Cannes Lions celebrates the best of creativity, with effectiveness sometimes taken for granted. It’s a formula that’s produced its share of tension over the years, with CMOs privately dismissing the entire festival as agencies “marking their own homework”. Meanwhile, the big beasts of adland use the Cannes stage and spotlight as an opportunity to lambast the decline of marketing and the lack of respect given to creative brilliance.
Whatever 2019-specific flavours enter the Cannes recipe – a dash of AI, a soupcon of brand purpose – these basic ingredients won’t change much. To us at System1 it felt like there was an opportunity to bring in a missing perspective – the people who actually see the ads.
There’s never been more talk in marketing about customer-centricity and listening to the voice of the customer. But in advertising that voice is still mistrusted. Modern targeting reduces people to a bucket of interests and browsing behaviours, and hopes they’ll react mechanically to whatever offers are put in front of them.
At the creative end, meanwhile, there’s increasing evidence of a gulf between the ways the industry thinks and the work that resonates with audiences. In a recent study, Why We Shouldn’t Trust Our Gut Instinct,
researcher Andrew Tenzer ran experiments that showed how media professionals have a completely distorted idea of what mainstream consumers value and how they think. For instance, media people overrate the extent to which ordinary consumers are motivated by hedonism and power, and underestimate the appeal of benevolence (being kind to our in-group) and universalism (respect and tolerance for everyone). Basically, people are a hell of a lot nicer than adland thinks they are.
So, we decided that it was worth finding out how this gap manifests itself in the ads the industry celebrates the most – Cannes Lions Grand Prix and Gold Lions winners.
We took a decade’s worth of consumer brand winners in the film awards and tested them by measuring people’s emotional response, using our 1-5 Star Rating scale that predicts the potential each ad has to contribute to long-term growth (validated using the IPA’s database). Our Ad Ratings service tests every TV ad that airs in the US and UK in core categories, giving us a massive insight into general ad quality. Which isn’t high - over 50% of ads aired get 1-Star, meaning we’d predict no additional growth potential beyond what you’d get from spend alone.
The good news for awards juries is that the ads they love are indeed a great deal better than average. We’ll be presenting the full results on the LBB And Friends beach on Tuesday 18th June, including the ads which resonated best with audiences as well as advertisers.
But we can reveal that the proportion of 1-Star award-winners halves, falling to around 1 in 4. And it’s here that we see that gap between media people and consumers in action.
There are three ways that creatively brilliant ads fail to resonate with consumers.
The first is by being too far ahead of the conversation – ads like Bodyform’s “Blood Normal” (Gold Lion, 2016), which explicitly look to break down boundaries and social norms, unsurprisingly don’t resonate with a wider public who quite like their social norms the way they are. In this case, making the statement and putting a marker down for future work is probably more important than effectiveness – so it’s hard to criticise these ads. Social norms can change rapidly, and ads play a role in that.
The second way is less forgivable. Some award-winning ads are so focused on craft and form that they fall emotionally flat. Leica’s celebration of its 100th birthday (Grand Prix, 2015) is a beautiful tour of the history of photography, but elicited a big “so what?” from ordinary viewers. These ads are decorative but not necessarily effective.
And the third way creative winners fail to cross over is the most telling of all. A lot of 1-Star winners are funny ads. Old Spice’s “Whale” (Gold Lion, 2016) is a good example. I think it’s hilarious. You probably think its hilarious. Outside the highly ironic ad media bubble, however, it just comes across as dumb. Humour can and does work brilliantly in ads , but it’s also where the value gap between juries and audiences can show up most strongly.