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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Creativity, how does it happen?

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Creativity, as I wrote in my last article, is a messy, political process. This is as true for creating advertisements as it is for any other work of art. So how do the different elements that go into producing an ad work together? There is no simple answer.

We can describe the process by which ads are created—brainstorming, presentation, production—but the one immutable rule is that no ad can simply mimic another. Creativity always implies having to find something new and where "the new" will come from is unpredictable. In the best of all worlds, it may be a genuinely fresh insight, or at least a new angle on an old topic. The message may be utterly conventional; but in that case at least the art or the words or both have to be, if not unexpected, restricted to the brand that owns them.

Thus, for example, any number of TV commercials for sporty automobiles show them driving on winding roads, in the mountains or on a seacoast; but, at least when I was working on the account, only BMW could say "The Ultimate Driving Machine." Once Lexus trademarked "The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection," no other automaker could use those words.

So, message or execution, where do new ideas come from? There being no simple answer, I will describe three cases in which I was personally involved. Be warned, they are all from a long time ago, the early and mid-1980s. I was a newbie copywriter, still learning my trade.

The first ad for which I won a prize was for a product no longer manufactured—Canon typewriters. It was 1984 and the Berlin Wall was still intact. Apple had just introduced Macintosh™ , but even PCs were still new, and most offices were still equipped with typewriters. The 900-lb gorilla in the typewriter market was a company called IBM, whose Selectric ™ typewriters used a bouncing ball to strike the ribbon and transfer text to paper.

At the orientation, we were told that Canon had a better idea, the daisy wheel. Why was it better? The Selectric's bouncing ball would soon get knocked out of alignment and produce uneven lines of text. Canon's new daisy wheel typewriters would go on producing perfectly even lines of text, line after line, for millions of lines. The result would be crisper, cleaner looking documents, something good for the image of companies that chose Canon typewriters.

When we returned to the agency and began brainstorming, Kimoto Hidehiko, the Creative Director, reminded us that Canon started out as a camera company and was very, very proud of the beauty of the images that its equipment produced. A thought popped into my head, "They have their reputation on the line." But that was just a matter of fact. I put myself in Canon's shoes and thought about what we were told about the daisy wheel. The headline I came up with was,

"We put our reputation on every line."

The client was happy, we were happy, the ad won a prize. A few years later, Canon exited the typewriter business, shifting to laser and then inkjet printers for the output from PCs.

The second ad that won me a prize was a small job for Bridgestone, the tire company. Bridgestone was sponsoring a Silver Bridge Concert, an event in which young musicians from Japan would get to play in Carnegie Hall and wanted a one-page corporate ad for the concert program.

Two account executives, the art director, a production house designer, and the copywriter, me, were sitting around a table in a small meeting room. We were tossing around ideas that involved harmony or other musical topics suitable for a concert program. All were pretty boring. Then, I picked up a copy of the Bridgestone annual report and found myself staring at a picture of an airliner landing on a runway.

I looked up and asked the account executives, "Any chance that when the musicians fly to New York, they will land on Bridgestone tires?" Of course, they replied, Bridgestone is one of the world's largest manufacturers of airplane tires, the musicians will fly on Japan Airlines (JAL) and JAL buys all of its tires from Bridgestone.

"I've got it," I said, "the headline will be "Another Way Bridgestone Supports the Arts."

These first two examples were one-off print ads, bread and butter work. The clients were pleased, the job went smoothly, nobody got terribly excited except the newbie copywriter, for whom winning a couple of awards in a local English-language advertising context would validate his ability to carry on with a new, non-academic career. The third case was a different beast altogether.

This article is the second in a three-part series. The first article is "Creativity, what is it?"

The one immutable rule is that no ad can simply mimic another.

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Advertisements line the streets of Tokyo. Photo by Alessandro Baffa [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].
Advertisements line the streets of Tokyo. Photo by Alessandro Baffa [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0].