In 1923, Pablo Picasso famously said, “Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.” I have found these revealing mistruths to be particularly present in the satirical work of Fred Harper. Among other things, Harper regularly illustrates the covers of one of my favorite publications, The Week. Like other great political artists and cartoonists, Harper has the ability to represent a person’s physical appearance and personal character through artistic representations that feel truer than life. Generally speaking, this is accomplished by the exaggeration of a person’s most prominent features to an unrealistic, almost absurd degree. Large noses become larger, small mouths become smaller, stern eyebrows become even sterner. Through this accentuation of features (an obvious visual mistruth), observers recognize a greater truth about the subject.
Advertising – or at least great advertising – is art. As such, Picasso’s rule applies to the creative work being produced by agencies, designers, copywriters, and corporations. The art appearing in advertising is often superlative in its nature – exaggerated for humor, emphasis, or some other intentional effect. The best brands have learned to exploit these exaggerations in order to help consumers recognize brand truth. Just as Harper would exaggerate the large ears of a subject, these brands are exaggerating their most prominent characteristics in order to establish brand meaning.
The famous Geico Caveman campaign is a classic example of this approach. Geico recognized that its most prominent feature was its easy quote process. In order to communicate this important point of differentiation to customers, the company over-emphasized it. The ads told an obvious and artistic lie—“So easy, a caveman could do it.” This humorous exaggeration helped people to realize Geico’s most important brand truth—that it was easy to get a quote for auto insurance through Geico.
Exaggerations found in campaigns and communications need not be humorous to be effective. Imagine a candy so juicy that it engulfs the eater in a wave of fruit and juice. Think of a beverage so cold and refreshing that it has to be picked out of a glacier by an ice climber. Envision an insurance agent so responsive that he can be summonsed by the recitation of a simple jingle. These are all examples of a central brand feature being exaggerated for memorable effect.
It is important to distinguish between the obvious and intentional exaggeration of brand meaning and a dishonest exaggeration of product quality, capability, or benefit. Great advertising is always based on brand truth and is, therefore, always honest. Beginning with a brand truth (something actually found in the brand) and exaggerating it to an obviously extreme level is not dishonest. Trying to convince a consumer that a product, brand, or service will accomplish something that it does not is an entirely dishonest and, incidentally, ineffective approach to advertising.
As demonstrated by countless applications of the approach, the over-emphasis of prominent brand features is one of the most effective ways to establish brand meaning. All companies, both large and small, would do well to discover their most prominent feature and exaggerate it in their communications. Like an artistic lie that reveals greater truth, these intentional exaggerations will solidify the essence of a brand in the collective mind of an audience.
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