Tuesday, 3 February, 2009

Killed by clutter?

Try writing more than a dozen words in an ad and you have colleagues and clients descending on you with this platitudes and protest. "So much copy will make the ad so cluttered that people won't even look at it." "Why have art directors then, just print the leaflet?" and "Why do we need to say all this in this very ad."

Non-award-winning copywriters have buried by this deluge for far too long. Maybe it's time we make a point or two. 

First, what is the evidence that clutter is unattractive? Clutter is unattractive to us inside mainline ad agencies, but not to all humanity. For many, the overkill is what works. Walk into any middle-class drawing room and take a good look at the show-piece shelf. Look at calender art or idols. Personally, I find clutter disgusting, but I cannot make, less dictate, my audience's taste; they can, and perhaps should, decide my professional taste. 

(Let me take a step off the road. Americans routinely find Lata Mangeshkar shrill. To almost all Indians, she is the sweetest sound on earth. An American record company which wants to sell to us better not argue with our musical tastes.) 

In fact, in direct mail, clutter is considered good. Apparently, we humans instinctively arrange things in our head. When we see a cluttered layout, we try to arrange its elements in our head, that is, we get 'involved', and once involved, we start reading the benefits. 

I suspect this is hokum, but it seems to work for that industry pretty well. And it's too big to argue that it caters to a tribe that does not see mainline ads. 

In fact, they don't even seem to find this 'rule' (Clutter works better [than neatness].) worth testing. In a dozen years of reading about direct mail, I have come across only one test involving layouts, though scores involving headlines and copy. (It was for a British bed company. They had three ads in magazine. Two were uncluttered and modern, one was classic direct response. I wonder which one pulled more, and why.)

Anyway, my point is that there are plenty who practise and advocate clutter, and they may have a point. These things can probably cannot be tested, yet, like hypothesis in physics or chemistry can be. Nonetheless, unless you have conclusive proof, it is profitable not to believe in something just because others like you are doing it. 

(Many middle-class Hindus believe Muslims are terrorists; there must be some reason for their belief; moreover, I am a middle-class Hindu; hence, I too believe Muslims are terrorists. Well, Muslims may well be terrorists, but my logic is all wrong, because not all beliefs need be based on fact.)  

Second, let's look at the 'purpose of art' question. Why have art directors when anything goes? Actually, the block-headed copywriter never said, "Anything goes." He said, "For this ad to go anywhere, it needs to say more. And for it to still be attractive, please lay it out."

Two words need thought here: 'art' and 'attractive'. They are related. Art here is not 'high art'. It can be. It need not. Sometimes, it should not.

What's my point? Advertising art has as much to do with the art in gallerias as advertising writing has to do with the writing in novels, even pot boilers. Aesthetics is a tool for us, not an end. We'd write an ugly line if that makes advertising sense: You think we think those horrible bullet points are great literature! 

The same should go for an ugly layout. Avoid it if you can; do it if you must. And don't feel ashamed about it, because you're not an artist, but a salesman with colours and lines. 

The question, therefore, is not if the reader (viewer) will find a layout (a film) pretty; it is, will he find it interesting? Will he think it worthwhile to read (see) it, in the hope that he may materially benefit? For instance, to return to the beginning, can a cluttered layout signal that a brand has much to say in its favour?

Finally, must we say everything in that ad?

Well, when are we going to notice that our clients and we are the only people who live in our brand's world? Others have other things to worry about, their own lives, for example. If we get an opportunity, if we get a prospect's attention, let's make the most of it. Let's put forth as much as we can, and leave it to the prospect to decide where he wants to get off. 

The moment the reader reads the headline (paid attention to my commercial) I can reasonably assume that he is asking me, "What's in this for me?" I better give him a full answer. 

By which I don't mean hitting him with an encyclopaedia, but I do mean telling enough to let him decide (if I'm doing a Reason Why ad: If not, none of this applies). So, let us not palpitate about frying his poor brains with an 'information overload'. 

Yet, one question remains: If it's logical to say more, why aren't more ads saying more? There can be several explanations. 

First, numbers needn't mean much. It's logical not to smoke, yet millions do. It's logical to exercise, millions don't. 

Second, not saying much also sends a signal: "These people bought so much newsprint, then said so little. They used it, instead, to provide us 'visual relief'. They must be rolling with money. That is only possible if lots of people are buying from them. That's only possible if they're good." (Sethji is not selling water to pilgrims, he's giving it free. He must me rich, ergo, he must be good. When I get back, my business goes to sethji.) 

Third, and this is the most probable one in my book, there are not enough exceptions to prove (meaning tests) the existent rule that 'less is more' because we believe the rule is self-evident truth. Truth it may be; self-evident it isn't.

To sum up, I must say something so basic that my only excuse for saying it is that I'm faced with obsession: Ask what we need to say before debating how we're going to say it. If we answer the first wrongly, common-sense dictates that it won't matter much how we decide the second. For communication is the art of making words count, not the science of counting words. 

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