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“Pencils? Aren’t those things you pick up at awards nights?” -John Tylee, (2002)

The perception of the role of copy in advertising is quite self-explanatory considering this remark by a seasoned creative director. A visual is today proving to be stronger than the pen. Is no-copy advertising in today’s day and age a trend, a fashion or a soft-sell tool for advertising sales? The movement towards no-copy advertising has been a recent trend that has puzzled many a writer, art-director and critic alike. As critics put it, no-copy advertising does bring sophistication to advertising, but at another level, its multi-faceted personality fails to debunk any myths associated with the cliché “a picture speaks a thousand words”. Visual advertising has become a new advertising stereotype. No-copy advertising has, therefore, become the order of the day. There is a widespread belief that advertising has no become a highly image-oriented medium.

What is a no-copy ad and how does it function? According to Lazar Dzamic: “I’d like to think of a no-copy ad as a mysterious stranger in a bar. Someone storytelling: quiet, different from the rest of the crowd by that hazy look in the eyes. Someone who, with posture and look, radiates a much deeper history. Decide to engage them in a conversation and try to find out what the mystery is, and if their story is satisfying, get the feeling of solving their puzzle, get blessed with an intellectual reward, with insight, with a sharing of wavelength and, subsequently, with a feeling of closeness. Can you think of a more ideal model of advertising effectiveness?” (Dzamic, 2001)

This is obviously a “romantic” notion of the no-copy ad, coming from someone who believes in its effectiveness. It sounds great no doubt, but does it undermine the importance of words in today’s world? The story of words goes back a long way to the Egyptian civilization which used hieroglyphs, pictures that were used to write the ancient Egyptian language. Communication has now come full circle with no-copy advertising that uses pictures to send a message or to build a brand and even to sell a product.

Where does this take advertising, or rather creativity in advertising? As we seek better ways of grabbing the attention of consumers, creativity is taking on a new meaning and so is advertising. According to Sarah Balmond (2004) as ads become more visual, the “ugly-sister” tag is conferred upon copywriters today. This shift towards a more visual approach to advertising has been seen in this industry as a trend that started out with the Benetton ads by Oliviero Toscani. Kim Ellison of Singleton Ogilvy & Mather thinks that there is a popular belief in the advertising circles of today that there is a conscious trend towards no-copy advertising. This is enabled by magazines like the Archive which applaud these ads.

What is a no-copy ad? Why this shift and what is its impact on the business of advertising. As a part of the creative team, directors, copywriters and even planners have their own opinions on what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, different approaches seem to work for different brands. It is the opinion of the author of this paper, that when it comes to creativity, there are no rules, however hard we may seek to break them, and there is no right or wrong. This paper seeks to address the issues driving no-copy advertising as fittingly as possible although creativity being abstract and subjective, the limitations of this research are many.

If there is one characteristic feature of no-copy advertising, it is the fact that it divides the opinions of advertising gurus all over the world. Top players when questioned about the nature and effectiveness of advertising almost always have diverse opinions. Key areas of research into this subject include the nature and approach of no-copy advertising, its effectiveness, its exploration as a trend and its impact.

Ad critic Bob Garfield, in the preface to Dzamic’s No-copy Advertising, firmly argues that there are three reasons which have led to this era of no-copy advertising “Language takes a long time to download; Pictures are universal and communicate globally; and Language can confuse a jury if you want to win an international award” (Dzamic, 2001). This paper, taking into consideration, Garfield’s view, has explored these issues at a deeper level.

“Language takes a long time to download”
Let us first analyse why this sudden shift towards no-copy advertising. Most people agree that we live in a fast-paced world where there is no time for ourselves let alone for reading an ad. Instant gratification is the mantra of the day. How many of us can deny having thrown away mail that we call “junk” and looking past ads in magazines which appear to have an editorial-like copy?

Little wonder then that it is becoming easier to approach people visually rather than by using language in the form of words. There is a tendency to ignore the complicated or that which takes time to comprehend. No-copy is good copy is a principle that has come to dominate present-day advertising. (Crasta and Rajshekhar, 1999) The belief is perpetuated by the fact that copy is redundant in a world where attention spans are equivalent to the bounce of a ball. Crasta and Rajshekhar claim that apart from a few exceptions here and there this whole decade has evolved into an era that worships the “Benetton-esque” ads. According to the author of this paper, although it is true that people have less time to read, people still do read magazines and newspapers. Moreover the internet too is a wholly copy-based medium. If people can take time off to read magazines why not put a couple of minutes of that time into reading an ad?

Indra Sinha, a former copywriter, presently CEO, Chaos Communications, London, feels that pictures are deceptive in the sense that they lead people to think in different directions, although they succeed in drawing attention. Neil French puts forward a similar view when he states that no-copy ads draw attention but are “gnomic” in nature and have no substance beneath them. They are interactive, says Trevor Beattie but they must not take time to be understood. Jack Funds argues that because we are a visual culture, no-copy ads are a perfect solution to grabbing the attention of the consumer. It is not easy to comprehend that although these men are top guns in the field of advertising and have numerous laurels in their caps, each celebrates a wholly different view on the subject. The MTV culture has consumers by the belly. As Bob Garfield puts it the MTV generation is not illiterate in fact its “aliterate”.

There is a trend in the culture at large to move away from the written word. (Dzamic, 2001) People want to see something different and at the same time experience instant gratification. Everything today has become more “in the face” and direct than it ever was. One might say that the idea today is “why make life difficult?” Most people of the old school still believe that copywriting is “at the very heart of all good advertising” (Carter 2001) as opposed to people of the new school who see copywriters as a luxury rather than a necessity. As far as an Art Director can make an ad look good, it compensates for the follies in copywriting.

