Context is content

Apparently, when you’re mating rabbits, you never take the female to the male’s hutch.

If you do she feels uncomfortable, and gets uptight in the strange environment. And, when the male tries to mate, she kicks the shit out of him. But it’s different if you take the male to the female’s hutch. She’s more comfortable and relaxed in her own home, and willing to mate.

The same is true with clients. There will be somewhere where they’re more comfortable and receptive. Might be your offices, might be their offices.

It varies with clients. But find out where it is. That’s where you should present your work. Where you’re going to get the best reception.

Remember at school in Physics’ class? One of the first things they taught us was about Sulphuric acid and water. You can mix them, but only if you get it the right way round.

You should never add water to the acid. If you do, the acid tries to consume the water, which superheats, and you get an explosion.

You must only ever add the acid to water. See it isn’t just a matter of elements that will behave exactly the same wherever they’re encountered.

But that’s how we do advertising. We judge an ad in a meeting room. Laid on a table or stuck on a wall, on its own, presented to look its best. Except it will never ever appear that way.

So we’re judging the ad exactly the way we shouldn’t. We’re creating an area of calm around it. Which advert anywhere, ever had an area of calm around it?

It’s the job of the ad to break through the clutter. Yet we never judge it amongst any clutter. So we never judge if it will do the one thing it absolutely has to do.

No one judges how it will work in the centre of a commercial break in someone’s front room.

Or in a copy of The Sun on a packed rush hour tube. Or on a laptop screen when it pops up over someone’s FaceBook or YouTube page.

Everyone’s only thinking about the content, not the context. Why do you suppose Rolex don’t advertise in The News of the World? Lots of the people who read it actually buy Rolex.

Could it be that News of the World isn’t the right image? It isn’t the place they want to be seen, because the consumer won’t think it’s worth so much.

It has less exclusivity value. Because the context rubs off on the content. That’s why you only ever see Rolex advertised in upmarket, exclusive media.
So when we buy Rolex we’re buying part of that media. Part of that context. In fact the context actually determines the content.

Think about it. I went to the ICA gallery and there was a plumbed-in, working, flushing toilet on display. Everyone was standing around, looking at it and stroking their chins.
Thinking about it, working it out. Yet the identical plumbed-in, working, flushing toilet was in the Gents and Ladies lavatories downstairs.

But no one went down there to look at them. The content was identical. The only difference was context. One toilet has the function of a piece of art.

The reaction is to study it. The other toilet has the context of something unpleasant. The reaction is to get away asap. The only thing that’s changed is the context.

Maybe advertising should stop putting all our attention into judging content in a vacuum. Maybe we should only ever judge content in context. Because the ad is the context.

  • The media is the message?

  • And that’s not only how we should analyse ads, Dave, that’s also how we should look for ideas that work. If you have to do an outdoor print, why sit at your desk instead of taking a walk and thinking what could possibly catch your eye? If you have to do a TV ad, why not watch TV and think of something that would really really make you pay attention for 30 seconds? And so on. Extended office life is a straight road to constipation and complete disconnection from reality.

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    Well that is actually becoming quite a common behavior for online advertising which misses the point if the context is not considered upfront.
    And we all know Tiffany’s New York Times ads and we still wonder…

  • for some better examples of content in context. oh for media and creative to be thinking about an idea together…

  • Camouflage grabs attention when out of context
    WANT Page 60

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    Hi Dave,

    At Euro RSCG KSA we ran some ads and Posters for Saudi Arabian Airlines with the same telephone number for their central telephone number. The idea being, wherever you were you could always contact Saudi Arabian Airlines. I wanted them to stick some massive numbers for real in the street, at roundabouts, on Mountains and coral islands. Unfortunately the budget didn’t stretch, but they ran more posters than they had planned to because as you say, Context is cotent… or is it contentment?

    On another occasion for WPP KSA an ad for Sabic Steel simply had a paperclip with the line “We’ll make sure your world doesn’t fall apart. The ad ran in office stationery suppliers magazines. Sabic didn’t care who bought what. They supplied all the wire.

