When Cuba Gooding Jr. first walked onto my TV screen during the 2010 Super Bowl, lecturing about the need to save whales, I rolled my eyes. "Really?" I thought. "An advocacy spot during the Super Bowl?" But then, in an M. Night Shyamalanian twist, Gooding donned a life preserver and spoke gleefully about his huge discount for whale-watching via Groupon.com. I chuckled at the spoof, but the American public, not sharing my fondness for irreverent humor, raised holy hell.
Groupon quickly pulled the ad campaign and apologized for their lack of judgment. In their first spot following the Super Bowl disaster, Groupon released a very simple, vanilla ad featuring a "calendar week" filled with deals their members would receive. It ended with the line: "If your week doesn't sound quite that exciting, maybe you should sign up for ours."
Groupon's follow-up was a home run, but it was a home run not because it avoided to offend people, but because, this time, they kept the spot simple, direct and on message. Groupon's brand is simple: people who visit Groupon get big discounts on services and activities in their local community. With a simple brand, why distract the consumer with a complicated (or, offensive) commercial?
If there is one ubiquitous theme throughout all the disciplines of advertising and branding, it's simplicity. Simple headlines. Simple logos. Simple ads. It may sound dull and plain, but simplicity is the foundation of lasting brands. Groupon's faux-advocacy ads took a simple brand, with a simple sell, and managed to completely fail at communicating with the audience. And, not only did they fail to connect, they actually turned consumers against them.
When you have a simple brand, complex ads needlessly confuse. Apple has time and time again proven that simple works. Their commercials, like those advertising the iPad, feature the product exclusively, often on plain backgrounds. There is no excessive effects or storyline. The now iconic print campaign for iPod features silhouettes wearing an iPod on a solid background. And, despite their simplicity, these ads have high recall among consumers.
The purpose of advertising is to sell products and reinforce brands. The most effective way to do this is keeping things simple -- as boring as that may be. Ad agencies aren't in the entertainment business. Ads created to win awards, or get laughs, will never move product as effectively as an ad designed to sell.
This is not to say that entertaining ads don't work. When done right, they can be particularly successful. But, what creativity giveth, creativity can taketh away. And, like Groupon learned, it's important that you don't let your creativity get in the way of your brand.