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How Clutter Kills Creativity

  |  September 4, 2002   |  Comments

Time spent with European media spawns ideas for cutting through the clutter.

Having just returned from three weeks in Europe, I think online ad space here in the U.S. seems all the more cluttered. That's not altogether bad, but we should draw some lessons from the Europeans.

While catching up on news, my wife and I sampled Euro-flavors of Yahoo and other major portal sites. We watched TV news from Germany, England, and Spain. The most striking difference, no matter the medium, was content dominated, not ads.

Putting the Content in the Continentals

Online news browsing was pleasantly free of pop-ups. TV news would run 10 minutes before a commercial break. The experience was like surfing PBS.com rather than ABC.com. By the time a sponsorship appears, the viewer's ready for a break. Creative receives a great deal more viewer attention as a result. European advertisers don't squander that attention. They run with it.

In markets a small fraction of the U.S. in size, European marketers do much more brand advertising. Scale isn't large enough for vertically targeted online ad buys. Europeans are faced with a tough task when marketing broad-audience consumables. In the midst of business headlines, you see banners for yogurt.

Creative is more engaging, using humor, cleverness, and eye-stopping images. An American gets the impression Europeans trust their audiences to understand word play and subtle nuances of humor. Of course, Europe's smaller markets are much more ethnically and culturally unified compared to our vast melting pot. A more tightly knit community can be trusted to get the joke.

A prototypical American yogurt ad focuses on narrow, stereotypical targets: moms buying for kids or single women buying for themselves. The ad typically presents an impossibly generic, whitebread "Cleaver" family, with twin focuses on product benefits and cute utterances from kids. Ads are like a Family Circus cartoon strip.

In an ad-saturated environment where advertisers have low expectations for audience attention, our creative seems designed to perpetuate the problem. Instead of putting a greater portion of yogurt ads online, manufactures instead buy traditional media in bulk.

Smaller sizes and economies of scale of various European markets limit what advertisers can efficiently do (the European Union is larger economically, but language barriers make this irrelevant for most marketing purposes). Necessity mothered the invention of more compelling online ads and more compelling online ad placements.

Lacking the ability to target large numbers of people with very narrow interests, more brand advertising circulates online. Placements compete with less clutter.

Why Clutter Matters

The issue of ever-increasing clutter and competition for consumers' attention is a classic "tragedy of the commons." This is exemplified by the raging debate in Warsaw, VA. In this small town in the historic Northern Neck area, businesspeople are fighting to loosen the town's outdoor sign zoning laws. They want larger signs, perhaps glitzier. One only has to look across the Rappahannock River, at the once-beautiful historic town of Tappahannock, to see the folly. There, you'd need a 40-foot billboard to be noticed at all amid hundreds of gaudy signs. Now that signs are as common as trees, most drivers pass through town without really seeing any of them.

In all that clutter, there's no room for subtlety, cleverness, or humor. There's only room for a company's name, writ as large as the surface will allow.

This is today's online environment. With minimal regulating influences, ads shout, pop up, pop under, lie in wait, skulk, flash, then shout some more. Viewers are trained to ignore them (log files prove it).

European-Style Regulation?

Europe is extremely regulated. Many countries don't permit comparative advertising. Retail establishment hours are often strictly defined. It's illegal, for instance, for most German shops to open on Sunday.

A regulated media system would not give the U.S. less clutter. That can only be created by American companies becoming choosier about where they place their creative.

U.S. advertisers don't take publishers to task when they put numerous ads on a page, use pop-ups, or send too much email to controlled lists. Creatives should spearhead this issue by placing conditions on the appropriate placement of their work. A piece of creative might work in certain ad environments and not in others. Placing conditions on creative would force media people to reward the sites with the right practices. Creative effectiveness will be that much stronger.

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Tig Tillinghast

Tig Tillinghast helped start and run some of the industry's largest interactive divisions. He started out at Leo Burnett, joined J. Walter Thompson to run its interactive division out of San Francisco, and wound up building Anderson & Lembke's interactive group as well.

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