In advertising—or communications if you’d prefer a more catchall phrase—there are two main knobs we can twiddle: Direction and Distraction. When balanced deftly, these two qualities combine to create messages that are both interesting and informative. The problem is, depending on our discipline, we tend to be too heavy-handed with one or the other.
To get a better idea of Direction, think about driving a car. On every trip, you’re exposed to a constant stream of street signs and traffic lights. They’re uniform and brutally unambiguous. Street signs announce street names and that’s it. Red means Stop. Green means Go. They relay pure information to guide you and instruct you on how to behave.
When you hear a radio commercial that’s wall-to-wall product features ending with a phone number and web address, that’s 100% Direction in action. Logically, this seems to makes sense. We want to tell people all about our product, so we tell them. The trouble is that unless someone’s in the market for your particular product or service at that precise moment, you give them no reason to pay attention.
This is where Distraction comes into play, so let’s hop back into our imaginary car and take another drive. Tootling along, we’re basically on autopilot. We obey traffic lights without thinking about them and only notice street signs when we’re looking for a particular location.
But what’s that up ahead? There’s someone in a green dragon suit twirling a sign, spinning it behind his back, tossing it from one hand to the other, then launching it high in the air and catching it again. Now there’s something you don’t see every day! So, naturally, we notice it.
You see a lot of sign-twirling-green-dragon type ads during the Super Bowl. They’re funny, massive budget extravaganzas, often featuring mega stars. We watch them online, share them with friends, and rank our favourites. And, in most cases, we couldn’t tell anyone what a single one of them was actually trying to advertise. They’re all Distraction and no Direction.
If challenged to think of a great piece of communication—whether television, print, or digital—if you remember both the execution and the intended message, it was a brilliant balancing act. And that’s what we should be aiming for in everything we create.