Clever isn’t always strategic

A while back, an unpublished Domino’s pizza ad surfaced, containing imagery one might call visceral. While certainly striking, the ad made a fairly common mistake; in its novelty, its self-interest far surpassed the interest in the product.

Bear with me here. The ad features a slick pink anthropomorphic tongue with its own hands and mouth, but no eyes, ears, or legs. The tongue is clad in latex-y black fetish gear and is strung up by its wrists via spiked handcuffs. In its weird little mouth is one of those orange ball gags – think of the gimp scene from Pulp Fiction. On the ground beside the tongue lies a black whip and a spiky black policeman-looking hat you’d imagine a security guard in Hell wearing. Lash marks stripe the tongue’s, um, “bottom” and side.

The ad came to light as the new 50 Shades of Grey installment hit theaters and bore the tagline “You’re going to suffer and enjoy every moment.” Domino’s spokesman Tim McIntyre told People magazine the ad was pitched to an independent franchise in Israel, but it never actually ran. McIntyre goes on to disparage the ad as “unfunny,” “not brand-appropriate,” and, finally, “stupid.”

Of course, a lot of us in the ad world can’t stop thinking about it. It’s a difficult image to get out of your head.

For a computer-generated image, the ad is unbelievably textural. The bondage accoutrements are slick and glossy and uncomfortable. The tongue itself gleams with “sweat,” and its hands hang limp in exhaustion—presumably from whatever sexually deviant activity has been going on here.

Which leads to more questions: If this tongue with hands has a mouth, is there a tongue inside with its own set of hands and mouth? Does that tongue-within-the-tongue have its own mouth/tongue setup, and on and on ad-infinitum?

This ad was fun for us to talk about at Mabus Agency, perhaps because it’s clear that someone, somewhere had fun making it. Whoever that person’s or team’s supervisor is, he or she obviously indulged their creative team’s outlandish concept. I imagine a graphic designer or copywriter looking up and saying, “Really? You’re letting us run with this?”

As a fun, internal project, I’m all for stuff like this. As creatives, it’s totally necessary for us to be silly and out-of-the-box when that’s appropriate. Maybe cartoon bondage is too extreme, but letting the team off the leash, no pun intended, usually leads to a great idea that does fit a campaign we’re working on.

As an ad, it misses the mark, and not because some folks might think it’s tasteless or crude or too weird. It misses the mark because if you can manage to divert your eyes from the tongue, you still have to search to see the banner of text at the bottom that mentions Domino’s new Sriracha pizza.

Now it makes more sense. The blisteringly spicy sauce punishes your tongue, but 99 percent of the casual audience would miss it. There’s no strategy here.

I have no doubt that if this ad were published, many people would be talking about it. It’s prime meme material, or if you want to go the overthinking-it route, it’s an interesting indicator of shifting attitudes about sex in our culture, the elusive nature of true deviance, etc.

But when the last thing you notice is the product itself – the thing the whole ad is supposed to serve – then what good is it?

I can almost promise you, no one enjoys thinking of themselves as clever as much as folks who work at an ad agency. But our job isn’t to be talented. Our job is to apply our talent toward something. Sometimes the interest of the creativity and the interest of the product are concurrent – Allstate Insurance’s Mayhem Man campaign is one example – but cleverness and talent are only useful as vehicles for something more important. It needs strategy. The Mayhem Man campaign is silly, but its silliness is a vehicle for the product, and the peace-of-mind that comes with having All State insurance in the case of a “Final Destination”-type incident.

If cleverness isn’t handing off a bigger idea or product, if there’s no greater strategy, the work is self-congratulatory at best.

Maybe your organization isn’t based around creative work. That’s fine, but certain manifestations of ego get in the way of all kinds of good business. Plus, clients will pick up on it when your work for them is self-serving. How well the work works means more than how cool the work is.

Know what I’m saying?