that Captain Beefheart is a musical genius is, strictly speaking, a minority one - but I'm still right about that. This is basic stuff, Lunar.

The Westlife comparison, by the way, remains apt. And will be so as long as you insist on measuring worth in the way that you do. If anything's contrived, it's your reliance on awards and votes to bolster your personal opinion.

If you want to make a case for that ad being great, then tell us why you think it's so. Don't simply - and lazily - rely on charts and figures to do the job for you. Because they are, ultimately, meaningless. And I think you know this.

Anonymous Tom said...

Of course you'd like it on your reel, you numpty, your reel would probably need it. Haw haw. Award zealot...lordy! Do something that's worth talking about in the real world, not twenty years ago in the walled county of DandADshire. Fight!!

Anonymous said...

About 18 months ago Shots did an excellent DVD celebrating their 100th issue. On this DVD were the 100 greatest ads of all time. I'm not talking about that Channel 4 poll that keeps getting run and re-run. This dvd was compiled by those who know. People like Walter Campbell, Frank Budgen, John Hegarty, Paul Brazier, and many more. The Levis ad in question was in this list at number 13. If you disagree, then you are contradicting what all the greats of advertising consider a brilliant piece of communication. Not that you are right or wrong, but you are very much in the minority. That's all.

Anonymous Tom said...

Walter Campbell? Frank Budget? Paul Brazier? The greats of advertising? Do. Fuck. Off. I'm glad I'm in a minority.

Anonymous said...

KINSALE WINNERS ON THEIR WEBSITE

Lunar BBDO said...

For anonymous tom and the other anon:

Drugstore is good because it combines (at the time, but I think they hold up) brilliant direction, cinematography, use of music and authentic period features with a plot twist that I didn't see coming which links in with the product detail and a fantastic endline that rounds the whole thing off with just the right irreverent tone of voice.

Now tell me why it's shit. Your explanation in your first comment seems ignorant (what are these million pop videos which did exactly the same thing only with less contrived plots?). It is an ad as opposed to a short film because it communicated a clear benefit in a memorable and engaging way.

The Westlife record is for 'most successful' rather than 'best'. They objectively began their chart career with more number ones than any other act. Their awards aren't mentioned. Besides, Drugstore's awards are each a jury-delivered confirmation of quality against a range of criteria (originality, relevance, memorability etc.) that help us to define what makes a commercial 'good'. You can always think anything is shit but in this case you're just being contrary for the sake of it.

And Captain Beefheart is shit, cos , like, um, millions of other 70s wankathons did exactly the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Do you have any idea who Walter Campbell is?

Anonymous said...

is it Wal's full name?

Anonymous Tom said...

Big Irish bloke, with a streetwise handshake, did Volvo, Dunlop and lots of other stuff that looked the same, but still made AMV look cool even though is was full of old men in wee stained trousers. I know who he is, who are you?

Anonymous said...

Idea for post.
Name your favourite ads. This obviously can't be done in poll format due to the sheer number of films, but it will be good to get the debate going. It will be interesting to see the number of people that just get plain angry at other people's choices, rather than actually stating their own preference.

Anonymous said...

You have a closed profile, so I'm just as anonymous as you 'anonymous Tom'.

Anonymous Tom said...

For looney BBDO.
Drugstore is good, but is it great? apart from the fact that it was done soooooooooooooooooo long ago...your slightly strange love for the dead leaves me bewildered.

Anonymous Tom said...

Jesus I can't help that my name is Tom Anonymous...I'm Greek..I worked at BBH once...

Anonymous said...

"It is an ad as opposed to a short film because it communicated a clear benefit in a memorable and engaging way."

Don't just state that it did - anyone can do that. Say how it did. And tell me, what was the clear product benefit in this ad? That Levi's come with a little pocket? Oooh.

"Drugstore is good because it combines (at the time, but I think they hold up) brilliant direction, cinematography, use of music and authentic period features with a plot twist that I didn't see coming which links in with the product detail and a fantastic endline that rounds the whole thing off with just the right irreverent tone of voice."

