Easier Said Than Done: Abstract Art or Fundraising?
Sixty-second TV spot. Scene: A blighted urban landscape. Soulful music. Camera pans right, and we see something odd about the buildings. They're turning into structures made of gigantic playing cards, and they're collapsing. Like, well, like houses of cards. Voice-over talks about the scope of the housing crisis, not in human terms, but in numbers.
That's a spot for a U.K. housing charity, a great example of the spread of abstract expressionism in nonprofit marketing.
Painters like Jackson Pollock and Wassily Kandinsky broke open art in the early 20th century by separating their art from the visual world. Their canvasses were not representations of things, but expressions of ideas or emotions.
Abstract expressionism is an acquired taste. It ?takes some commitment to appreciate its beauty. It sometimes draws comments like, "A monkey could paint that!" For the record, I'm a fan of abstract expressionism. There's a vast qualitative difference between one of Pollock's splatter paintings and the work of a monkey.
Maybe that's why it annoys me to watch as ?certain ad agencies try to re-create the magic of abstract expressionism in their work for nonprofit organizations. It's not going well. I think the monkeys might do better.
The creative minds behind the "house of cards" spot are trying desperately to make the point that there's a severe housing crisis. Trouble is, rather than show compelling evidence of the crisis as it plays out in the lives of real people, they've chosen to create a "falling apart" metaphor.
I can just hear the agency pitch: "This concept has an elegant symmetry that links a familiar phrase with the collapse of housing, creating an 'aha' moment that transforms the viewer's world …" (I'm a creative ?director. I know how my tribe talks.)
Look … the literal facts about the housing crisis are shocking. It's not like houses of cards. It's much, much worse than houses of cards. Real people being forced out of their homes — that's a tragedy. Card houses falling down is not a tragedy. It's part of the fun of building them in the first place. To make a falling house of cards represent the real-life crisis utterly trivializes the pain people are suffering.
And that's only half of the problem: Most people simply aren't going to wade through the symbolism and connect the distant dots. Those who do, having completed a mildly interesting intellectual exercise, will hardly be in the philanthropic state of mind. The message didn't go remotely near the heart.
That's assuming the symbolism isn't completely inept, in which case nobody will even figure it out in the first place.
Speaking of inept …
Thirty-second TV spot. Scene: A beautiful woman dressed in a billowing gown walks toward the camera. Quick cuts show her in various odd positions, as well as close-ups of boiling water, steam and other hard-to-place visuals. The woman whispers inaudibly and seems to be eating noodles. Finally, we land on a still image of a jar of spaghetti with the words, "Spaghetti pour elle." And, uh … the screen goes dark with the words, "Food shouldn't feel like a luxury," followed by a microscopic phone number and Web address.
I've been in fundraising for a long time. Of all the issues you try to get folks to respond to, hunger is the most straightforward. People just get it. They want to do something about it. Raising money to fight hunger is the fundraising equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel.
But when the agency guys (or maybe it was their interns) got the assignment, they decided to create a philosophical abstraction that stands for hunger: an airy castle built around the notion that for some people, food is unattainable, like a "luxury." To make that point, they used the weird conventions of luxury advertising.
OK. That's vaguely clever. But it's miles away from a call to action to help people in need. If anyone takes the trouble to figure out the puzzle, she might come away with a vague sense of outrage. Or a bemused smile at the upside-down values of our world.
But donations to help? I wouldn't bet on it.
The fair question to ask is this: Why would anybody do that kind of advertising? Answer: It's a way for ad agencies to pad their portfolios and win awards. Sadly, you can — they sometimes do — win awards with work like this. The cost, though, is millions of dollars worth of wasted opportunity.
Like we see here …
Thirty-second TV spot. Scene: Brightly colored ?stick-figure people zoom past the camera and fade in the distance. A familiar voice with a thick, provincial British accent starts, "Imagine every child, no matter where in the world they were, could access a universe of knowledge." The stick people begin to resolve into the image of a face … John Lennon! Imagine! I get it! John urges us to change the world, the way he tried to do with his music. The final seconds display a Web address.
Whatever else you might say about this spot, you have to recognize the accomplishment of working through the legal thicket of permissions to use the face and voice of Lennon. Good show, legal department! But getting Yoko to say yes doesn't move you one inch closer to motivating other people to action.
John Lennon might be the coolest human of the last hundred years. But even he has to be specific and emotional to get people to respond with donations. Even John has to tell them what you want them to do, and why; be clear and compelling. (I bet he would, too, given the chance.)
But the ad agency guys? They're allergic to the ?specific and obvious. Those things don't stand a chance with the awards judges, who want the edgy, clever, obtuse and unusual — not the literal and straightforward. So the ad guys stay as far away from specificity as they can get.
Let me give you a little warning label. It could save you and your organization a lot of trouble in the future. I urge you to clip and post the following paragraph:
Do not talk to representatives from ad agencies. They are armed with abstract ideas, and they are very skilled at making you think these ideas are good. If you are approached, do not agree to anything; ?carefully leave the area and flee.
Your cause and your fundraising are too important to hide behind edgy abstractionism. Leave the abstract expressionism to the artists. They do it way better than the ad guys. FS