The Cleverest Advertising is About Nothing

Advertising is a simple business.

We persuade people to buy goods and services.

We do it by pointing out a product’s benefits and giving them a reason to buy.

And when we do our jobs convincingly, they do buy.

And when we perform at the highest level, people form emotional attachments to brands.

This may not happen very often, but when it does the results are remarkable.

Think of the Apple cult at its height.

500 people lining up overnight to buy the latest gadget.

In 2001, the latest gadget was the iPod.


This is the original ad and it’s excellent.

It’s as close to a product demo as you can get in print.

The ad doesn’t need to be clever, because it’s advertising a product with revolutionary benefits.

So it simply states what the product does.

And it worked, millions of people bought iPods.

But revolutionary products are the exception.

The majority of products aren’t that clever.

The majority of products are actually, or virtually, parity products.

Like toothpaste, or toilet paper, or detergent.

These products are the antithesis of clever.

They don’t have real competitive advantages, in spite of what the agency brief may proclaim.

No one is lining up overnight to buy toilet paper.

If you’re like me, you buy whatever name brand is on special, because it doesn’t matter.

So how do you make it matter?

How do you get people to care about toilet paper, or dish soap, or whatever?

How do you make the unremarkable remarkable?

How do you distinguish the indistinguishable?

How do you sell parity products?

By being clever, that’s how.

Advertising needs to be clever in inverse proportion to the cleverness of the product.

Truly clever products don’t require clever advertising.

They require advertising that clearly communicates why they’re clever—and then they’ll sell themselves.

That’s why the cleverest advertising is about nothing.

It’s because the degree of difficulty is higher.

Like Olympic diving where the difficulty of the dive is factored into the final score.

Doing an easy dive perfectly can score fewer points than doing a hard one imperfectly.

It’s harder to advertise toilet paper than sexy new technology.

Here’s a great ad that says absolutely nothing about the product.


It says nothing, but we understand a lot.

That’s pure creativity.

And according to the awards show Eurobest, it  increased sales by 130%.

That’s the power of saying nothing brilliantly.

Advertising is a simple business, but simple is not the same as easy.

Thinking cleverly is rarely that.

The Strange Allure of Losers

In a world enthralled by winners, sport reminds us there are also losers. Last weekend I watched Spurs (that’s Tottenham, not San Antonio) lose their third Premier League match in a row.

Although the team is still in third place, their lead over Arsenal (our arch-rivals) in fourth place, has evaporated to a solitary point, from 10 points, in just two weeks.

As a longstanding Spurs fan this is disappointing, but not altogether unexpected.

It’s the price of following a club with a tradition of swashbuckling football and a masochistic tendency of giving up soft goals.

A club that hasn’t won the game’s top honour since 1961, and could well go another 50 years before winning it again - but still sells out more or less every home game.

In a society that idolises winners, sport may be the only area where associating with losers is considered acceptable.

Even losing sports brands are incredibly powerful, with teams getting passed down through generations of families like blue eyes, or big ears.

In many communities it’s OK to change your spouse but not to change your team.

In sports, even losers have allure.

History, on the other hand, is said to be written by the winners.

Maybe so, but there are losers who capture our imagination across the centuries, with a grip most brands can only dream about.

Napoleon may have lost the battle of Waterloo, yet he’s certainly defeated the Duke of Wellington in the battle of pop culture.

There are innumerable films about Napoleon, including Abel Gance's 1927 epic, in most of them Wellington is relegated to a minor role.

While Wellington can lay claim to a boot and a beer or two named after him “Napoleon” is the term given to a whole category of Armagnac and Cognac.

Oscar Wilde died broken and penniless.

Since then, practically all his work been filmed, he himself is the subject of numerous films and Wildean has become an adjective.

His epigrams endure and he’s the subject of numerous biographies.

Van Gogh never sold a picture in his lifetime and cut off his ear.

But two of his paintings are among the 10 most expensive ever sold, (adjusted for inflation).

And his pop cultural influence ranges from a portrayal by Kirk Douglas in Lust for Life, to the song Vincent by Don McLean and at least 5 other films.

We’re fascinated by Van Gogh’s brilliance, his madness, and his persistence, in death we accord him the place he was denied in life.

Napoleon died in exile, but is still regarded as one of the finest military strategists ever.

Oscar Wilde’s wit overshadows his fall from grace over something as commonplace as homosexuality.

In life, as in sport, the best players don’t win every time.

But sport at least gives us transparency along with victory or defeat.

A transparency that can be missing in life, where sometimes the game feels rigged before it begins.

And there's something heroic about rolling the dice for really big stakes.

Whether the winners write history or not, the losers are often more interesting.

Even if, when it comes to sports, they break your heart every time.