There aren’t a lot of Aaron Sorkins in the world. Not on Broadway. Not in Hollywood. Not in television. And there damn sure aren’t many in advertising. Why this is in theater, movies and television, I couldn’t tell you. But advertising—this, I know something about. And here’s what I know.
There is brilliant talent in this business. Its ability to shine through the slings and arrows that try to reduce the creative spirit to dust is exemplary. And yet, for all that brilliance, too many of us cling to the belief that advertising and intelligence make poor bedfellows. The cheap stunt. The lame gag. The lowest common denominator. Why do we think this stuff comes with the territory? It doesn’t have to. While a handful of agencies have embraced smart, thoughtful work, most do not. And it’s a missed opportunity.
I’ve been watching Sorkin’s The West Wing a lot lately. I figure, what better time to reacquaint myself with that Oval Office in a galaxy far, far away. The first time around, I’m ashamed to admit, the show threw me. I couldn’t keep up. Not even close. All that walking and talking. But what really got me was the way those characters talked. Like they were educated. Like they weren’t ashamed of being smart. I wasn’t used to that. But I guess that’s what years of brainless sitcoms and formulaic movies will do to a person.
Aaron Sorkin is having none of it. “It seems to me that, more and more, we’ve come to expect less and less from each other, and that’s got to change.” Advertising doesn’t expect much of people. We’ve come to think of them as demographic profiles in a creative brief. A quick flyby of data. What they buy. What they drink. A snapshot. A sound bite. We think we know what makes them laugh. What makes them cry. Simple answers for simple people. We won’t admit this, but it’s true.
So is the fact that people are deeper than that.
We think our audiences won’t get it. Like all they’re capable of understanding is the simplest of ideas. 1 + 1 = 2. Go to them with anything more than that, and their brains will explode. And so, we limit ourselves to as few words as possible. Short and sweet. Get in, get out and hope that something sticks.
But do you ever wonder what might lie beyond those few words?
There’s a scene in The West Wing where president Bartlet is debating his Republican rival. In the weeks before the debate, the president’s staff have been pushing him to come up with ten-word answers. Short, digestible sound bites that the public can get their heads around. The moderator asks the Republican candidate a question, and sure enough, he’s got a slick ten-word answer. To which president Bartlet comes back with this:
“There it is. That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we gonna do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while... every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.”
I know what you’re thinking. Big difference between The West Wing and an ad for a pickup truck. Not going to push back on that. But even a truck company has something to say beyond ten words.
Smart creative isn’t easy. It never has been. You have to think more. You have to spend more time with it. Feel it worming its way around in your brain. It means you don’t get to stop at the quick shtick, the weeny crap that passes for an idea. But intelligent storytelling isn’t just the province of literary novelists or snobby modernist painters. And if you think all this comes at the expense of emotion, you are dead wrong. You can make me think and cry at the same time. Do that, and you’ll really give clients something to think about. ca