Advertising is contextual. Here’s the proof

Posted by Neil Hopkins on February 22nd, 2013

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Advertising is a contextual industry, we know this.

Don’t we?

Beginning at the simple end of things…

Placement is contextual (that’s why you need great planners). Put the right ad in the wrong place, and you may as well just take out your wallet and burn the contents for all of the good that it will do.

We can mitigate this through the planning and purchasing process.

Control the locational context, and the ad’s message is deepened. Check out this great example from Vancouver which, while not an advertising billboard per se, illustrates the point perfectly.

But content contextuality is not so simple.

We know that everyone will bring their own viewpoints to a piece of creative – whether it is outraged disgust (Benetton have been particularly good at this over the years) or a deeper level of understanding that comes from a hidden, emotional place (as I and the team employed for the Embrace Life campaign a few years back):

We cannot control the background context against which our work will be seen.

As advertisers, designers, copywriters, we have to create work in such a way that we either tap into a deeper home-truth context, or utilize those contexts to ignite debate around the message.

We have no control of the cognitive context – and we need to remember this.

Which brings me to the perfect example of this. Audi’s SuperBowl Ad.

Before we go any further, here’s a link to a excellent debate on the ad over at Neuromarketing. I recommend you read it to get the context for this post.

And here’s the work itself:

So, what’s the context?

We understand the context of the story, it’s simple enough (and, let’s be honest, not new either).

But when I saw it, sitting at my desk wearing a Road Safety hat, what I noticed was the wheel-spinning shot off the line and the speeding down a deserted highway at the end.

Thinking I’m probably a bit of a sad-sack, I asked my colleagues what they thought of the ad.

Everyone had the same response.

We brought our road safety hats to the ad and saw one of the biggest killers of teenage children paraded on the screen.

Later in the thread, I had my view of the ad completely shaken.

Alyssa Royce had this to say:

“As one who comes from marketing an PR, I am stunned that this ad made it all the way to production without someone saying, “um, guys, are we selling sexual violence with this one?” There is no, and I mean NO circumstance in which it is okay for someone to walk up behind a woman who he does not have a pre-existing sexual relationship with and kiss her without her consent.”

Woah. Boom. Context shift.

How the hell didn’t I see that one coming? (And for that matter, how the hell did Audi not spot it either?) We’re seeing way more domestic violence stories hitting the UK news at the moment, so I should have seen that one earlier.

The comments start piling in, and more people join the domestic violence debate.

Maybe they work in domestic violence treatment or prevention, I don’t know.

But something in their personal context threw that ad into a tail-spin in my head, recontextualising it into something way darker, way more serious than a kiddy pumping the gas (and potentially stacking himself into some street furniture).

And that understanding is now forming part of my context around how I respond to this work.

What’s the lesson in all of this?

I very much doubt that Audi wanted to glorify violence to women, or make them seem like prizes to be won and dragged back to a cave for later consumption.

But Audi should have been aware of the wider societal context in which their ad could be seen.

So the lesson’s simple enough.

When working on a new campaign, get out of your context and your client’s context for a minute.

Take a step back and ask “What if?” followed by “What else is happening in the world which may flavour how our work’s seen?”.

Don’t get caught in your own contextual silo.

Because, if nothing else, you’ll only end up making work that pleases you and no-one else. Or, at the other end, you’ll end up making something which gives over an entirely unintended message…