In 1880, department store pioneer John Wanamaker became the first retailer to hire a full-time advertising copywriter, thereby starting a tradition that would see product and price ads infiltrate every available media channel over the decades that followed.
So, if you're looking for someone to blame for the splurge of retail ads that now shout their way onto the screen every night, look no further than copywriter John E. Powers, who is today regarded as the father of modern creative advertising and whose straight-talking style initiated the burgeoning retail canon.
But Powers' early style is difficult to reconcile with modern retail offerings. It featured no product imagery, made no mention of price and references to sales were completely absent. Instead, Powers used longer-form writing that focused on persuading the reader by providing a reason why this product was necessary. The advertising was simple, to the point and was always grounded in a core idea carried all the way through the copy.
And while most retail advertising released today features little more than price, product and sale shouted through every available megaphone, there are also some examples of retailers returning to a more creative approach when it comes to their advertising.
Recently, Farmers released a new spot by JustOne/.99 announcing its new range of products. And rather than opting for a standard shouty approach, the retailer has delivered a more subtle ad that showcases the various products in a series of different rooms.
There's no megaphone-enhanced voice-over and price isn't mentioned at all. The 30-second scene simply rotates from one room to the next, showcasing various products while slightly eerie music plays in the background.
Then, once the showcase is complete, a voice-over quietly invites the viewer to "take a look around".
Given the intriguing execution, it seems plausible for this ad to cut through the noise to catch the viewer's attention during primetime hours on television.
What's more is that the idea isn't overly complicated, meaning that the platform established in the spot could easily be re-purposed to showcase other products in the future.
.99/JustOne isn't the only agency experimenting with quirkier retail ads. Colenso BBDO has over the last year delved deep into the macabre for its New World ads, which recently went on to claim the StopPress/MediaWorks TVC of the Year competition.
Rebel Sport has also over the last few years carved out a clear identity with creative brand ads that focus on sports rather than products.
Of course, each of these brands also produce their fair share of shouty retail ads, but it poses the questions: should marketers focus on the emotional or the rational? Should they be doing brand or retail ads? Or should they be doing a bit of both?
FCB head of planning David Thomason recently referred NZ Marketing/StopPress to a paper written by one of his colleagues in South Africa called ‘The Big Easy’, which talks about targeting everyone to make it look like everyone’s doing it and then making it easy to do whatever it is you want people to do.
“That’s the fundamentals of all behavioural thinking,” Thomason said.
Thomason believes there is currently a tension between short- and long-term effectiveness and it appears as if the short term is winning that battle because results can be seen almost instantly.
“If you’re trying to get a short-term result, then you probably are more towards the rational end of things, but you still use scarcity and it’s less about creative. But even a retailer needs to be positioned as the go-to option. Think of John Lewis and their Christmas ads. [Effectiveness expert] Peter Field’s magic number is you should be doing 60 percent brand, 40 percent retail. It becomes very difficult to separate them, and I don’t know what the methodology was, but that’s their formula.”
Interestingly, he says studies from the IPA and AdMark say that under six months (ish), creative, award-winning campaigns are actually less effective and over six months they’re more effective.
“That’s a fucking huge issue, because increasingly a lot of the campaigns we’re doing and winning awards for don’t even run for six months. It’s got to be a major generalisation, and there has to be some stuff that gets more attention in the short term because it’s cool and creative, but for real brand building stuff, that’s a correlation.”
It may seem like a cop out to promote both approaches. But that’s what the research shows—and, as Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow says, the two-system set-up is also how our brains work.
“The biggest effects of advertising are long-term,” says Thomason. “It sounds like a weak defence to say ‘if you didn’t do that campaign your sales would’ve gone down’, but if you don’t do it, ten years later that will be the case. Being known is important as well. In some debates about advertising effectiveness they say there are only two things that matter 1) you get seen by the audience and 2) they know who it was for.”
And all the rest, such as the creative idea, emphasises those two things to try and ensure the brand is the first one to be associated with a category, or at least a sub-category.
So while it is encouraging to see more creativity creep into retail ads, it's very unlikely to result in the abrogation of shouty retail approach. And the reason for this is perhaps best summed up Countdown's general manager of marketing Bridget Lamont:
"Why do we do [shouty retail advertising]? Because it works. Why do we put unaddressed mailers into 1.4 million letterboxes (which is just a paper version of shouting)? Because it works. I’m a pretty simple person. In terms of our media strategy, I’m going to advertise where the eyeballs are. In terms of our style of communication, I’m going to do the stuff that works. That’s a gross over-simplification, but retail advertising in New Zealand is pretty shouty … I would like to think that there is opportunity for us to eventually be more elegant, but that’s a long journey … So, will we be the leading force in changing [the shouty advertising]? I think that’s unlikely."