4 Ways to Tell If Your Campaign’s Concept Is a Flop (or Not)

Jan 18, 2018

Hey Whipple, Squeeze This is a classic advertising guidebook and has cemented author Luke Sullivan as a legend among creatives. We recently had the privilege of hosting Mr. Sullivan at our thought leadership conference series Dead Cats Society and saw how much value the material offers to marketers on the client side. The following paragraphs are an excerpt from Hey Whipple, which can be used as a checklist for marketers to vet concepts their agencies present to them. Certain paragraphs have been omitted to reduce word count, but maintain a high-level description of each point. This selection has been used with the author’s full consent. Enjoy!

Why is the Bad Guy Always More Interesting?

Rick Boyko, long-time creative and President of VCU’s Brandcenter explains the ad biz very simply: “We are storytellers in service of brands.” [...]

Stories run on conflict.

Okay, [...] let’s stop for a moment and imagine Star Wars without Darth Vader.

We open on young Skywalker holding his light saber and then … uh, and then he puts it down and goes inside, probably for dinner or something.

The moral of this non-story is: If you don’t have conflict you don’t have a story.

All drama is conflict. Every story you’ve ever heard, read, or seen has had conflict at its core. Sadly, this observation seems to be lost on many clients and agencies. The reason is that most of the time clients want to show how great life is after purchasing their fine products. It’s a happy place where no one ever has cavities, everybody’s car always starts, and nobody’s overdrawn at the bank.

The problem is when there’s no bad guy, we short-circuit the structure of story and start at the happy ending. I don’t know about you, but life in Pleasantville is kinda boring. Conflict[1] is what makes things interesting. Tension makes us lean in to see what’s goin’ on.

When everything is okay, we aren’t interested.

[...] In Seducing Strangers, author and Mad Men consultant Josh Weltman, explained why conflict and negativity are such effective ways to communicate.

If a jaguar is near and a monkey screams in monkey-speak, ‘Hey! Danger! Danger! There’s a jaguar—get out of here!’ not only do monkeys, but also toucans, deer, and any other jaguar prey that hear the warning will all clear the area. In the jungle, the researchers found, warnings are understood and obeyed. … Negative ads work because people behave like animals. We are wired to heed warnings.

Our brains are wired to heed warnings. This is not to say all ads need to be negative. It’s just that, to be interesting, a story needs both positive and negative forces in play.

Goodby’s “Got milk?” campaign from the ’90s is another strong campaign built entirely upon a negative premise. The strategist who helped create it, Jon Steele, called it a “deprivation strategy.” A big peanut butter sandwich without milk? Who wants that, right? Or cookies without milk? Not happenin’.[2]

Without is usually more interesting than With.

Let’s compare Steele’s without-milk strategy to the way agencies have been selling milk for 100 years: “MILK BUILDS STRONG BONES.” It’s true, yes, but who cares? Do you? It’s boring because there’s no story. It bypasses any problem and cuts right to the happy ending. (Yay! Strong bones!... zzzzzzzzzzz.) Here’s the scary part (or rather the boring part): most of the advertising briefs you’ll likely see in your career will ask you to cut to the happy ending.

Identify and leverage the central conflicts within [the] company or category.

The tensions can come from anywhere. They can be thematic tensions, category, or cultural tensions. For example, a thematic tension might be “man versus machine.” Apple’s been exploiting a variety of that tension since 1984.

Tension can also come from conflicts that exist inside any given industry. [...] In Baked In, authors Winsor and Bogusky put it this way:

Think about the categories you work in and the conflicts that exist there. If you’re in the traditional energy business, it’s pretty obvious that you have a conflict with the environmental movement. If you’re in the financial world, there’s a lot of conflict around public trust. The cultural conflicts in your category are probably a bit subtler. What are the big, hairy cultural conflicts affecting your company that everyone knows about but no one really likes to discuss?

[...] As you can imagine, there are conflicts all over the place – our culture, our language, the brand, the category – everywhere.

  • Republican vs Democrat
  • Hot vs cold
  • Love vs hate
  • Religion vs science
  • Cheap vs expensive
  • Big business vs small business
  • Red vs green

Here’s why all this conflict stuff is worth talking about. [...] Wherever you find polarities or opposing energies, you’ll find conflict. And where you find conflict, you’ll find the rudiments of story. The trick then is to pit these opposing energies against each other and look for stories to emerge.

[1] Note: As we continue to discuss tensions or conflicts, interpret the words liberally: tensions, conflicts, polarities, opposites, any kind of opposing energies will do.

[2] Search YouTube for “Got milk Aaron Burr” or “Got milk Heaven.”