‘Half Of Advertising Is Dull, Ineffective And A Waste Of Money’ – System1’s Jon Evans’ Urgent Plea To Improve Creativity And Effectiveness

‘Half Of Advertising Is Dull, Ineffective And A Waste Of Money’ – System1’s Jon Evans’ Urgent Plea To Improve Creativity And Effectiveness

Jon Evans, the host of the Uncensored CMO podcast, says that 48% of advertising is dull and deliver a one star on System1’s Ad Ratings. This is costing the industry billions in wastage, robbing businesses of growth, and marketers of their jobs. The good news is effectiveness can be improved with five simple tips… and bravery.

When was the last time you could remember a TV ad of note? If you are scratching your head and struggling to recall anything memorable, you are not alone.

It turns out that 48% of ads are so dull they do not register any emotions and are likely to prove ineffective.

That was the conclusion of research conducted by one of the godfathers of effectiveness, Peter Field, EatBigFish founder Adam Morgan and System1, a consultancy that tests the effectiveness of advertising.

System1’s chief customer officer Jon Evans told B&T that Field and Morgan approached him to test out their hypothesis by testing more than 100,000 different ads. System1 rates ads on a one to five star scale and can also test for the emotional response to creative.

“A one star rating means that we see no potential impact of advertising on the brand and 48% of the spots we tested are on star,” Evans said.

“When we tested for the emotional response to advertising, we found an almost identical proportion – 47% or 48% – responded with neutrality, which means you aren’t going to feel anything about the advert after viewing it. We know from System1 that creating an emotional response is very important for getting people to act, so if advertising is leaving people feeling nothing then it is going to be wasted.”

The implications of dull advertising for the industry are huge.

Evans points out that most marketers are incentivised and rewarded on growth, which is also used to mark the performance of business leaders.

“If advertising doesn’t work, businesses will suffer, people will lose their jobs and ultimately, the economy will not do as well as it should,” Evans said. “The other side of the equation is the waste – the amount of money being wasted producing new things, making things that don’t work, and employing people that are going to be unproductive is enormous.” 

If you consider the amount of wastage in media spend, particularly in areas such as digital display, this creates a “multiplier effect” that is hurting the industry at large, Evans said. 

Jon Evans explains why Kevin the Carrot is consistently the top rated ad at Christmas at the recent Future of TV Advertising conference in Sydney.

Jon Evans explains why Kevin the Carrot is consistently the top rated ad at Christmas at the recent Future of TV Advertising conference in Sydney.

The Short Of It

The reasons why advertising has become dull is multifaceted, but ultimately boils down to the industry’s obsession with short-termism and shorter digital formats.

Instead of emotionally driven long-term brand-building campaigns, a growing body of work focuses on creative that will drive short-term results rather than longer term memories..

“There has been a style of advertising or a trend that is probably born out of the sort of digital revolution of the last 15-20 years that has meant we’re starting to adopt ways of advertising, which my colleague (System1 chief innovation officer) Orlando Wood would describe as left-brained. 

“This is more insular, product focused, more functional, and less of the kind of style of advertising that we know is successful at creating memories.”

Another cause for the creative catharsis, reckons Evans, is a “lack of expertise” in today’s marketing and agency teams to understand how advertising works.

“As an industry we probably just need more robust training on ad effectiveness,” Evans said.

“As marketeers we have to make the case with data, evidence and case studies about how advertising works and the things that drive business results. If you can win the battle in the boardroom, you can convince investors, ultimately you can deliver a more effective outcome and spend money more wisely.”

A chart illustrating how fluent devices in TV ads can turn the dial on business performance.

Winning the boardroom battle won’t come easy for two reasons: boardroom pressure on budgets and senior marketers’ relentless pursuit of the new and shiny. 

Evans points out that the number one issue CMOs talk to him about is how to combat the pressure to drive short-term results, particularly during the cost of living crisis.

“Right now budgets are getting cut and what almost all CMOs want to know is how to make the case for long-term investment. As we know, getting the balance between long and short is very difficult,” he said.

“There’s so much short-term performance data out there, daily sales and orders, click through rates, and so on. It’s easy to gather performance data but much harder to gather brand equity data, and how brand building work will positively impact for the long term.”

