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I’m with Stupid

Posted on April 20, 2012 and read 6,765 times

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bayfield I’m with StupidMike Bayfield
Senior Copywriter
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We live in strange times. But not as strange as during the Napoleonic wars between Britain and France. Especially if you were a monkey.

When a French ship was wrecked off the coast of Hartlepool in northeast England, the only survivor was the ship’s mascot; a pet monkey dressed in a military uniform. He was promptly arrested as a French spy and hanged. Pretty stupid, most of us would agree.

Two hundred years later and the mascot of the local football team is ‘H’Angus.’  Or rather, local man Stuart Drummond, dressed in a monkey costume. In 2002 he decided to stand as ‘H’Angus’ in the first public election for mayor – on the campaign platform of free bananas. Up against other candidates from the traditional political parties, he won, and has since been re-elected twice – admittedly, without the monkey suit.

It probably wasn’t the bananas that swung it: unless monkeys got to vote too. Or that the other politicians were French. No, it was by presenting an alternative model to the traditional political system, which local people must have been pretty fed up with. It was stupid, but refreshingly so.

Refreshingly different is what we in the ad trade are constantly trying to achieve. To help our clients stand out from the crowd, in a positive way. And that often means being stupid too.

British ad agency VCCP came up with wonderfully stupid idea a couple of years ago. Their client, a major insurance price comparison website, wanted to increase the awareness of their brand with a major integrated campaign.

Like many brands, they had tough competition and little to differentiate themselves from it. They also had only half the spend of key competitors.

VCCP’s answer was to create a parallel website called hosted by Aleksandr Orlov. Not the celebrated opera conductor, but an aristocratic Russian meerkat. Obvious when you think about it. Or, as Aleksandr himself would say, “Simples!”

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Aleksandr was to become the star of TV commercials, viral videos and a social media campaign. His job was, and still is, to direct customers who mistakenly visit his website to to find a better deal on their car, home, life (or even pet) insurance.

The campaign has become a marketing phenomenon. Aleksandr now has over half a million fans on Facebook, more than 50,000 followers on Twitter and has increased traffic to by over 400%. But perhaps the biggest single measure of the campaign’s success is to hear “Simples!” echo throughout the land, from playgrounds to parliament.

Another familiar cry echoes from the mouths of British marketing directors: “BRING ME A MEERKAT!”

In the US, an equally stupid, if altogether different, campaign has had similar levels of success – the Old Spice Guy. And who can forget Burger King’s Subservient Chicken. It’s the stupid ones we remember the most, and the brands they represent.

A couple of years ago, the agency a friend of mine works for was invited to pitch for a massive account, for a major brand. So keen were they to win it, that teams from their offices around the world were given the brief.

It came down to a choice between two ideas. Both nailed the proposition and ticked all the boxes. One was safe, the other… you guessed it, ‘stupid.’

Wary of taking any risks on something this big, they picked the ‘safe’ route. But, to quell the howls of protest from some of the creative team, they would show the ‘stupid’ idea too – as an example of how creative they could be.

A few days later the verdict was delivered. The client loved ‘stupid’ and, if it had been presented on its own, would have signed on the spot. But because the agency didn’t seem to have confidence in it, neither did they.

Of course none of this proves anything. It could have all gone completely the other way. Pitches, and life, are like that. There’s nothing scientific about stupidity: which highlights a major problem with creativity in advertising generally. We often try to apply too much scientific analysis and logic to our ideas – thinking with our heads rather than our hearts – which kills them dead.

But ‘stupid’ is a high-risk strategy, for what is fundamentally serious stuff. Business fortunes and people’s futures depend on it – both agency- and client-side. Though many of us might think otherwise, we’re not in the entertainment business, we’re in the selling-stuff business. David Ogilvy, quoting Claude Hopkins before him, famously said, “People don’t buy from clowns.”

Try telling that to Aleksandr. Toy dolls of him were on every kid’s Christmas list in 2010.

The best advertising is often also entertainment, and when economic times are tough, we’re even more in need of something to brighten up our lives.

It will never be the right approach for every brand or brief, but creatively we should always start off stupid. Stupidity is freedom. It’s playing, experimenting. It’s what makes us feel alive. It’s what we do as children, exploring the unknown. Sometimes it might be dangerous, but it’s also a whole lot of fun. And most of us make it through childhood. By the time we do though, we’ve often had most of the stupidity squeezed out of us.

Creative departments should be somewhere where it still lives. I can almost hear the laughter coming out of VCCP when they created Aleksandr. Their client has been laughing ever since, along with the rest of the country.

Stupid doesn’t mean being self-indulgent and creating lazy in-jokes. It actually means being smart, by creating something that has universal appeal, that strikes a chord and engages consumers in a unique way. We’re paid – sometimes highly – to come up with original ideas that get consumers knocking on our clients’ doors. Most brands might not have unique things to say, but our job is to find unique ways to say them.

We should celebrate and encourage stupidity. It’s the result of what happens when we let our imaginations run away with us. It might mean taking greater risks but, as always, the biggest risk is taking none at all.

Be brave. Be smart. Stay stupid.

  • Harley

    Really good stuff. Just goes to show that the “status quo” work will never achieve amazing results. Well done!

  • Mike Bayfield

    Thanks Harley. Glad you enjoyed it.




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