When I was at art school in New York, there was a massive billboard in Times Square that puffed out steam every ten seconds.
It was for Camel cigarettes.
It had a man’s face painted around the hole the steam came out of, so it looked like he was puffing out smoke.
Nobody thought much about it.
It was just a gimmick.
Everyone knew it was just steam.
It didn’t make anyone think “Oh my god, that is so clever, actual smoke coming from a cigarette smoker. I must find a shop and buy a pack of Camels this minute.”
Nobody thought that because that isn’t how the mind works.
So it isn’t how advertising works either.
At best, all anyone thought was “That’s an unusual gimmick, a fun way to use a steam outlet.”
Because that’s all it was, a gimmick.
It wasn’t great advertising.
I was studying advertising at the time, and no one considered the steam-billboard as serious advertising.
It was just a one-off gimmick.
And a one-off gimmick is easy to do.
Simply because it is one-off.
A single poster with a car stuck to it, a single poster with a million pounds in a glass case, a single poster with a human being stuck on it, a single poster that lights up when you go by.
Those are all one-offs.
All very nice but all one-offs, all gimmicks.
Just like a piece of one-off technology.
A single poster that you can smell, a single poster that sings, a single poster that films you, a single poster that your smart phone can see but you can’t.
Those are all very nice.
But they’re pieces of technology, gimmicks, one-offs.
Advertising at its best is clever thinking in mass media, not winning awards with the latest one-off gimmick.
Because all the latest gimmick has going for it is novelty.
When it’s brand new it might get noticed.
Probably not so much by the public.
But by the small world of advertising, and the trade magazines, because whoever owns the new media is trying hard to promote it.
So it gets talked about just because it’s new.
But you know what?
As soon as the second person uses that technology, it’s out of date.
It’s not worth writing about.
Unless it’s used in a better, more exciting way.
And then we’re back to ideas.
Then we’re back to original thinking, instead of just gimmicks.
If that Times Square steam poster had been in London, it would have won all the awards.
Everyone would have been writing articles about steam posters being the new media.
About how all other media was dead.
But in truth, real people in the real world hardly noticed it.
They’ll remember the steam outlet as Camel, just because Camel used it first.
You can see that poster in the film Midnight Cowboy.
The sequence where John Voight is in Times Square trying to hustle money as male prostitute.
It’s in there briefly, as part of a montage about how ridiculous and silly and decadent Times Square had become.
Not to demonstrate a great piece of creative thinking.