System1: The Timeless Importance of the Show

When System1’s Orlando Wood takes the stage at Effectiveness Week, you know you’re in for a marvelous and unpredictable show. Maybe you’ll learn about the secrets of the brain, the values of 17th century art, or the best ways to use TikTok memes – or, as in this year’s performance, all three, wrapped up in practical conclusions that move the study of ad effectiveness forward. 

No Business Like Show Business

The idea of “the show”, and of advertising that puts on a show, is central to Orlando’s latest work, which also incorporated brand new research in partnership with Amazon. True to form, Orlando began by looking back into history – not art history this time, but the 20th Century story of advertising.  

Two ideas about how advertising worked fought for dominance across this period – and continue to shape our thinking today. Orlando used two early print ads to demonstrate this. The first illustrated the idea of advertising that focuses on creating a sale – giving people the ‘reason why’ they need to make a purchase along with a coupon that made it easy for the reader to sample the product. The second was more human-centric, the idea of advertising as shaping a customer over the long-term – keeping the brand before the public. In the copy-dominated world of 1910s advertising, the ‘reason why’ was king, and ads were by and large goal-oriented clarion calls of individual facts and persuasive reasoning.  

But in 1915, Cadillac made people think again. Their long-copy ad, “The Penalty Of Leadership”, was an essay that sought to address the negative publicity the brand had received over its new V8 engine, which had experienced faults. The competition had been quick to make light of these in their own advertising. The Cadillac ad talked about the pain and difficulty of being the leader in any field – from engineering to music and art. It ran once, and didn’t once mention the car, the category or the competition, leaving just one clue as to what it was really about – the Cadillac seal of quality top right. Instead of talking about the product, it created atmosphere, stirred the passions, spoke to a deeper human motivation and invited the reader to join the dots. This was about keeping the good name of Cadillac before the public. 

Cadillac’s ad was hugely successful and became a case study for decades. And the two modes of advertising echo down the years, regardless of platform – from the early days of radio where punchy hard-sell ads could be heard alongside more charming and entertaining spots, to today, where direct ‘buy here’ TikToks play alongside TikToks that work through charm appeal, on the “brand” side. Through the decades, advertising that puts a brand before the public has understood that it must put on a show – give them something worth seeing, hearing or clicking. 

The Brain on Show

Fans of Orlando’s books Lemon and Look Out, published by the IPA, may be finding these ideas quite familiar. The two schools of advertising and their practitioners – giving the reason why or keeping the brand before the public – mirror two modes of attention associated with the two hemispheres of the brain and how they attend to the world, as described by scientist Dr Iain McGilchrist and in Orlando’s books for the IPA. As Orlando describes in Look Out, the right hemisphere pays “broad-beam” attention, looking at things as a whole, and paying attention to context, time, place and the relationships between things. It prioritises what it sees for the left hemisphere, for it to bring a “narrow-beam,” close-up attention to bear, focusing on immediate actions and breaking information down into discrete, abstract parts. 

Orlando suggests that these two modes of attention relate to the two ways advertising has been thought to work by practitioners over the decades, and describes how the pendulum has swung back and forth between them. He also offers evidence to show that they explain how it works. A big contribution Orlando has made to our understanding is to identify creative features that might be better suited to the two types of attention (broad or narrow). He also shows how the degree to which an ad’s features orientates it towards each determines the emotional response it will elicit and the kind of business outcome it will achieve. Advertising that puts on a show needs to appeal to the broad-beam attention of the right hemisphere.  

The Show Today: Amazon FreeVee Case Study

Enter Amazon, and its FreeVee brand of ad-supported TV. We at System1 worked with Amazon to analyse 150 of the ads running on the platform, and identify how much each included the left- and right-brain elements Orlando identifies. With that done, Amazon could look at the outcomes associated with each set of elements. 

We found that ads with left-brain elements were twice as likely as right-brained ads to induce a customer to move to the “detail page view” – a strong indicator of intent to purchase or direct effects. Ads with right brain elements, meanwhile, made an ad far more likely to be remembered – right-brain elements drove a 1.6x uplift in advertising for the brand being remembered compared with left-brained ads. 

So the two schools of advertising continue to exist and work differently on the most modern media platforms. Ads which push for a sale are more likely to drive immediate action, but it’s ads that put on a show that lodge the brand in the memory and create lasting impact and growth. 

