How Important is Creativity in Advertising?

By Chris Blair

Creativity is one of those things that’s hard to define, especially in advertising. Many ad agencies consider it the measuring stick for their work. So much so that they call the work leading up to production, “the creative.” But just how important is creativity in advertising and what exactly constitutes a creative ad?

This is a tough question and there are probably dozens of viable answers. But advertising history makes it clear you cannot judge an advertisement based solely on creativity. The reasons? Creativity is highly subjective and award-winning ads are not automatically effective ads.

A famous (or is it infamous) case in point is the 1996 Nissan ad campaign called “Enjoy the Ride. The ad that launched the campaign was an epic commercial titled “Dream Garage,” which first aired during the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics and later during the 1997 Super Bowl. It opened on a group of kids playing baseball, one of whom was magically transported to a “dream garage” filled with vintage Nissans. The garage was helmed by a wise old Japanese character dubbed “Mr. K,” who along with his Jack Russell Terrier, became the face of the entire campaign. You can see the ad below:

The commercial was beautifully shot, well-acted and won all kinds of praise and awards in the ad industry. But the spot and its subsequent campaign nearly bankrupted Nissan dealers in the U.S.

Sales plunged, dealers squawked and the campaign is often cited as the start of a long slide in Nissan market share. Dealers complained that the campaign (and the “Dream Garage” ad in particular) didn’t promote or create interest in Nissan models, so consumers had no reason to check out their cars.

Nevertheless, Nissan continued the “Enjoy the Ride” campaign well into 1997 and produced another wildly popular ad featuring animated dolls riding in a toy car. The storyline had G.I. Joe coming to life, hopping in a toy Nissan 300zx and luring Barbie away from her doll house and beau Ken. The animated couple was shown zooming around a house (and through Mr. K’s legs). The ad won high praise and several advertising competitions gave it their top prize, but Nissan sales continued to fall.

Despite the declining sales, Nissan’s ad agency said research showed that brand awareness had risen by 30 percent and brand popularity had doubled. Dealers countered that the spots weren’t generating foot traffic or sales. After a year, Nissan relented and added regional spots that focused more on the product than the brand. These ads ran in tandem with the “Enjoy the Ride” spots and featured a cameo appearance by the Mr. K. character. But the damage was done.

Was Nissan’s decline solely because of the ad campaign? Certainly not. But it didn’t help. At a time when Toyota and Honda were surging in the U.S. market, Nissan’s product mix had become stagnant. But instead of focusing on their cars, Nissan gambled that people bought brands and not models. Their ad agency cited research that showed consumers hated traditional car advertising, especially ads that showed beautiful running footage of their cars. So Nissan decided to produce wildly different, creative ads in support of that research. Problem was, their research tested what people liked and not what got them in the stores, and it neglected to promote ANY of their models.

In fact, most of the ads in the campaign barely mentioned the Nissan name. Notice it appeared only twice in the “Dream Garage” spot with one shot lasting less than a second and the other being the 3-second tag. The “Toys” spot was worse with only one appearance, the 3-second end tag. Total time of the logo on screen was barely 6 seconds out of 90 seconds of advertising. Plus, the Nissan name is never voiced in either spot!

So despite the perceived genius of the Nissan “Enjoy the Ride” campaign, and despite the fact that people loved the ads, they did not drive traffic or sales. Which leads me to what I consider to be the most important rule of advertising. It doesn’t matter if people like your ads. Let me repeat that. It DOES NOT matter if anyone likes your advertising! It doesn’t matter if the company CEO, CFO, VP of Sales or VP of advertising likes it. It only matters if the ads generate traffic! People get so caught up in wanting an ad to be creative, funny or likable that they forget the point, which is to compel a customer to check out your product or service.

Certainly you must get your customers’ attention with your advertising, and creativity can be an important part of doing that. But you also must give them a reason to act, be it through the introduction of an innovative new product, a fun sales promotion, a clever call to action (15 minutes could save you 15% or more) or by focusing on a trusted product that’s proven it’s value over time.

So the question becomes, which would you rather have? A wildly creative spot that entertains but doesn’t promote your core products or give people a reason to try them? Or an ad that focuses on what you sell and gives people a reason to log onto your website, call your phone number or visit your store?

And don’t confuse promoting products with branding. You can do both in your advertising. The Nissan ads did a good job of branding because the ads were memorable (despite the lack of brand references), but they forgot to promote Nissan’s products in the process.

Our job is to communicate and persuade. And while it certainly helps to be clever and entertain, how many times have you seen a great advertisement, only to remember the ad, but not the brand or product?

There’s also a huge gap between what the advertising industry and the business community consider to be great ads. That dynamic was clearly at work with Nissan’s campaign, and in hindsight, Nissan’s dealers appear to have been smarter than both their marketing executives and their ad agency.

What’s the lesson? For us, it’s simple, “listen to the client! They know their product and their customers.” Yes, we’re the advertising “experts,” but an ad agency should be a client’s partner, not their master when it comes to creating ads. Creativity is only good when it increases phone calls, generates online visits or boosts foot traffic at the store.

Being creative is NOT the goal of advertising. The goal is to convince readers, listeners and viewers that they need your product or service.