Popular vlogger Evan Puschak argues in his The Nerdwriter series that the only thing worse than a bad movie is a “passable” movie.
According to Puschak, passable movies commit a worse crime than being unwatchable: they function only adequately based on a combination of familiar tropes and production value, resolve without bothering to create any real emotional resonance, and, worst of all, tend to inspire and shape more “passable” movies with similarly irritating flaws.
These films aren’t just a symptom of a lack of creativity, he argues, but also a disease in their own right. Passable begets passable.
This vicious cycle happens in marketing and advertising, too.
More and more we see advertisements borrowing ideas, methods and executions from other advertisements, leading to clunky, corporate buzzword speech and stock photography, poorly executed copies of other brand strategies, and an unrealistic perception of consumer worlds.
Look no further than the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial to fully understand what this cycle of self-reference and diminishing returns leads to.
Aside from the blatant insensitivities of the Pepsi ad to the cultural and political realities of the moment, the notorious spot’s creative execution is unrelatable and untrue at every turn. The ad is tone deaf because its “tone” is borrowed from other advertisements, not real life.
Pepsi cannot, in real life, bridge the divide between protesters and law enforcement, just as cool-looking cellists don’t spontaneously jam out with electric guitar players in the streets. But the assertion that this is possible may be easier to accept in a pitch meeting when placed in the borrowed context of a famous competitor’s ad.
“Passability” is a trap that creative marketers need to avoid. How? By avoiding the practice of borrowing from other creative work.
For every radio script written, landing page designed, and photograph taken, we need to ask ourselves if we’re channeling real life, referencing original source material, or putting a lazy coat of gloss on pre-existing brand executions. Are we communicating in a way that’s relatable and motivational, or simply trying to execute another version of a common trope with dull sufficiency? Is the website we’re designing true to the brand and helpful for the user, or is it loaded with unnecessary bells and whistles in imitation of a different interface?
While we don’t have a quick tip that’ll help you tell the difference between a great advertisement and a piece that merely imitates a “great advertisement,” we do suggest that you find inspiration beyond the advertising and marketing industry.
Stay engaged with culturally popular topics, sources of entertainment, stories, science, history and experiences. If you’re marketing a science degree, watch science-based YouTube videos, chat with a science professor or someone working in a science-based industry, and crack open a textbook. This is where references to relatable scenarios and ideas can be found–and where the idea for a refreshing and true advertisement starts.