This is supported by the results of System1’s standard Test Your Ad methodology applied to the FreeVee ads. The more right-brained, and fewer left-brained elements the ads contain, the more likely they are to score 3+ Stars on Test Your Ad. Star Ratings are predictive of an ad’s potential to drive long-term share gain: putting on a show is rewarded with long-term effectiveness. 

And we’ve seen this same pattern now across so many different platforms. Video ads in different markets. Digital ads on Facebook and Pinterest. Even radio ads. Right-brained features – character, narrative, place and depth – consistently drive greater effectiveness. Different platforms and media make different creative demands on marketers but there’s a consistent creative truth as to the elements make ads more effective. Ultimately, what matters isn’t where your brand puts on a show – it’s what kind of show you put on. 

Moto e Azione

So what type of show should your brand put on? Orlando’s Lemon and Look Out cover a lot of the creative elements that boost effectiveness and attention in advertising. From the use of music, to a focus on living – vivid characters and the relationship between them – to ads rooted in an identifiable place or time, the range of effective techniques is vast. 

And when you explore art and advertising history in more detail, you continually find new inspiration. The problems advertisers have – how to get attention, engage the viewer, tell a rich story, and put on a show – are the challenges artists have always faced too. Orlando’s most recent inspiration comes from 17th century Italy, and Baroque painters like Caravaggio, Bernini, Artemisia Gentileschi and her father Orazio. Their paintings – often of Biblical scenes like the binding of Isaac or the death of John The Baptist – are unusually dramatic and arresting, thanks to their mastery of a principle known as moto e azione (movement and action). It’s a skill advertisers can learn from. 

Moto e azione is all about identifying the turning point in the action of a story and making sure the passion and importance of the moment show on the faces and through the bodies of its characters. For a painter trying to compress a story into a moment of time, mastery of moto e azione was critical. The faces in a Caravaggio or Gentileschi scene capture the passion of the moment and also reflect the entire story they’re part of. 

Advertisers now have a moving canvas to tell their stories – but that doesn’t make moto e azione less important. Identifying the pivotal moment in a story, and choosing to reflect it by dramatic (or funny) expressions, is a vital skill. 

In this what3words video, about a nervous young man who asks a seemingly sweet old lady who lives next door if she has seen his missing deliveries, the crucial moment comes when the young man spots some of his purchases being used and worn by the lady and her husband. The old lady responds to his shock with a wonderful expression – sweet but also knowing and rather devilish! That look means the ad doesn’t have to acknowledge what’s happened verbally, and it’s much more effective for it. Classic moto e azione. 

Lessons from Ad History

Advertising history also has lessons to teach us. Orlando pointed out two of them. He explored the history of Phoebe Snow, the fictional woman who was the mascot of a late 19th Century railroad company – Phoebe Snow dressed all in white, but could still use the railways (then notoriously dirty) because of the anthracite fuel the company used. Phoebe is one of the very first examples of a Fluent Device – a recurring character which makes it much easier for brands to put on a show. 

Fluent Devices are undergoing something of a revival in modern advertising. For one thing, they’re perfect for memes. Fast forward to today, and we see budget airline Ryanair regularly superimposing eyes and a mouth on pictures of its planes on TikTok, seemingly poking fun at its own offer – laughing at the notion that it might provide free wi-fi, thereby single-mindedly emphasizing what’s at the heart of its offer: low prices.  

Or there’s Duo, the jovial green owl who’s the face of language learning app Duolingo. Duo’s darker side has seen him become a familiar face in memes, where he menaces Duolingo users who fall behind on their lessons – and now the brand’s own TikTok advertising presents their mascot as a somewhat dubious figure. But he’s still highly recognisable – as a Fluent Device must be, to keep the brand before the public and give them a show.  

As Orlando points out, the highly self-aware and double-edged nature of both the TikToks created by Ryanair and Duolingo illustrates another creative principle from adverting history – putting on a show means not being precious about your brand or mascot. As Bill Bernbach put it, ‘you’ll find in so much of our work – a seeming disparagement of our own product. We are perfectly willing to do that if in telling the true disparagement we get you to believe the other things we say in an ad.’ Disarming honesty helps you to stand out.  

The Show Must Go On

Orlando ended with an opportunity and a challenge. The commercial value of advertising that puts on a show has always been highand so agencies that can produce it should charge more for it. That’s the commercial opportunity. The creative challenge is that ads which put on a show have to be even bettermore interesting, entertaining and attention-grabbingthan the content or programming surrounding them. Not an easy task on TV, not an easy task in the forest of online platforms and formats. But a challenge – and a principle – worth rising to.