Whatever Happened to the ‘Life’ in Slice of Life Advertising?

It’s been a while since I wrote about advertising and brand communications on my blog, even if I have been sharing my thoughts and ideas on brands here. I mean, it’s been a while since I wrote about our business and the industry in India, and it’s not only because I have been out of it for many years – close to two decades now – thanks to unprofessional agencies. It’s because my industry, like so many others, has been disrupted hugely by technology and other changes of our own making – like separating creative and media agencies – that I suppose the entire industry really hasn’t given it much thought, caught up as they are with day-to-day work pressures.

In that sense, you could say that I have had the opportunity to observe the state of the advertising industry – mostly through its work – from a detached point of view for the past many years. And what I see worries me, because it is taking us farther and farther away from our core business, which I believe has always been to build brands. In this post, though, let me just focus on one important feature of campaigns that agencies create for their clients. The creative idea and the many forms it can take.

As advertising professionals, we know that advertising holds a mirror to us consumers, portraying what we immediately recognize and know to be life. It works on the principle that people are always looking for ways to better their lives, and it sells us a consumer benefit for every brand. Sometimes, it has to even create the need for that product or brand, if it is a new product concept. In such a context, I can’t help but notice the absence of what we in the industry call ‘slice of life’ communication.

In most of the advertising that I have been seeing for the past 15 years and more (and I admittedly see less of it since I don’t watch general entertainment channels on TV) I hardly recall seeing any slice of life creative ideas, and certainly not on a consistent basis. It appears that this powerful creative route is no longer part of today’s creative person’s arsenal of tools. And I cannot see the reason for this, except that celebrity endorsement has taken its place as the default creative idea. I will not waste time discussing why celebrity endorsement doesn’t always work; instead, I will try and build a case for why slice of life almost always works. And it works like a charm.

The reason why slice of life ideas almost always drive their message home, and in memorable ways, is that it is based on fundamental human truths. And when we are confronted with it, it always elicits a “I know that feeling” response from the viewer. The proverbial mother-in-law, the need to impress boss, office politics, husband’s boss visiting for dinner, neighbours in need, keeping up with the Joneses, young man attracting attention of woman, household division of labour, shopping for more than you intended, gifting or receiving gifts, friendly gossip, the generation gap, spouse or lovers’ tiff, and so on. We have almost all been in such situations in our lives, and yet each time it is presented to us, we can’t help but smile, or remember one of our own such incidents.

The key to making this slice of life creative device work, is to present it in new and unusual ways. To achieve this, we can inject humour, shock, role-reversal, hyperbole, etc., always remembering not to overdo it, though, but to keep it within the realm of possibility.

I still remember old TV commercials for Vicks cough drops, Cadbury, Asian Paints, Pears and Dove soap, Surf Excel, Maggi Noodles, Nescafe, etc. that all employed the slice of life creative route. It doesn’t mean that slice of life works only for FMCG brands, but these have usually used it with great success. Unfortunately, these brands have themselves relinquished the slice of life route and have either adopted celebrity endorsement or else gone all over the place, with no clear direction.

The other important reason why slice of life works is that it is a creative route that allows for longevity of the idea. It is designed to last for many years, even with new executions, and can be extended endlessly without it falling into a formulaic communication. Remember the TVC for Vicks cough drops (galé mein khich-khich) with a father telling his little daughter a bedtime story, where he gets stuck at the most critical juncture in the story, because he has to clear his throat. There’s no reason why the same idea cannot be rendered in executions such as man proposing to lady friend, boss making a speech, important telephone conversation between people, and so on. The fact that having a Vicks lozenge handy is helpful in such situations can be communicated in any number of interesting ways.

So why this abandonment of slice of life in today’s advertising? Do we not have such people in our lives anymore? Sure, the mother-in-law might not live with families so much these days, but she still visits, right? Or has technology and social media taken up so much of our lives, that we have time and interest for little else? In fact, I’d love to see brand communication on how mobile phones have disrupted family and interpersonal interactions, even if in jest. Or is it because such stories are best told on the television medium, and with digital being the rage these days, slice of life has no role in communication. I don’t buy this last argument if anyone suggests it, because social media itself is so full of video, that there are ample opportunities to create and share more meaningful communication.

On the other hand, I think it might have more to do with strategy and clients’ demands of their agencies. Because slice of life brand communication requires keen observation of life and people which must reflect in brand strategies. Unless the account management or account planning teams think of brand strategies around such consumer insights, their creative partners are not compelled to think of such ideas. And if client and agency are obsessed with celebrities, God save them. Little wonder, Salman Khan, until recently brand endorser of Thums Up, suddenly appears for Pepsi in their latest campaign.