System1’s methodology is underpinned by behavioural science and draws on the work of Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman. It is based on the premise that how a consumer feels about a brand influences how they are likely to behave.

Evans said there is a lot more data about the power of brand building and emotional advertising than most marketers realise.

“There is an opportunity to explain that it is based on evidence of years of behavioural science on how brands actually grow. What you’ll find is that the higher up an organisation you go, the more invested they are in the long-term success of the company.”

If it ain’t broke…

Even if CMOs are able to get buy-in from c-suite colleagues about the benefits of long-term brand building, they can often fall into a “classic trap”, particularly if they are new in the role. This is partly due to the short tenures of a CMO, which on average hovers around the three-year mark.

“Sometimes I don’t think marketers help themselves, because every marketer wants to change what the previous marketer has done,” Evans explained, adding that it’s not uncommon for agency reviews to be called once a new CMO enters the frame.

This very much applies to advertising.

“At System1 we’ve discovered something supposedly controversial, which is that in most cases, advertising ‘wears in’, it doesn’t ‘wear out’,” Evans said. “The industry has created this idea of ‘wear out’ so that you have to change your campaign every six to nine months, but in reality the more people see something that is good the more they actually like it. And that goes against how agencies like to work.”

Why Kevin kicks arse

System1 research backs this up. A few examples that come to mind are Just Eat’s ‘Did Somebody Say’, Specsavers ‘Should Have Gone to Specsavers’ and Aldi’s ‘Kevin the Carrot’ Christmas campaigns (see the 2023 campaign above).

Although John Lewis has become synonymous with Christmas advertising in the UK, almost every year its cast of colourful and cute characters are being beaten in the effectiveness stakes by an edible orange taproot.

Moz the Monster, Monty the Penguin, Buster the Boxer, Venus the Flytrap and the bizarre alien might have won industry plaudits, but have all fallen by the wayside when compared with Kevin’s ability to arouse the sorts of emotions and memory devices that is marketing gold.

First created by McCann Manchester in 2016, Kevin frequently scores a five-star System1 ad rating. Only John Lewis’ Edgar the Excitable Dragon has achieved such a high rating.

“What makes them stand out is they do five-star work every year and they achieve it for two main reasons. One is they keep the core idea, what we call fluent devices. You’ve got Kevin and a familiar Christmas scene. The craft is always done very, very well – they know how to make great advertising,” Evans said.

“The second thing is they test everything, and they do it rigorously. So every year they start with a long script, it might often be three or four minutes, and they’ll test the entire thing. They’ll know if a joke works, if the voiceover works with a scene, and that Kevin can be recognised in the first five seconds or so. 

“They’ve also kept the team the same. The people that work on it have been working on it for seven or eight years now and this delivers consistency.”

Evans said the value Kevin the Carrot has delivered to Aldi over the years runs into the hundreds of millions of pounds. 

“The most successful marketers, the ones that really commit to the long term, understand what works about their brand, and actually commit to not changing things.”

Specsavers' famous slogan has become an effective fluent device across all of its advertising.

Specsavers’ famous slogan has become an effective fluent device across all of its advertising.

How to improve ads

A key part of successful longer-term campaigns is nailing a fluent device (see charts above) that allows viewers to easily associate a brand with a piece of creative. This can take the form of a memorable character, a catchy slogan, a sonic signature and other devices.

Examples include Nike’s ‘Just Do It’, Just Eat’s tagline “Did Somebody Say”, Comparethemarket’s meerkat characters and Snickers ‘You’re not You When You Are Hungry’. In Australia, one example that Evans cites is Tourism Australia’s Ruby the Roo in the Say G’Day work.

Here are Evans’ five quick tips to improve the effectiveness of advertising:

  1. Emotional is better than rational.
  2. Create a compelling story arc.
  3. Create relatable and memorable characters.
  4. Don’t forget the power of music.
  5. Fluency, fluency, fluency. Your audience should associate your ad to your brand through a combination of compelling characters, memorable music, catchy jingles and other sticky audio visual cues.

Read next: Jon Evans: ‘The Challenge For Coca-Cola … And What I Learnt From BrewDog Hangover’

Check out: Jon Evans’ Uncensored CMO podcast. He recently caught up with Amazon global chief creative officer Jo Shoesmith. You can also listen to his discussion with Peter Field and Adam Morgan about dull advertising.




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