In 1920, Charlie Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest.
He came 27th out of 40.
You would have thought he would have come first – after all, he is the real thing.
But people weren’t judging the real thing, they’d never seen the real thing.
All they’d seen was a jerky, speeded-up man on a scratchy black-and-white film.
All the winners were imitating what appeared on the film, that’s why they won.
Chaplin wasn’t imitating the film, he was simply repeating the walk that the hand-cranked camera tried to capture.
The judges found his walk too slow and leisurely, which is why he lost.
Like Plato’s Cave, the judges had never been exposed to the real thing, just the shadows.
The shadows were their reality, so they judged who came closest to the shadows.
Obviously the mind can only ever experience what it perceives, so that must be reality: “Esse est percipi,” as George Berkeley said (“To be is to be perceived”).
That’s what Magritte meant with a painting of a pipe, called Ceci N’est Pas Un Pipe (This Is Not a Pipe.)
People said: “Don’t be stupid, of course it’s a pipe.”
Magritte’s point was: “No, it’s not a pipe, it’s canvas and paint. It has an image on it, but nothing here is a pipe.”
Again, making the point that the mind perceives the representation as the reality.
Go to the theatre and you see an attractive woman on stage in beautiful, stylish make-up.
Then stand three feet away from her, the same woman looks like a ghoul.
Because the make-up is made to be seen from 100 feet away, it has to be exaggerated or it would disappear.
See it close up and the eyelashes are like huge caterpillars and the lips are neon red.
The make-up was meant to be perceived on stage from a distance, not up close.
That’s why women used to wear two kinds of make-up: daytime and nighttime.
Daytime make-up is subtle in bright sunlight, but it disappears at night.
Nighttime make-up is pronounced in lower lighting, but garish in the harsh light of day.
We can see that the circumstances, the context can change everything.
But advertising ignores all that, we have a one-size-fits-all approach to communication.
So the same ad we run on TV, we run as a pre-roll on YouTube.
The same ad we run in the papers, we run as a poster in the street.
It never occurs to us that with a TV commercial someone is sitting relaxing, but with an online pre-roll we’re getting in the way of wherever they’re going.
With a press ad they’ve got time to read every word, but a poster is something they drive by in the dark or the rain.
The same lack of thinking goes everywhere, we confuse takeout with input.
For instance, the current fashion is for advertising to evoke an emotional response.
So the knee-jerk reaction is show emotion in all the advertising.
Smiling, crying, laughing, dancing, cuddling, fireplaces, sofas, babies, pets.
Never mind if the product has anything to do with any of these, we need emotion and that’s how you get it.
We should have learned from 2,500 years of human thinking that what you put in isn’t what you get out, what is broadcast isn’t what is received.
If the emotion you want is trust, don’t just say it – give me a reason to believe.
If the emotion you want is warmth, don’t just show it – give me a reason to believe.
Another lazy ad full of people dancing and laughing their heads off won’t deliver emotion.
At least, not the one you wanted.
Dave Trott is the author of Crossover Creativity, The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three. This article first appeared on CampaignLive.co.uk