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08/28/00 - Cut Out To Be Ripped Off

Since the notion of USP is RIP, trying to define what constitutes an ad campaign nowadays can be tricky. Is it a tagline? An executional style? A spokesperson? Musical theme?

The idea behind branding is to carve out a unique identity for a product or service. And many advertisers seem to be taking this literally with campaigns built around a visual gimmick that can be produced with a simple image editing filter.

Just take a look at this gallery of "cut out" campaigns.

All revolve around a technique that conveniently provides a "fill in the blanks" conceptual format for any number of product categories. The underlying idea of all these ads is "the product is so much like something that it's like carving a piece out of it."

The flexibility of this approach is amazing. As you can see, it works for anything from ink pens to bras. However, this Hewlett Packard billboard shows it doesn't work well outside of a magazine.

The Shell ad at the bottom of the "cut out" gallery imitates the style but carves out conceptual heart of this hard-working format. They obviously lost control while trying to put their own spin on the layout. This mess demonstrates that it's better stick to a formula if you can't improve on it. (And to think, this our high gas prices are paying for.)

To the best of my knowledge, the first sighting of this format can be traced back 1990 with the Lee Jean campaign pictured in the "cut out" gallery. Coincidentally, this was the same time inexpensive image editing filters which could achieve "cut out" and "drop shadow" effects started appearing on the market.

Now usually, I would say such a cookie cutter approach would be ineffective in slicing through media clutter. However, my first hand experience with this campaign format is quite the contrary. You see, the Novus ad in the "cut out" gallery is mine. It was published in 1997, a good seven years after the Lee campaign ran. It seemed like a respectable period of time had passed to revive it.

Not that it was my favorite among the many campaigns presented. But it wound up the winner (after several rounds) with a client who had never done any advertising prior to this.

It was also a winner with its intended audience--a broad range of companies interested in developing co-branded credit cards. In fact, the campaign was so successful in generating inquiries that the overwhelmed client decided to pull it.

So does this story totally refute the necessity of building a unique visual identity? Not really. In the trade publications where the ad appeared, it was very unique. It stood out, drew attention and elicited phone inquires because it offered a product the readers were interested in. So within that media environment and for the campaign's limited run, the creative did its job.

Compare that to the confusion created by the Papermate, Playtex and Lea and Perrins campaigns which were spotted in the same issue of People magazine. All three of these are long running campaigns which constantly appear in the same magazines.

While this clash of "cut out" ads might trigger attention through double-takes, it's probably left these brands a big hole where their identities used to be.