Creative and focus groups = no love lost

In advertising there is something called the “torture test ad”. Usually torture test ads put the product under extreme circumstances to prove its worth. One recent example that comes to mind is the US Superbowl ad for the Toyota Tundra.

Here is a new twist on the genre … the video below is in a way a “negative torture test ad”. It was put together by creatives from the Boston-based advertising agency Arnold, who have opted for this impactful approach to express their disdain of focus groups.

If you want to read more about the authors’ motivations, read the interview on the Influx Insights blog.

It is clearly worthwhile to revisit the role and value of focus groups, and if / how consumers should be involved in the process of creative development.

However I would like to highlight a few things about this video that made me feel uneasy.

When I first saw it, it made me think of Michael Moore’s approach to documentary: a focus on real important issues, but a sensationalist and biased way of presenting things that can defeat the purpose.

Arnold’s creative team chose this Apple commercial by Chiat/Day (nowadays TBWA\Chiat\Day, please note the backslash) because of its emblematic value.

Apple was truly David against the IBM Goliath back then. Their meager advertising budget could only allow for one single airing of the commercial which took place on Superbowl day, 1984. This back-story helped make it one of the most famous TV commercials in recent history. Not to diminish the strength of the idea, nor the inspired cinematography of Ridley Scott.

So now that we have set the original context, here are at least three key reasons why testing this commercial in 2007 is bound to be a misleading exercise…

  • Apple and Chiat/Day captured the zeitgeist by picturing an imaginary totalitarian environment. Back in 1983, the George Orwell book played a key part in the media and political conversation. Most people could relate to the meaning of the line “why 1984 won’t be like 1984”. In 2007, the dark environment and the reference simply are out of context and get completely lost.
  • The original Macintosh was priced at $2,495 – or a bit less than $5,000 in today’s dollars. This is hardly a product that everyone could afford in 1984, and as a matter of fact it was originally targeting a business audience rather than a consumer one. It would therefore make sense to pay particular attention to how an educated professional would react to the commercial. Obviously not the focus group crowd described as “I’m here for the 50 bucks and the free food”.
  • The paradox of this commercial is that it was not intended to be a regular piece of advertising. It was designed as a PR coup, to generate conversations in the press and amongst the audience thanks to the shock factor. Most of the effectiveness of this campaign was because it begged for commentary. It was clearly successful in that regard, and Apple has more recently accomplished a similar feet with the buzz surrounding the launch of the iPhone.

I do agree that research must be used carefully when it comes to advertising. I have seen clients and agencies spend hours and hours scrutinizing insignificant tidbits and findings from preview tests – getting the best research score had become an end in itself, rather than simply a tool to help improve advertising.

I’m not sure that this video is making the right points, but it has however the merit of opening the debate. What is your point of view?

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