The Psychology of Sameness

It was a morning like any other. I sat in traffic, looking through my windshield at a highway dotted with cars that all looked more or less the same.

Suddenly, a thought popped into my head. I turned down the stereo, grabbed my pen and notepad, and started jotting down a new idea — one that might have some legs for a new Hyundai campaign I’m currently working on. I finished writing and looked up. Traffic still wasn’t moving. Typical.

My mind wandered. I began to think about the creative process itself. The idea I just had: where did it come from? Did my mind always work this way? Did I have these types of spontaneous revelations 10 years ago? (If so, I don’t remember them.) How does one’s mind evolve to be able to generate effective ideas? And what differentiates a good creative thinker from an average one?

In the beginning, most artists must learn their crafts, to a large degree, by imitating better, more-experienced artists. You make a subconscious leap of faith. You find yourself impressed by a veteran artist. You watch from a distance as attention and praise are lavished on them. The pull to imitate them is almost gravitational; without intention, you silently conclude that what they are doing must be right — and by contrast, what you are doing must be wrong — and so, you follow.

The young filmmaker, hence, may study the work of Coppola and Scorsese, and try to mimic their handle of mise-en-scene and montage. The young guitarist may listen to Pink Floyd and Cream, and try to duplicate the languidly complex fretwork of Gilmour and Clapton. And the young ad copywriter may study historically significant campaigns like VW’s “Lemon” and Maxwell House’s “Good to the last drop,” and begin tutelage under the ghosts of Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy.

Of course, the ability to imitate requires only a modicum of talent. What separates the true artist from the average practitioner is simple: the former eventually evolves to develop his or her own unique voice, while the latter builds a career from parroting. Like any true talent in any form, advertising geniuses are rare. The vast majority of creatives in this industry are driven by the psychology of sameness. They may read an informative quote from Bernbach (“In advertising not to be different is virtually suicidal”), or a though provoking proclamation from Ogilvy (“The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife”) — but it doesn’t matter. A mid-level talent such as this may chew his lower lip and nod in awe, but soon enough he’ll be back at his PC pecking out bad puns and “concepts” that are both self-defeatingly ordinary and disastrously insulting to his audience’s intelligence.

Part of the problem is a lack of empathy. Good creatives know that, in order to craft meaningful communications, you need to empathize with your audience — to understand their worldviews and “pain points” within the context of the product or service you are selling. But very few people are wired for empathy.

I once worked with an account executive that kicked off a new project by telling me that one of our automotive clients wanted to launch a multichannel campaign to increase parts and service revenue. Things were slow at the dealerships, she told me, since customers were opting for the less-expensive and more-convenient alternative offered by their local quick lubes.

“OK,” I started, “explain to me why our customers should go to their dealerships for service. Why would that be good for them?”

The AE stared at me with a deer-in-headlights look. “Bee-cause … ” she searched her brain for an answer, “our clients are looking to increase their parts and service revenue?”