I’ve been watching a lot of stuff on Hulu lately (especially FMA, thanks a lot Gloria!), so I see way more commercials than I have in a long time—especially since I gave up cable.
I’ve noticed an interesting movement between two competitors, namely Geico and Progressive. They want your money, folks, and they don’t mind bombarding us with ads in the process. Let’s face it, now Hulu is a good chunk of their age range.
Now before you start to *yawn* and click to another page, understand there’s a lesson about cleverness here. And that lesson is, cleverness always has an expiration date. It just may last a little longer for some things than others.
I don’t even remember the days of Progressive before Flo. According to Wikipedia, she started making her appearance in 2008—and she’s still here 5 years later folks. (Though some are speculating she may soon get the axe…)
They say this was her first ad:
However you feel about Flo, I think she was a clever piece of advertizing—for awhile. She seemed like a regular person, someone like us that we could relate to while navigating this car insurance-a-rama—and if Progressive can really get it figured out, all the better.
Take Geico, who did something similar, promoting a familiar face we’d associate with their insurance. A gekko. Geico, gekko, get it? Waaaaaahooooo! Mostly I’d find the mute button or another channel whenever this badly formed CG lump came on. (Oddly enough born of a SAG strike in 1999). But over the years they’ve tried a number of things all the while poking fun at our cultural foibles, be it overzealous PC efforts exemplified in the Caveman spots, geekery in the voiceover ads, and a bit more recently, the rhetorical questions.
Some things they’ve tried have been not so great, but they keep changing it up. In fact, the How Happy Are They spots are among my favorite. Very tongue-in-cheek and many of them still make me smile. My two favs:
Progressive is still using Flo. Woot.
Flo did a lot for Progressive when it came to revenue at the time, but in a world of short attention spans and more-than-3-network competition, sticking with the same old stuff doesn’t cut it anymore. Geico seems to get it. Progressive doesn’t.
Why does this matter to you?
Too often I’ve heard at conference and writers groups, but so-and-so did it in their book. Yeah, well, Dracula was written 116 years ago. I think we’ve had a few novels written since then!
That’s not to say we completely disregard the classics. We can learn a lot about storytelling from them. Anton Chekhov is a short story genius, even if all of his short stories aren’t as interesting now as they were then. But we can’t say, well, Charles Dickens did it so…
Because A) Sorry to break it to us, but we’re no Charles Dickens. And B) Whose audience are you writing to? The 2013 audience or Dickens’? I’ve even had a quite full of themselves writer sneer at me, well, we wouldn’t try to correct Faulkner, would we? (Amal, if you’re reading, I know if you’d been there with me you’d have had some choice words to share). Most of us at the table said: Of course we would!
Why? Because cleverness has an expiration date. What people once found intriguing, amusing, brilliant, etc. they may not find as intriguing, amusing, brilliant etc. tomorrow. And I think, more often than not, we naive authors take what we see as brilliant or clever without understanding why it is so and then claim to point at authors of superior literary talent as an excuse as why it should work.
If we have to defend our work, it’s likely we haven’t taken the time to understand it.
Granted, there will be people who don’t get your cleverness, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about thinking because things have worked in the past it’s okay to just use those things again. That’s where the terms gimmick and cliché come from. Because you read it in some published author’s work doesn’t mean it’s okay to stick it in yours.
Cleverness has an expiration date.
So before you go and make more commercials with the same old Flo, take a look at what you want to accomplish. Know your audience. Try out different avenues. Try the cavemen and the pigs and the geckos and the happier thans and see what works for you.
And on that same token, don’t be afraid to take clichés and make them new. So someone tells you vampires have been overdone? So what? Write them in a way that blows people’s minds. Write them so they take the cliché and make it brilliant. Take the expired cleverness and renew it.
But don’t borrow perceived cleverness and expect it will be just as clever in your own hands. Because how happy are writers than come up with clever ideas? You tell me.
Do you think cleverness has an expiration date? Do you agree that it’s okay to criticize the ‘classics’? What advice would you give to those ‘borrowing cleverness’ from other authors?