“Pictures are universal and communicate globally”
Jesus Christ on a cross, a white dove, a rose; all of these mean more than just pictures. Globally they convey the same message of Christianity, peace and love respectively without one having to say even a single word. It becomes extremely suitable to convey something without actually putting it down in words. Never was this sense of tentativeness more prevalent than it is today. No copy ads are seen as a celebration of the visual culture; the MTV culture; a culture that has a global reach in its roots as well as beliefs. Somehow the new argot of the global village is not English, it is the “logo, the picture, the image and no matter where we are in the world we speak it fluently” (Dzamic, 2001). One might argue that although those above may sound convincing, at the end of the day it is still words that are used for communication on a daily basis whether it be talking to one another or writing letters. As an argument one can put forward the fact that visuals can replace a few words but never the whole language.

As Jack Funds puts it, sometimes, visual advertising is used to transcend cultural borders. Cross-cultural advertising or global advertising for global brands is another factor contributing to the universality if the visual ads. This contributes substantially in the increasing appeal of no-copy advertising today. Since we live in a fast-paced world, people are not willing to give up freely to things that are complicated to understand and digest. To stand out from the clutter, one must employ different methods, in this case, no-copy advertising. The problem though lies in the fact that one can see millions of these ads and there is nothing which makes them stand out from the crowd as all are the same kind.

On the contrary, Neil French believes that no-copy advertising is a result of the combination of laziness and illiterate admen. Also, there is a widespread belief that because visuals are so universal, they seem to entertain. Geoff Tobin, an art director at Singleton Ogilvy and Mather, seems to think that we apply TV mentality to all print media. Some say that technology has superseded copy, while others think that it has just gone out of fashion. (Ellison)

“Language can confuse a jury if you want to win an international award.”
Laurels, accolades, awards, medals… the heart of all creativity… the inspiration to create “out of the world ads”… where has that taken no-copy advertising? Are they a result or a cause of this stereotype in advertising? There is still an element of smoke and mirrors attached to visuals in advertising. So while a pictorial representation is valued and even applauded, copy is regarded with some skepticism. Shortlisted campaigns for most awards hang on visuals and not on words. In fact most of them hardly have any copy to start with. The obsession of advertising with visuals and images dates back to the 1980’s with the Benetton ads. This

created a new advertising stereotype which continues to win industry appreciation and has now become the order of the day. Minimalism is the new mantra that has invaded all the arts including advertising. Somewhere down the line, there is a widespread belief that minimalism fools the jury in believing that there is an idea in there.

Most copywriters today have a mindset which tells them, no one reads copy, so why bother? To add fuel to the fire this no-copy-is-good-copy vogue makes sure that ads with minimum or no copy win awards. These awards, in turn, set the trend in most countries that use international award-winning work as their benchmark. An award-winning Chinese ad for Coke had a young lad entering a shop and wordlessly outlining the shape of the bottle. This was aired around the world and sent the same message to one and all. It is ads like these that set an example for the future of creativity in advertising. There are many other ads where the link between execution and brand promise requires a caption. But this is not so for the stars of the show like Nike, Addidas, Mercedes SLK etc. These brands with more than 30 years of advertising have achieved a status where they can command an attitude from the consumer. They appeal to the consumer regarding their attitude as such they’re more for building brand attitude rather than immediate sales. Brands like Nike, Mercedes etc. have now assumed cult status. According to the author of this paper, only brands like these can afford no-copy advertising and get away with it..

Another common area of advertising where one can find numerous ads with pictures only is “fashion”. Fashion, in essence, does not need any copy. It’s more visual, since only when one sees good clothes will they actually go have a look. Ads for Tommy Hilfiger clothing, Calvin Klien, etc. all sport no-copy looks. These ads have been around for ages. They do justify the no-copy technique as they do not need any copy. At the same time, the above-mentioned brands too have attained a cult status and people aspire to possess their products as with Mercedes, BMW and even Nike.

It’s a very difficult question at that whether the Bible is more powerful or an image of Christ on the cross. Not many can answer this brain teaser. To be on the safer side most critics say that there is no perfect answer. It depends on an individual brand. Sometimes copy is needed; sometimes not at all. This trend has affected advertising at a global level.

Conclusion and recommendations

Taking Garfield’s three reasons for this shift in trend towards no copy advertising one can safely conclude that no-copy advertising as a trend, has reached its peak today. There is also forecasting that this is a trend and will soon pass with copy being in vogue again. Critics argue that if people can read magazines then why not ads. Counter arguments lead one to believe that as a visual culture the best way to grab attention is by using pictures only. Universality, the global village concept and language as well as culture barriers come into picture when considering global brands advertising at a global level. No-copy advertising therefore seems an easy way out to overcome these problems. Awards are another reason why no-copy advertising is in vogue. Setting advertising trends through international awards is common practice. No-copy advertising in recent years has been applauded all over the world and can be blamed for this shift to a certain extent. As one might say, and it has bee argued above that only brands which after at least 20 to 30 years of advertising have attained cult status, can afford to go all out bar copy. These brands speak for themselves. The ads only enhance the brand attitude and not necessarily sell the product. It is the opinion of this author, that advertising be perceived as it should and each element given its own place in the global arena, whether it be words, pictures or even symbols. As is the rule, advertising breaks rules as they were, then why a trend that constricts in terms of perception and motivation. Whether it is Jesus on the cross or the Bible, each is powerful in its own way and still conveys the message as impressively.

Kinjal Shah

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