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Ryan 'Dr Draper' Wallman: Advertising is crying out for incongruity

Some time ago, my uncle played me a recording of Derek and Clive, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s famously crude radio show.

Now, when I say it was crude, I mean it was crude. Look it up if you don’t believe me. And when I say it was some time ago, I mean I was four years old.

Suffice it to say, then, that I was probably a touch too young for the material. My grandmother certainly seemed to think so when she walked in on the scene.

But according to my uncle – who still can’t recount this story without (sheepishly) laughing – that’s what made it so hilarious. Having absolutely no idea what any of it meant, I recited my own version of the recording, replete with every four-letter word you can imagine, and a few besides.

In other words, the incongruity of the situation made it funny. Just as it did in a great ad for Smart cars a couple of years ago, which also featured swearing kids.

There’s no doubt that incongruity can be a powerful device in advertising. Think of the famous VW ‘Lemon’ ad or, to take a more recent example, the Snickers ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’ campaign.

And yet so much modern advertising seems to actively eschew incongruity.

Stock images. Young people. Platitudes. All in banal, boring harmony.

Such ads are not only internally congruous but externally congruous as well. That is, they look the same as every other ad. It’s almost as if there has been a deliberate attempt to prevent them from standing out.

Consider just about any recent ad you’ve seen for a car. It probably involved an impossibly good-looking young couple zipping around a gentrified inner-urban landscape, accompanied by an upbeat-but-inoffensive soundtrack, right? Yep, thought so.

In fact, car advertising is so cliched that it spawned this Skoda parody campaign a few years ago.

And auto advertising is hardly the only category that exudes homogeneity. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to flick through an inflight magazine, you’ll know that all ads for luxury watches (or ‘timepieces’, to use the industry parlance) are practically identical.

To wit, here’s a template for every men’s watch ad.

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So what’s the reason for all this sameness? Well, I’m hardly being original here, but I suspect the main reason is a collective cautiousness about straying from accepted industry norms.

As the great Jim Carroll, previously of BBH, puts it: “Gradually, we have arrived at an industry consensus around what makes effective communication. But it is a narrow definition … one that minimises or excludes the once-critical role of difference in the selling process.”

To illustrate this problem, here’s a briefing document I put together a while ago.

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At the risk of stating the obvious, this bland uniformity is no way to get your advertising noticed. It’s certainly no way to elicit an emotional reaction. And as for getting a laugh: when was the last time you laughed at something you completely expected?

A bit of incongruity can greatly improve your advertising. I swear by it.

Ryan Wallman is creative director and head of copy at Wellmark. He tweets at @DrDraper. His book, Delusions of Brandeur, is out now. 

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