A num­ber of sus­pects to­day ap­pear be­fore the court of pub­lic opin­ion charged with crimes against com­edy. Who of those tak­ing the stand are guilty of per­vert­ing the course of amus­ing ad­ver­tis­ing? Paul Burke gives his ver­dict

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Paul Burke has called the sus­pects to the dock so he can find out who stole the LOLS

“A client erring on the side of cau­tion is like a pope erring on the side of Catholi­cism” “How many peo­ple voted for Brexit be­cause they once worked on a hideous piece of pan-euro­pean busi­ness?”


When­ever we cre­ate a com­mer­cial, we’re ask­ing peo­ple to ei­ther buy some­thing or do some­thing. But, in re­turn, we’re sup­posed to wrap this re­quest in an en­gag­ing mini-piece of com­edy or drama. If an ad’s pur­pose is to warn against smok­ing, stab­bing or speed­ing, then drama can be very pow­er­ful. But for the ma­jor­ity of mes­sages, com­edy is a far bet­ter and more pop­u­lar de­vice. At least, it was.

Over the past few years, we’ve failed to keep our side of the bar­gain. We’re no longer giv­ing view­ers the chance to com­plete our com­mer­cials. Be­cause, by laugh­ing, that’s what they do: they ac­tively con­trib­ute to an ad’s suc­cess. Bri­tish peo­ple love a laugh, of­ten find­ing hu­mour where other cul­tures would fail to find sense. So why are we deny­ing them the plea­sure they’ve al­ways en­joyed? Who’s re­spon­si­ble? En­ter the court­room and take your seat in the gallery. It’s time to haul the sus­pects into the dock.


The ob­vi­ous cul­prit. But a client erring on the side of cau­tion is like a pope erring on the side of Catholi­cism. Their weak­ness for safe and hu­mour­less com­mer­cials is noth­ing new. Though what’s changed – lit­er­ally be­yond recog­ni­tion – is their vo­cab­u­lary. We’ve all had to suf­fer id­i­otic brand man­agers who can’t seem to use the right word in the right con­text: they’ll say “align” when they mean “agree”, “un­pack” when they mean “ex­plain” and put the word “point” on the end of price. Which – oh, the irony – is com­pletely point­less. And as for “In a ven­dor-ag­nos­tic space, we’ve buck­e­tised op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­liver 360-de­gree so­lu­tions against key ob­jec­tives” – that sen­tence should carry a cus­to­dial one. Try­ing to do busi­ness with peo­ple who can’t com­mu­ni­cate prop­erly is a huge prob­lem. Or, as they’d no doubt put it, a huge “chal­lenge”. This sort of gob­bledy­gook has spread like a lin­guis­tic leukaemia, slowly killing the vi­tal cells of clar­ity that keep our in­dus­try alive. It may not be swear­ing but it’s very, very bad lan­guage.


Even the best clients can find them­selves con­strained by “le­gal” or “com­pli­ance” or what­ever these use­less nitwits like to call them­selves. Ad­ver­tis­ing is a self-reg­u­lat­ing in­dus­try, bound by strin­gent rules. So there is ab­so­lutely no re­quire­ment for clients to have “le­gal teams”. Most of them aren’t even lawyers, which is why their coun­sel is largely worth­less and very of­ten wrong. In most cases, no law will be bro­ken if that coun­sel is ig­nored, so the term “le­gal” should ac­tu­ally be il­le­gal. How­ever, it’s the ones who re­ally are lawyers who de­serve our pity. Imag­ine the sense of self-loathing they must feel ev­ery time they go to work. At law school, they’d had grand dreams of strid­ing into the Old Bai­ley to de­fend the weak and pros­e­cute the pow­er­ful. In­stead, they’ve been re­duced to re­mind­ing shop­pers that those half­price toi­let rolls are “sub­ject to avail­abil­ity”.


Not Sir Martin him­self but what he’s seen to rep­re­sent: namely, the bean­count­ing, belt-tight­en­ing takeover of a once vi­brant and cre­ative in­dus­try. The fun and the funds have cer­tainly been drained out of many agen­cies in a re­lent­less ob­ses­sion with the bot­tom line. And this ob­ses­sion has made those agen­cies less will­ing to stand up to clients for fear of af­fect­ing their rev­enue. I don’t know whether it’s fair to blame one man for an in­dus­try-wide is­sue but I do know this: my old friend Si­mon Bur­ridge, then a se­nior suit at J Wal­ter Thomp­son, was hav­ing lunch

with the fa­mously diminu­tive Sir Martin. He emailed to say he was run­ning late but, in­stead of writ­ing “See you shortly”, he typed “See you shorty”. Now that would have made a very funny com­mer­cial. Just add the sound of Si­mon strik­ing a match and the end­line: “Hap­pi­ness is a cigar called Ham­let.”