Gak. Your problem, Lunar, is that you're still talking about its aesthetic qualities - as if you're a film studies tutor or something.

And a "plot twist you didn't see coming"? Wow. Now I know why they keep churning out those stupid, jump from your seat, slash horror films.

"You can always think anything is shit but in this case you're just being contrary for the sake of it."

Sez you. Contrary's got fuck all to do with it. I genuinely don't like the ad. Actually, no, that's not quite true - I take issue that it's supposed to be one of the greatest ads of all time. It isn't. And it isn't because - as I've already said - it comes with a contrived 'plot' and its stylised tone and look is merely flashy technique. In short, it's a kind of high level showing off. And that's not enough to qualify it as one the all-time greats.

"Besides, Drugstore's awards are each a jury-delivered confirmation of quality against a range of criteria (originality, relevance, memorability etc.) that help us to define what makes a commercial 'good'."

I can't believe you're still banging on about what other people thought about it. I'll say it again - so. fucking. what.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous Tom - DUDE! Why the beef with Walt. The guy has done Dunlop - Tested, Guinness - Surfer, Swim Black and Dreamer, Volvo - Twister, Mercedes - Movement and much more. Come on - most creatives would give their right bollock to have just one of those ads on their reel. Surely you don't have to be so negative about EVERYTHING that EVERYONE says. Try, just try, to say something good about something.... ANYTHING!

Anonymous Tom said...

Why am I so down on Walt? He fucked my wife. That's why. I'll stop now. Don't called me dude. That means GAY in Greek.

Anonymous said...

Didn't think you could do it. Go on - surprise me - say something good.

Anonymous Tom said...

You crack me up the way you name ads, just like they appeared in the annual. I just don't see the world the way you see it, I'm just shaking the tree on this blog because it's all a little bit sycophantic.

Anonymous said...

5.36

You don't like it.

So. Fucking. What.

It's a great ad btw.

Anonymous said...

"5.36

You don't like it.

So. Fucking. What."

Well, exactly. And it would have remained at 'so fucking what' too were it not for Lunar coming on here telling me how wrong I was to not like it.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha - You started it. No, it was Lunar - he said that you said so fucking what. Well that's not what Scamp said - Scamp said that Lunar DIDN'T like it! HA HA HA

Jack said...

I think you began the festivities my silly friend.

As a neutral observer, I can't really take you seriously. Your arguments sounded like one sophomoric dumb rant. You have no taste and you criticised Lunar for doing things you did yourself. I think you just made yourself look stupid. Except, of course, you were anonymous, so we have no idea whether you're a clever person being obtuse or a thick person trying their hardest.

Tell us what ads you like and we'll decide whether or not to give a shit about you.

ohtheirony said...

Anonymous Tom, you're a dude

john woods said...

There seems to be a lot of dudes making comments who are listening to Rage Against The Machine too much for their own good. Can't say the Ad is my fave but I can see where it's coming from.

4am said...

Drugstore not very good? the good stuff we see today is good because it's standing on the shoulders of giants. and that was a fucking giant.

4am said...

ps. i'm not sure about your theory scamp. i think it's just a statistically correct point of view.

Anonymous said...

OK

So that became a thread about drugstore, not about contrived ideas. The reason drugstore is not contrived is because there is a direct link between the narrative and the product - the watch pocket, and one of the many uses it might have served beyond the intended use 'back in the day'. Contrived ads bang any old narrative onto the product. Those that don't feel contrived link naturally to the product features or benefits.
Scamp, perhaps next time just skip the words and post another ad in the top ten and let the teenage angst commence...

Anonymous said...

This is starting to read like one of those comments threads you get on Youtube where illiterate teenagers call each other 'gaytards' and such like. Great stuff!

Anonymous said...

Anon 7.27

I don't think Lunar ever suggested you were wrong for not liking it. That's your choice. He said you were wrong for not thinking it's good. By all standards, it is good. I think you were just unclear about the fact that you were asserting your opinion. Then you went off on one like a great big gaytard :-).

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