Cleverness Has an Expiration Date

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.

PROGRESSIVE

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.

GEICO

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:

Coming in close seconds were the Dikembe Mutombo one and the recent Pillsbury Doughboy one.

Meanwhile…

Progressive is still using Flo. Woot.

EXPIRATION DATES

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?

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21 thoughts on “Cleverness Has an Expiration Date

  1. The Mutombo spot is a big favorite around my house. I should point out a flaw in your argument. There actually was another person other than Flo for Progressive during her reign. He had a bobble head of her in his car…

    I read “classics” with the era in mind. I doubt many would stand up to today’s standards (even if they built them).

    • I barely remember him. And he never came up during my searches. It’s like Progressive wants to forget him. Okay, Instead of Progressive 1-10, now it’s Progressive 2-10. 😉

      Completely agree on your classics statement.

  2. I really like that vampire commercial. It tickles me pink every time. I do think people get tired of the same “gimmick” over and over, but I also see the value in using an icon in a new light so that people have a reference point, a linking image, to the product.

  3. It’s like that person who tells the same joke over and over again. The first time it was amusing, maybe even funny, but after a while it just grows stale.

    Honestly, I never really liked those Flo commercials.

  4. Reblogged this on disregard the prologue and commented:
    Great post from Jae at Lit and Scribbles, if you missed it earlier in the week.
    I started reading Frankenstein a while ago and thought, “Wow, you can’t get away with that kind of exposition these days” before I gave up completely because I found it boring. Classics are classics for a reason, and they have great value; that doesn’t mean that because something has worked in the past (whether that’s 100 or 5 years ago), we can or should try to emulate it. Yes, Mary Shelley got away with starting with letters that had nothing to do with monsters. That doesn’t mean you should try it with a modern audience that has a thousand other (more compelling) books in your genre to choose from. Know why the old things work, and try something new.

    (Yes, I know I just revealed something horrible about myself as a reader and as a person. I don’t have the attention span for many of the classics. I don’t need a book to start with explosions, and John Steinbeck can hook me with pages and pages of descriptions… but a lot of the old writing and the old gimmicks don’t grab me, and I have a lot of other books to read)

    *runs and hides in the closet before the Classics Zealots can start hurling heavy, dusty volumes*

    • I’ll protect you. In fact you should check out this book (http://www.amazon.com/The-Fakers-Guide-Classics-Everything/dp/0762785403/)

      I did a lot of skim-reading of Dracula, especially toward the end. But I felt I still learned something from it. However, I know if that book had been submitted to publishers today with no previous knowledge of Dracula (or even if there were rampant vampires stories like today) it would have been laughed into the garbage. Exactly as you said: “because something has worked in the past (whether that’s 100 or 5 years ago), we can or should try to emulate it.”

  5. You’re right: cleverness does have an expiration date. Clinging to today’s clever makes you a memory tomorrow. The classics were classics for a reason and some hold up better than others over time. Regardless, there greatest value comes as building blocks. Each generation makes its mark building upon the classics they grew up with and so on. Thus, in trying to build that literary tower to the clouds the classics are crucial to holding up the blocks that follow. Without the innovators of today and tomorrow we never reach new heights.

    • I think you’ve hit on an important point, having a respect for the classics as a writer. And I think part of that respect come in understanding why they’ve stood the test of time. I think it also teaches us as writers, humility for our craft. For example, I learned that Ray Bradbury was busy reading tons and tons of other books in addition to practicing. I used to be one of those that didn’t “have time” for reading. Now I make time because I know how important it is to honing my craft.

      Thanks for your great comment!

  6. While there are advertising creations that had the staying power to become corporate icons (Ronald McDonald, The Maytag Repairman, *gulp* The Energizer Bunny), too many weak ones are run to death, and I agree Flo is one of them. Geico has the right idea, but take it to such an extreme that they almost seem like they have the corporate version of ADHD. They run too many different ad campaigns simultaneously which makes it hard to pin them down. Ironically, the campaign of theirs that I dislike the most is the one you praised… but Geico hit gold in an earlier series with this cute ad!

    • I think that’s why they’ve gone a bit ADHD, because different ads appeal to different people. (Ugh, the Maytag Repairman…. thanks for drudging up bad memories…. 😉 )

      Haha! I’d forgotten about that possum ad. Awesomeness! 🙂

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