In the past decade and more, I have seen one brand attempt slice of life in a consistent manner for several years, and in a category where one wouldn’t expect it. Voltas air-conditioners ran a campaign for several years, around a character called Murthy who would share his experiences of using a Voltas air-conditioner in all kinds of conditions: all kinds of weather, relocating to new towns and cities, wife away on leave, neighbours using any pretext to drop by at his place, etc., all to tell us how Voltas air-conditioners were superior to others. Besides the culture-specific stereotyping of Murthy’s thick south-Indian accent while speaking in Hindi, and using only a presenter-based execution, which became drawbacks after a certain point, I thought the creative idea itself and its execution was quite well-done.

More recently, Spotify has been doing some really good and engaging work in its advertising campaign in India and I even shared a video along with my comments on LinkedIn. The creative idea is based on a lovely little insight into how we behave when we listen to music: we are so immersed in the music, that for those moments we are in an audio-bubble of our own. It is a lovely idea that can run for years and years with new executions, and it differentiates Spotify from the rest. It can also go global, if this work from India isn’t already to a global template. In future, I wish they would use the word Spotify in their campaign line to suggest that you create your own music spot, wherever you go.

   

In my long experience in the advertising and brand communications industry in India, I have used the slice of life creative route quite often and I continue to use it in my thoughts and ideas for brands that I share on my blog even today. I have a couple of more arguments in its favour:

  • Slice of life helps give the brand a distinctive identity, through people and storyline, context and setting, tone and manner
  • It helps build brands that have no great rational benefit over competitors, but an emotional one.

Of course, seasoned advertising professionals like me also know that it is not always necessary to use slice of life in any and every brand situation. There are other creative routes and devices that make for stronger communication, depending upon the brand’s strategy and message. For example, if there is a strong, demonstratable product difference/superiority, use demonstration creatively. If your brand is up against another in a head-to-head scenario and you need to convince your audience that yours is better, you can also use contrast, or the power of analogy to good effect. If you are trying to communicate a general widespread feeling or emotion, use montage to convey it.

However, we also need to recognise that these creative routes are effective and useful in certain circumstances. They are no substitute for slice of life, because nothing charms, convinces, endures and builds brands the way slice of life creative ideas can. For example, I have used a montage treatment for the new Absolut brand campaign that I have recently shared on my blog, in order to communicate the general lack of social cohesion and integration. It helps set the wider context for me to then present Absolut Vodka as the ice-breaker bringing people together. However, I know that the montage is a one-off creative route, and if I were to create follow-up brand communication for Absolut, they would be based on slice of life executions.

Among the new ideas I have for Pepsi – including a new drink idea – which I haven’t yet executed and shared on my blog, I know that one of them is an effective launch stage idea since it communicates the newness of the drink in a uniquely Pepsi and American way. For a longer-term brand campaign, however, I would most certainly rely on the second set of ideas, which are slice of life.

Leaving aside FMCG brands, the state of slice of life as a creative route is even more imperiled in categories such as cars, office equipment, consumer electronics, financial services and e-commerce. On the last one, the problem might be to do with how little brand differentiation there is between e-commerce brands, and that is a subject for strategy to address first, before even taking it to the creative idea stage. I recently saw adverts for Reliance Jio Mart and Big Basket on English news channels and they were both saying the same thing, which was huge savings. You could swap the brands on the adverts and they would still hold good. Except that one of them, Reliance Jio Mart, had a celebrity couple Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh, playing a middle-class married couple, not themselves.

With this, I leave it to marketers in client organisations, senior agency management and account planners to ponder over why there is such a dearth of good, relevant, brand-building ideas out there. Why we cannot retain the good of advertising and brand communications, including its principles and ways it works, while being receptive of the new world of digital communications. I for one don’t think it’s technology alone that is to blame for this sorry state of the brand communications business. Technology is only a tool; how we use it is up to us.

In that context, let me conclude with a campaign for Coca Cola China created by Ogilvy and WPP, that I saw on LinkedIn. It used the Metaverse to create a music festival combined with gaming in order to engage consumers during summer. I was shocked, because I thought that with the long zero-Covid lockdowns that Chinese consumers in most big cities faced, what they would have looked forward to and enjoyed was being out at a live event of some sort, not stuck in a virtual Metaverse music festival! What was the client even thinking?! Of course, this was only a brand activation idea, but it suggests how we can be tone-deaf and sacrifice the brand and all that it stands for, at the altar of technology.

And with Metaverse now touted as the next big thing, does slice of life communication even have a chance?      

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