George Clooney is a likeable man. He is handsome and well-dressed. He is charismatic and self-effacing. He uses his privilege to do good in the world. He was decent enough to force Hollywood into dramatically rethinking the sort of Batman films that should be made.
And yet, his Nespresso adverts are awful. Alternating between desperately overwritten and almost catatonically underwritten, they are bad ideas made into bad adverts and are about as welcome in our finite stores of attention as a pirate’s toe in your Frosties.
I say ‘his’ adverts but George does nothing more than say what he is asked to say. And even then the words don’t particularly matter. He is paid handsomely for his handsomeness. His fee rises in a direct alignment with each sardonic eyebrow. The luminosity of the treasure heaped as his feet is a straightforward exchange for the incandescence of his twinkling charm. He could, quite frankly, be saying anything.
Last week — in an exercise I do with our Creative Advertising students where I send them a different advert every day to unpick — I devoted the entire week to my favourite (not necessarily the finest) celebrity-fronted adverts.
It was, as is much of my lesson planning, a terrible mistake, and narrowing the candidates down to seven was unexpectedly traumatising.
But, at the end of it, I had at least developed a sense of what makes a celebrity advert good — or, at least, what can rescue it from being a wildly expensive exercise in making fair-minded people despise a brand and a person they have never met.
I am, despite the worst the canon may offer, a supporter of the celebrity ad. The majority of the ads I remember best from my childhood were because a person I recognised and admired was playing a part (this ad for the BBC licence fee from the mid 80s was something I remember trying to tape off the TV so it could be preserved for all time).
The rise of the influencer — against whom I have no particular beef — has seen the role of celebrity endorsement shift and scatter. And, in a market where the seventh most famous sibling from a well-known family could be half-heartedly flogging your peppermint enemas by tea time, what is being sacrificed are celebrity adverts founded on a concept.
Aside from the Superbowl — which often has a tendency to throw limitless riches at the celebrities and limitless limitations in front of their writers — the role of ‘big idea + big name’ advertising has to battle far harder to justify its value.
And that, of course, is not even accounting for the industry fixation on the notion of authenticity — no matter how flimsy or translucent such reality-ruses will always appear to anyone outside the trembling membrane of ‘the bubble’
Anyway, what I think I may have stumbled upon, are the three magical ingredients that will make a celebrity-led advertisement delight and persuade.
- Good writing
I stare directly at the 1980s Rutger Hauer Guinness adverts the way some lunatics stare at the sun, or Hollyoaks.
I watch them, of course, because Hauer is strange and magnetic, but I watch them mainly because the writing is beautiful.
This ad, The University of Life, contains a line so sharp and effervescent that I often write it out next to my own lines while I work — partly for the comparison, mostly for the agony.
Of course, Hauer was the ideal face and voice for these ads, but you only have to look at the scripts in isolation to see it was the writing that made them vibrate at a different pitch.
2. Good writing
In the hands of most brands who had paid Jean-Claude Van Damme money, this ad would have descended into a half-witted kung fun brawl with a lazily incongruent brand message bolted on somewhere in the final third. (See this Jason Statham/Gal Gadot ad if you doubt me.)
But in the hands of smart and incisive writers, it became quiet and reflective, and actually rather poetic — none of the things you necessarily hire Jean-Claude Van Damme to be.
This ad is the most glorious example of a famous actor melding into and around the big idea — rather the idea having to wrap clumsily around the blunt, intractable fame of its star.
3. Good writing (duh)
I done a dirty trick on you I’m afraid — there is only one ingredient for the sort of thrilling and memorable star-vehicle ads we can all recall and recite and often recreate. And it is good writing.
The last ad that illustrates my point is ‘Bull’ for Lincoln starring Matthew McConaughey.
(Admittedly, this ad comes from a series that doesn’t ever live up the curious charm of this one — in fact, the rest of the ads were so pompous and faux-philosophical that they suffered at the hands of a lacerating SNL spoof by Jim Carrey.)
And why this one stands out is because it breaks the formula. It refuses to indulge in the expectations of who our man must be and what he must do. It drops something bulky and volatile into the familiar sequence of events and allows the ad to become the ad we talk about because it is defiantly not what we thought it would be.
In other words, the writers chose not to write the Obvious McConaughey and instead wrote the Outlandish McConaghey. And if that isn’t a copywriting mantra to end with, then I’m no better than a shit Batman holding a tiny mug.
Andrew Boulton teaches Creative Advertising at the University of Lincoln.