You’d now need to be over 40 to have en­tered the work­place be­fore Tony Blair (pic­tured, op­po­site page) en­tered No10. But if you did, you’ll re­mem­ber what it was like be­fore then. Be­fore a joy­less raft of reg­u­la­tions was grad­u­ally en­forced to con­trol em­ploy­ees’ words and deeds. Be­fore “Per­son­nel” was renamed “HR” with a brief, it of­ten seems, to pun­ish peo­ple rather than help them. Be­fore the con­tin­ual use of the word “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” was de­ployed to crush the mer­est mod­icum of mis­chief. No-one’s sug­gest­ing a re­turn to those fa­bled af­ter­noons spent snort­ing gak from a PA’S cleav­age. Though, trust me, that sort of malarkey was not as rife as le­gend would have you be­lieve. But if a work­ing en­vi­ron­ment ap­pears to dis­cour­age free­dom of ex­pres­sion, what do you think’s go­ing to hap­pen to the work?


No, not that one. But the un­easy al­liance formed across a Euro­pean net­work to run one dread­ful ad in all mem­ber states. The sort of abom­i­na­tion that fea­tures a left-hand-drive car shot in bright candy colours with ar­ti­fi­cially joy­ous peo­ple driv­ing along to a cheesy “up­beat” track. Devoid of di­a­logue, nu­ance or hu­mour, it’s in­vari­ably the re­sult of much cross­bor­der squab­bling. Be­cause what works in Spain or Greece doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily work in Bri­tain or France. One size does not fit all but, to make sure it does, the work is dumbed right down so that ev­ery­one in ev­ery coun­try can un­der­stand it. The fact that no-one will like or re­mem­ber it is nei­ther here nor there – all mar­kets are “aligned”. But wouldn’t it be in­ter­est­ing to know how many peo­ple voted for Brexit be­cause they once worked on a hideous piece of pan-euro­pean busi­ness?


The word “com­edy” is now pre­ceded by “stand-up” rather than “sit­u­a­tion”. Shame, be­cause great sit­coms were al­ways the in­spi­ra­tion for any­one as­pir­ing to write great TV ads. There was much to be learned from the writ­ing, the set-ups, char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions and punch­lines. There was also the chance to work with the skilled com­edy ac­tors who ap­peared in them. But have you ever seen Michael Mcin­tyre (pic­tured, below right) or John Bishop in a com­mer­cial? Of course you haven’t. Why would they want to sell baked beans when they can sell out five nights at The O2?


Our in­dus­try is fi­nally sober­ing up af­ter what amounted to a drunken fling with the D word. But not be­fore we in­vited an aw­ful lot of “dig­i­tal na­tives” back to our place. Many were hired more for their tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency than their writ­ing skills or sense of hu­mour. So that’s bound to be ap­par­ent in their work. It makes you won­der whether this hap­pened with ev­ery new medium. When bill­boards first ap­peared, did agen­cies im­me­di­ately hire any­one who knew how to climb a lad­der with a broom and a bucket of glue?


They now tend to take one of two forms. In Agency One, the cre­ative de­part­ment doesn’t phys­i­cally ex­ist. De­part­ments are all mixed up in vast open-plan hangars. But in­stead of col­lab­o­rat­ing freely with their col­leagues, many peo­ple just plug in their head­phones and re­treat into silent solip­sism. It’s hard to imag­ine an en­vi­ron­ment less con­ducive to cre­ativ­ity. Ex­cept per­haps Agency Two. It has a self-con­sciously “wacky” cre­ative de­part­ment with all the zany ac­cou­trements: the bean­bags, think pods, break­out ar­eas, hot desks and cold feel­ing of dread when­ever you walk into one. The full hor­ror is com­pleted by “in­spi­ra­tional” max­ims graf­fi­tied on the walls: “Good is the en­emy of great”, “Be­lieve and achieve”, “Cre­ativ­ity is the cure”. These al­ways re­mind me of a far more ap­po­site phrase: “Make me laugh. Don’t tell me you’re funny.”


We can make all the ex­cuses we like, and blame all the afore­men­tioned de­fen­dants, but the buck has to stop some­where. The re­spon­si­bil­ity for com­mer­cials not be­ing funny must lie with those who write them. There have al­ways been im­ped­i­ments to pro­duc­ing great work but it’s up to cre­ative teams to over­come them. Their ap­par­ent in­abil­ity to do so is a real cause for con­cern. Some say that be­cause the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try ap­pears to be less fun – and its ads less funny – that the bright­est cre­ative tal­ents are no longer at­tracted to it. Oth­ers say the op­po­site: it’s be­cause the bright­est cre­ative tal­ents are no longer at­tracted to ad­ver­tis­ing that it isn’t as much fun and its ads aren’t as funny. Who knows? But, ei­ther way, now is the per­fect time to stand out and shine by putting hu­mour back into ads. So re­mem­ber…


Lust, Glut­tony, Greed, Sloth, Anger, Envy and Pride. This is a great place to start. Look at that list be­cause at least one of those sins is present in all com­edy at all times. In­tro­duce them into a script and the hu­mour will start to flow out. With this as your sim­ple and all-pur­pose guide, you should be able to write a funny ad for al­most any prod­uct. But if you still can’t, then, I’m afraid, that is the dead­li­est sin of all.

“Why would Michael Mcin­tyre want to sell baked beans when he can sell out five nights at The O2?”

Paul Burke is a free­lance copy­writer and novelist

Ham­let: filled peo­ple with hap­pi­ness

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