Ali Rezgui
Nov 3, 2020

When embracing strength becomes a great weakness

Do you believe in the 'strong force' theory of advertising or the 'weak force'? Publicis Groupe's planning director asks whether the industry is leaning too hard into the wrong communication model.


What the future holds right now is everyone’s guess, but one common prediction is that the unprecedented acceleration of everything digital, sparked by the pandemic, makes it a necessity for any business serious about staying in business to embark on a digital business transformation journey (DBT) or disappear.

While true, one of the potential pitfalls is to assume that DBT success factors—which are often about leveraging data to quickly adapt, personalize and optimize, a process that is very much linear and rational—apply the same way to creativity, which is very much lateral and emotional.

Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Digital rise and creativity drop

According to a 2019 IPA report, creatively awarded campaigns from 1996 through 2008 were around 12 times as effective as non-awarded ones,
 but over the period from 2006 through 2018, this fell to less than four times as effective.

There are many reasons for this downward trend, but one of the biggest drivers is undoubtedly a dramatic increase of ‘short termism’, fueled in part by the rise of digital and an obsession for real-time measurement through metrics such as CTR, VTR and bounce rate.

Obviously, that was not the intended effect and companies are not spending significant resources testing every piece of work to the frame level and ensuring assets comply with digital platforms ‘best practices’ for the sake of curbing creativity and limiting its impact.

If anything, these actions show that companies are taking creativity seriously because they believe in its ability to help achieve business results. However, as the gap between the type of creative outcomes agencies are wishing for and the type of creative outcomes clients are asking for seems to be widening, the issue might not be about belief in the power of creativity. Instead, there's a more fundamental misalignment about how creativity—and more specifically advertising—works and the best ways to unlock its full potential.

This is of course a very complex topic with no silver-bullet answer, but as we are spending so much time, money and energy building stronger and faster pipelines to get the right message to the right person in the right place at the right time, it might not be completely useless to pause a bit and reflect about what we are putting in those pipelines. And maybe even ask ourselves if the term ‘right message’ is not sometimes misleading when applied to creativity.

The ‘strong force’ theory

While it might seem like a very innocuous sentence, ‘right message’ somewhat implies that advertising’s role is to increase people’s knowledge by giving them new, relevant, useful information about a product that will change their perception and therefore affect their attitudes and behaviors. It implies that people are a captive audience, actively processing ads messages, comparing various benefits/RTB’s and ultimately making a rational choice based on what they’ve learned.

If you believe in the above, then you are a proponent of the ‘strong force theory’ of advertising, which is by far the most prevalent one in our industry.

This is the theory most commonly developed in business/management books and very much epitomized by the necessity to find a USP (unique selling proposition)—something ‘ownable’ that only your product can claim—if you are to stand any chance of succeeding in the market place.

The most important job of advertising is therefore to communicate this ‘right message’, which as stated above, is usually about what your product does differently or better than the competition. This explains all the testing about key message recall and conversion intent. Creativity is then essentially a way to package the ‘right message’ by making it as easy to understand and remember as possible.

If you believe in that, why on earth would you spend any money on creative assets that don’t contribute directly in demonstrating your product difference or superiority? Why would you feel the need to develop longer-form content or brand-building comms, if you can create 6- or 15-second assets about your product benefit to sway people’s previously held beliefs and instantly convert them into new customers?

The ‘weak force’ theory

But there is another theory. One that considers advertising as being a ‘weak force’, not capable of overcoming resistant attitudes, at least in the short term.

According to this theory, advertising is indeed capable of increasing people’s knowledge. But those who are not buyers of your brand are not likely to pay much attention to what you have to say. And your message will not be strong enough to convert people whose beliefs are different from what is claimed in the advertisement.

In this theory, people are not at all actively processing advertising but quite switched off in their mental engagement—if not actively trying to avoid advertising messages at all cost. While some ads might still get into their psyche, they are very unlikely to remember any specific benefit or rational message.

If you believe in the ‘weak theory’ of advertising, then you are likely to think that the first objective of advertising is to capture the interest of an otherwise uninterested audience. And to do so, it is crucial that your ad entices, seduces, surprises, provokes, engages, or as Martin Weigel would put it, "indifference requires the extraordinary".

In this case, you will probably not think that you always need a ‘persuasive message’, a ‘winning argument’ or a ‘differentiating message’ as long as your content leaves some type of impression on the viewer and is somewhat connected to the category, which might subtly nudge their purchase decision later.

Proponents of this theory (Ehrenberg, Field, Binet, and more), backed by quite some empirical evidence, suggest that people don't have to think of a brand as being different to come to buy it. They just have to think, feel and remember something about it at all. This has been characterized as brand 'salience', or the creation of mental 'presence' or 'availability'.

If you believe in this, you will probably be more inclined to develop long-term brand-building campaigns with the potential to affect future buying decisions. You wouldn’t put too much stock in pre-testing reports assessing message recall or purchase intent shifts post ad exposure, as those don't really reconcile with how you think advertising works.

You might feel that branding from second zero is a sure way to disengage an audience from second zero and that the multiplication of 6-second disposable videos is not the most memorable way to tell an engaging story and build an enduring brand.

This is the type of thinking that might lead to work like Cadbury’s ‘gorilla’, which is three times longer than a normal ad, doesn’t feature chocolate and has no message beyond leaving the viewer with a smile on their face, somewhat helping associate Cadbury with enjoyment, which is what chocolate is ultimately about. Quite an indirect linkage, but it saw a return on investment three times the normal level and prompted a 10% bump in sales.

Or, closer to today, consider ‘It’s a Tide ad’. That campaign's message—’if it’s clean it’s got to be Tide’—could not be more generic for the detergent category. But it was delivered in such a surprising, engaging, entertaining way that it led to an increase in equity, awareness, penetration and sales.

Complementary, not mutually exclusive

Although this ‘strong force’ versus ‘weak force’ debate might seem theoretical, where you stand has concrete repercussions about how to develop your brand and content strategy, how to leverage digital, how to plan your media buy, how to test and what to measure (or not).

Obviously the truth doesn’t squarely sit on one side, and depending on your category's level of involvement, product maturity, functional differences, and so on, one theory might be more relevant than the other. It might also very much depend on which stage of the consumer journey you are trying to tap into. Upper funnel is probably more suited for ‘weak theory’ type of content to grab attention and interest, while lower the funnel is probably more suited for ‘strong theory’ type of content with rational elements to convince consumers this is the right fit for their needs.

The debate is then probably less about ‘weak’ versus ‘strong’ theory, and more about when to best use one or the other within a more holistic comms ecosystem, where each plays a specific role and can help balance long-term brand building with short-term sales activations.

It is revealing that one of the most successful leaders in the digital space, Jeff Bezos, is also one of the most acutely aware of the necessity for long-term brand vision and building on the business fundamentals. "I very frequently get the question ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’" he has said. "I almost never get the question, 'What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?'."

While we are in the midst of an extraordinary cultural and technological change, fundamentals of the human psyche and how people tend to process communication are likely not to change in the next 10 years so it’s probably worth spending some time to account for it when designing them.

As brands are redefining their communication strategy to adapt to this new normal, now is the perfect time to have those conversations and reconsider our overall communication model.

If not, we run the risk of blindly enforcing the ‘strong theory’ which might very well become our strongest weakness.

Ali Rezgui is group planning director with Publicis Groupe in Singapore.

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