All the taste of fish without the nasty smell

This article first appeared in Idealog magazine, but there are loads of better reasons to buy the current edition - in good bookstores (and Whitcoulls) now.

Hybrids are hot right now. Al Gore has probably done more for the sales of the awfully tedious Toyota Prius than any advertising campaign could have achieved.

By creating an emotional and intellectual release valve for their sense of overwhelming hopelessness, middle-class polluters can point to their little petrol/electric hybrid and say in a breathless, lispy voice: “Look! I am doing my bit to reduce global warming.”

Hybridisation is the human way of adapting to change by degrees. In other words, it is a compromise. A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Compromises rarely result in ideals. Nature doesn’t compromise. If you don’t work out as a species … woomph … you’re outta here. The Prius compromises performance for a feel-good factor and a nominal reduction in fuel consumption and emissions (all at a premium price). Unfortunately, the Range Rover that got traded in on the deal finds its way into the consumption chain somewhere else, so nothing really changes.

You may also have noticed an intense degree of hybridisation happening in the world of advertising and commercial media. Where once there was a clear division between ‘church’ and ‘state’, editorial and advertising, we now have infomercials, ‘masthead marketing’, product placement, advertorials, contract-published magazines and sponsored programming. In an evening you’ll probably endure a parade of commercials posing as independent consumer advice: Food in a Minute typically opens the floodgates before the news at six on TV One with Family Health Diary, Eating Well, What’s New, Discover, Brand Power, NZ Health Report, James Hardie Showhomes, txt2taste, Better Living and Medifacts all baying hotly at one another’s heels.

The formats are typically talking heads, sagely delivering ‘solutions’, ‘ideas’ and ‘information’ in a reportage style. Sometimes the ‘host’ introduces ‘experts’ who breathlessly tout the wonders of the guest client’s products.

There’s nothing especially new about advertorials. In the 1960s David Ogilvy asked: “Are your ads looking more like magazine spreads yet?” In the 80s Honda flew the late, venerable motoring journalist LJK Setright to New Zealand to front a remarkable set of commercials for the brand—which LJKS seemed genuinely to admire. His endorsement was valid and believable. After all, he had eloquently been speaking his mind on the subject for decades and was unlikely to compromise himself unduly.

Which is where the new hybrid ads need to take care. There’s no doubt that consumers are eager for a different kind of message from what an image campaign affords. Or that New Zealand advertisers like the relatively low cost of grazing their brands in space farms (without having to endure the risk of a creative execution). But as the number of these commercials increases, the risk is that we all become immune to, or even rebel against, the clutter and annoyance of the parsimonious parade of puerile presenters.

There has never been a more important time for creatives and planners to get in on the act. We need some formats that are more engaging and entertaining. Why, you ask, when the ones we have work so well (by all accounts)? Because to be competitive you have to break free of the pack. It is as true in communications as in any other form of commercial innovation—not to mention that we don’t watch TV to be bored into submission.

Personally I’d like to see Burger King, Tui Beer and Lynx join forces and make a series of commercials for all manner of laddish essentials—presented by bronzed bikini-clad goddesses. They won’t be infomercials but nymphomercials. Come on C4, make it happen. You heard it here first folks.

In all seriousness, watch out for brands teaming up to make a bigger splash than they could individually. No brand is an island.


  1. Fish doesn't smell nasty unless it isn't fresh.

  2. Chris,

    You are, of course, quite right. The joke was an in-joke that has been outed. The Fricken - a hybrid of fish and chicken - was a metaphor for the stupidity of tacking extra messages onto advertising. I was part of an ensemble of 3 ad people in a debate - creatives vs suits. To satirise the suits and their inability to be single minded we assemble a Fricken onstage and concluded with an ad campaign featuring the line about taste and smell.

    I hope this explains. I'll understand if it doesn't.

    Thanks for stopping by. I visited your site and blog too. Interested to read some of your stories.


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