Media Book Review: Creativity and Advertising (Affect, Events and Process), by Andrew McStay

MARK GORMAN reviews Creativity and Advertising (Affect, Events and Process), by Andrew McStay…

SO, what exactly is creative about advertising?

This is the fundamental question that Bangor University lecturer, Andrew McStay, poses in his philosophical discourse, Creativity and Advertising (Affect, Events and Process).

His core premise is that advertising cannot simply be seen as a purely representational construct, rather, at its best, it can be increasingly considered as an ‘event’ that engages the viewer.

In this respect, I’m totally in agreement with McStay. Simply presenting a product in representational terms does little to create brand empathy, engagement or involvement and, as the digital age matures, advertising increasingly demands audience interaction, involvement, discourse and evangelisation.

His book tells the ‘story’ of advertising on its journey from purely representational work to where it is today.

The original representational school was expounded by Rosser Reeves, it was characterised by ‘Hard Sell’ communication. Advertising’s second coming, McStay argues, followed the Bernbach School, where ‘originality’ was everything.

McStay rightly cites the VW Beetle ‘Lemon’ press advert as something akin to a revolution and the birth of a new movement in almost artistic terms. That school flourished through the 60’s until the noughties, when the third age, the digital age, arrived with a boom that has shaken the industry to its very core.

The role of the medium in this third age has taken on considerably more importance than the second (largely television-driven) one, where frequency and impact were the order of the day.

McStay cites an interesting research study by Lindstrom in 2009 in which he reveals that ‘average’ advertising recall has dropped from 34 per cent in 1965 to eight per cent in 1990 and 2.21 per cent in 2007 – as the sheer volume of messaging has increased and the ability of advertisers to sledgehammer home their messages on national TV stations, with high shares of voice, has diminished.

The advantage, however, that this third digital age has for clever advertisers is the ability, free of the shackles of expensive TV airtime, to talk more intimately (often at length) to its audience and to engage in dialogue and message-sharing.

For me, this can have a downside as many advertisers have lost the discipline imposed on them by 30-second TV spots and instead have resorted to overlong, padded-out communications that indulge in the freedom that ‘free’ airtime gives them.

McStay questions the very essence of creativity, largely arguing that advertising is a craft (ie the result is pre-conceived and the craftsperson knows what he or she wants to make before making it) as opposed to an art (which indirectly arouses emotions). I accept this notion in principle, although good, crafted advertising (as he later argues) very definitely and directly arouses an emotional response.

It is, though a long and hard read, not helped by the language occasionally deployed, such as: “T-mobile has sought to leverage sociality and community as a standing-reserve and the creative strategy is thus to commodify what rebels against anomie and advertising as depicted within Capital Realist discourse. In doing so, T-Mobile offers a sugar-sweetened simulation of a counter-articulation against advertising-filled liminal and soulless non-places.”

Call me a dunderhead, but eventually the academic-speak simply wore me down. I clearly don’t know my anomie from my ennui, but I do know my advertising.

We talk about it often enough, after all: how creativity and advertising relate. But, for all its many interesting points, it’s a struggle to imagine quite who this book is aimed at.

Title: Creativity and Advertising (Affect, Events and Process)

Author: Andrew McStay

Publisher: Routledge

Date of publication: April 2013

Price: £24.99

ISBN number: 978-0-415-51955-7

Buy it here and here (Kindle edition).

Mark Gorman is an independent marketing consultant operating under the banner, ‘Think Hard’. He has over 25 years of experience in advertising, design, direct marketing, PR, professional writing (especially blogging), business mentoring, digital marketing and research. He was co-founder of the former advertising agency, 1576.