Creative Differences

After watching the latest installment of the World’s Funniest Commercials on TBS, I thought they should change the name of the program to the World’s Most Depressing Show Ever, With Host Kevin Nealon Personifying the Abject Sadness.

The funniest of the funny, chosen by online voting at TBS’s Web site, was Bud Light’s “Cut the Cheese.” (It could have been funny if it had cut more than the cheese, like at least half of the endless fart jokes.) Afterward, I resolved, in my own “bloviating” way, to pack up and move to France. But then I remembered that the French commercials on the reel were even worse.

Still, there’s no doubt that commercials continue to have major appeal for consumers, regardless of the size of the screen they appear on. In 2009, perhaps funny and entertaining commercials will serve as the same sort of smile-producing fantasy outlets that Busby Berkeley movies did for Depression-era Americans. But probably not. The reality is that we’ll probably see a harder sell in every category, from automotive to banking to health services to fast food.

“I see budget cuts, and doing more with less,” said Rob Schwartz, executive creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day in Playa del Rey, Calif. “Creatively, I see little appetite for experimentation. I think comparative ads will be on the rise. Us versus them. And if a brand can demonstrate a difference, they will — be it a taste test or test of strength. Think snake-oil salesman 2.0.”

And with old-fashioned shows like Jay Leno’s prime-time comedy/variety hour on the horizon, there will be plenty of room for live commercials, just like in the early 1960s.

Obviously, in this economy, people without jobs are screwed. But even people with jobs are hardly “consuming.” And why should they? Brands that survive offer consumers something of great value — whether that comes in a new application, green message, brand-based content or a new experience. But more on that later.

For the beleaguered ad industry, the coming year presents many struggles — even among creatives themselves. Strategists, designers, interactive creative directors and traditional agency creatives are all jockeying to be numero uno, the one with the big idea for the brand from which all the messaging flows.

Things are changing so quickly on the interactive side that we’re starting to get some dead sharks piling up. The first to go is user-generated content. For one thing, it’s been overused. For another, advertisers aren’t feeling as trusting. “It’s hard for big companies to buy off on ideas that are reliant on users,” said Jake Blumenau, an art director at Atmosphere BBDO. “They want something that can go live the day it has to go live and be effective.”

The next dead thing is the “matching luggage” approach to digital in which the Web site goes with the TV, print and outdoor. Sure, the messaging should be cohesive, but often a better, more useful idea comes from the technology itself if you look for it. The future is in “trend information design,” said Blumenau. “Designing ways to interact with large amounts of information.” He points to as an example of cutting-edge work in this area.

The general move, Blumenau said, is away from banners and toward “interactive posters — a wild posting that you can interact with on a visceral level. It exploits the physics of the way people interact a lot more naturally.” He added: “People are starting to experiment with user interface, to make the experience more interesting than just ‘Click to start menu.’ “For instance, instead of a list of statistics, he said, “that information might be organized in a sphere you rotate, like a globe.”

Then, of course, Brian Collins, principal of the design firm Collins, said the future of creative all starts with design. “Design thinking is focused on how people experience a brand everywhere,” he said. “What people now do with a brand is geometrically more important than whatever they are simply told about a brand.”

The CNN Grill is a recent example of new design thinking. To get the idea across that “CNN = Politics,” the cable channel set up interactive outdoor cafes at the Democratic and Republican Conventions in Denver and St. Paul. The idea was that average Joes (to use a phrase that came back in fashion this past political season) could interact with pundits, celebrities and anchors, check their e-mail, have a burger and chat.

Collins maintained that the future is all about brands making a different kind of investment, “developing content on their own instead of renting time on someone’s platform. Instead, own the actors, the content and the idea. It becomes an annuity.”