BBDO Guerrero Philippines’ creative chairman, David Guerrero, calls for the creative advertising industry to step up in 2021.
Bong Joon-ho. Seems like so long ago. But if you recall his Best Picture acceptance speech he had a line about the hurdle to great movies being an inch high: the subtitles. Frankly after a year of watching Apple TV, Netflix, HBO GO and the occasional bit of amazon prime I’m now watching everything with the subtitles on. It means you don’t have to have the volume on so loud. And it means you don’t miss any of the dialog even if delivered in some rapid patois – or if it’s covered by some explosion or other – but it does mean that the jokes are somewhat telegraphed in advance. The punchline is on the screen even before the character’s had a chance to say it. Which can be a bit like watching ads – with or without subtitles. This point was brilliantly made, early in the year, with the meticulously referenced ‘Every Covid-19 spot’ looks the same – which shows that every covid spot is exactly the same. And indeed they were.
But being original about corporate communications was hardly the biggest challenge the industry was facing. The real issue is, according to America’s Epidemic Intelligence Service (real-life superheroes if any existed), is that “a pandemic is a communications emergency as much as a medical crisis” and if we look at it this way then some of us responded better than others.
The tik-tok dance campaign by Vietnam probably won’t make many year-end award shows but it was held up by the New York Times as doing all the things that America’s didn’t. As the opinion writers put it: “the best campaigns got people to make life-saving changes right away” And they identify three simple rules for communication that frankly many governments didn’t bother following: Build Trust, Know Your Audience, and, Think Long-Term.
It’s a shame that we haven’t really managed to get big scale global communications enacted. There have been piecemeal local efforts. Some better than others, and there are some interesting campaigns. But what happened to the co-ordinated crisis response that we should be capable of? Are we really happy that we have done – and are doing – everything we can to get the life-saving messages across that can prevent the spread of coronavirus? I know I’m not. We did some work – and pitched for more – but we have not been able to yet create the big idea that can make the powerful arguments that we need. This should be our moment. And anyone reading this should be challenged to find a way to get something better done. Otherwise we will lose our sense of collective purpose if it all becomes a question of companies saying ‘look: we are doing something that our competitors are not’.
When you think of the excellence the industry has got to in: anti-smoking campaigns, anti-drink-driving campaigns and gun control campaigns you have to wonder how long it will be before we hit the same heights with Covid-19 work. The only way will be to crunch through years of creative development and get to something that really works, is universal and goes global. We could use the very laudable UN initiative back in March as a starting point. But add on what we know now and what we would do if lives depended on it – which they do. We need honest assessments of the situation, to admit when we don’t know something, and we need to give people specific things to do. One idea put forward was where you assess the risks you need to take – like going to the store on a points basis – seem to be opportunities for mobile campaigns. And perhaps we need more work aimed at normalizing mask-wearing. Everyone naturally feels a bit awkward about wearing them in company as if they are saying: “are you trying to tell me you think I’m infectious?” But we need to get over that. And we need to keep finding new ways to tell the old stories about hand-washing and social distancing.
So if, like us, you did some work at the start of the pandemic and for whatever reason abandoned it or got overwhelmed with other things to do, now is the time to dust it off and get going with more.
The crisis will not be over in 2021. If anything it now seems to have entered a dangerous new phase and before the long roll-out of the vaccines is complete. And wishing it away won’t make it so. On top of that, we face the problem of complacency and fatigue on messaging. Maybe we need some of the playfulness and inventiveness we are now bringing to mainstream work brought back to the world of staying safe and staying alive – especially for people who have seen it all before.