Starting With Nonsense: Why Your Advertising Needs to Build Upon Analogies

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Nate Fleming
Nate Fleming



samenessHave you ever noticed how after a while television and movie story lines start to kind of run together? Eventually, every plot twist, storyline, hero and even top news story begins to look and sound the same.

The same is true in advertising and marketing. When you survey the landscape of creative messaging concepts, you’ll find what advertising legend Phil Dusenberry called a “sea of sameness.” One idea after another feeling, looking, and sounding like the one before it.

If you spend any time doing or evaluating creative work, then you know struggling to develop fresh concepts isn’t just a small problem. It can be a seemingly insurmountable challenge — to do something original, something unique, something memorable, something people want to talk about and watch, listen, feel, or taste again and again and again.

In spite of the difficulty, every once in a while someone comes along and “changes the game” or “rewrites the rules.” We call them “revolutionary,” “breakthrough,” “insightful,” etc.

This begs the question, “How do they do it?”

One answer to the question hinges on the notion that the power of an idea is rarely contained within the idea itself. Instead, an idea gets its power from its context and the observer’s ability to comprehend it on a very basic level.

To illustrate this in real-time, here’s an excerpt from a classic piece of literature by James Joyce called “Finnegan’s Wake”. It’s a 600-plus page novel that tells a story we can all relate to, but in a not-so-predictable, or even easy-to-understand, way:

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhoun
awnskawntoohoohoord-enenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy.

When you read the above passage, did you notice your brain doing its level best to turn what appears to be gibberish into something comprehensible? Did you feel like there were bits and pieces of resolution? Fragments of clarity?

If so, give yourself a high five. If not, join the club.

While most people give up on “The Wake” early and get on about the business of simpler fare, there are those who have pored over the entire novel and have, indeed, made sense of it. An entire subculture, in fact, of curious individuals with a penchant for all things obscure.

One analyst puts it rather well:

In dreams, an entirely different set of rules congeals from the fog, and since analysis is a tool of the waking mind, we are not granted immediate comprehension of these rules – that is, assuming they can even be understood. In dreams, we are utterly complacent when the strange woman we are talking to suddenly becomes our mother, or a house we have never seen rings with all the familiarity of home, and then becomes a castle; or a tree becomes a stone.

Dreaming, as many sleep scientists understand it, is a byproduct of your brain’s way of filtering through the day’s input, sorting out the important things from the unimportant things. The brain makes fervent use of things commonly known as metaphors or analogies — symbols, if you will. According to some preeminent cognitive scientists, this the sole function of the human brain — to make analogies, one after another, in order to make sense of the world.

In the book, “Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking,” authors Hofstadter and Sander make a compelling case for the brain as a categorization machine that uses analogy to drive thinking at all levels. The basic premise is: The only way we can make sense of new information is by comparing it to old information—it's the only way we can derive meaning from something and develop and determine the value of a thing, an idea, a person, a message…even a story.

The jury is still out on whether “Finnegan’s Wake” is really about anything at all. Regardless of the verdict, there are a significant number of people talking about it, reading it, interpreting it, finding new meaning in it all the time, deriving plot lines, arguing about whether it’s good literature or not, and buying more copies, making it a culturally relevant and noteworthy achievement in literature. The work contains as many layers as it has pages. The more people look, the more they find. And why wouldn’t they? Their brains were designed to do just that: derive meaning from things that make no sense.

When it comes to helping people making new sense of the world, we can’t always rely on natural curiosity to close the loop. We can, however, start with something that makes no sense and then bring people around to a new level of understanding by providing more information.

Take for example this recent ad by American Greetings that shows video interviews for a job with ridiculous demands and very little compensation. A job that no one in their right mind would apply for — let alone accept. At the end, a powerful analogy emerges.

Spoiler alert: They’re applying for a job that billions of people currently have — being a parent.

The message forces us to take a fresh look at what it means to be a parent. I’ll bet it makes you appreciate your own parents more. The goal of the advertisement isn’t to sell you a greeting card. Instead, it’s designed to make you feel something. To make you take a fresh look at an everyday situation and see it as new...again.

Is your marketing multi-dimensional? Is your message deep enough? Are there layers of meaning in your branding efforts? Does your advertising content make people see the world in a different way? Does it challenge the idea of what marketing “should” be?

If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, then good for you. If you answered “No,” swim around in “Finnegan’s Wake” for a while. See how a master managed to make sense out of nonsense.

It’s quite possible James Joyce left something in it just for you.

Then come back to dry land and make some new analogies of your own.

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