    No. Context is definitely cotent. A visit to the steelworks was so important. Spending 3 hours inside a steelworks at 60 degrees celcius was quite an unusual experience, especially when I felt water all down the back of my fireprooof clothing. I turned around, and three feet behind me was a red (orange) 12′ diameter hot cathode lifting out of a bessemer converter having turned its metal molten. We left post haste, having dodged spats of molten metal on the way in. Not an experience I’d wish to repeat.

    One worker had horrendous scars where hot steel wire had shot out of rollers at 30mph by accident. What that gave me was a great insight into the everyday heroics of these ordinary people who were, and still are dedicated to their job way beyond reason.

    The company treated their staff extremely well, and although there were no health and safety standards, they implemented their own which were above and beyond European and American standards, insisting on replacing a plant every 2 years with modern computerised equipment. This was a committment they gave to their staff, and their health and safety standards were sensible because they were created by the manufacturer, and not by some pen-pushing bureaucrat in another country.

    As Anca says, sitting at a desk does nothing. However, not sitting at a desk can have adverse affects too. A good friend of mine visited a UK pizza factory up north, and saw how, (then) potato peelings were being flung into pizza toppings willy nilly.
    He has never eaten a pizza since, although I can’t say it ever stopped me….

    We often used to present posters mounted on a photo of a billboard to place the ads in context for clients. Of course the only problem with that for media is when a client says “great, can we book that exact site?” or for a creative when some client says something like “is all of this going into the poster aswell then?” Some do !

    I always enjoyed a chat with the media boys because they could add impact to the idea by their comments and media ideas, but I guess that rarely happens to the degree it used with the way things have got separated in the UK over the years.

    As for presenting on TV screen, one agency thanked me enormously one day when we had a massive presentation and I insisted on doing boards too, which the account team really got annoyed about….

    that was until ten minutes into the presentation the client had a power cut.

    Oooooooooh errrrrr misses !!!!!

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    I was told recently by a friend of mine who is a dean at a college here in Boston that a local ad agency had been in doing focus group session with the students, showing them TV adds in fast motion, the way they would be viewed on TIVO, to make sure that the product branding and emotional narrative still came through at a rate of only 1 image in 10 and wasn’t being wasted.

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    Hi Michael,

    I guess you’re picking-up on Jack’s point about camouflage. Subliminal messages are extremely powerful. I think I’m right in saying this method of branding was outlawed quite some time ago in the UK after it was used in horror films. They used to add a frame with a skull and crossbones to terrify the audiences at the time. It worked because it leapt over the conscious mind straight into the sub-conscious.

    However, such techniques are more appropriate at places like Porton Down or Guantanamo Bay than they are on terrestial television It was such a powerful tool, the ad industry outlawed it for advertising feeling it crossed the boundaries of decency taking us closer to George Orwell’s vision of 1984, or Kubrick’s banned film ‘A Clockwork Orange’. I think tbey were right. Entering the human subconscious with subversive messages uninvited is an extremely dangerous exercise. It’s a very fine line, but it is also a very important one.

    Ironically, one day last year I stood at my local station and counted the number of CCTV cameras from the spot I was standing on. 17 in all. One step to the left, 11.

    Banksy did a great painting of this with CCTV camers in the middle of a Constable type landscape. This painting has a very strong message. From home to Charing Cross, I decided to count how many cameras were at each station when the train pulled up. The number was always between 11-20. At Charing Cross I counted 44.

    Sometimes small things can happen so slowly, we barely see them because they are camouflaged out of sight from us, buried in the context, then one day when we look around with fresh eyes, we really see what is happening. I guess this is what Dave has been doing all his life. Trying to get everyone to see what he sees, the missed opportunities, the unobvious obvious that startes us all in the face every day, and if there’s one industry that should be taking full advantage of all these God-given free ideas around us, it’s us.

    It’s about being able to see the Tiger in the Woods rather than Woods in the Tiger.

  • Freedom is the ability to choose your own prison. Yesterdays poem.

  • Hi Jack. That reminds me of something I read in a Mishima novel – “Don’t paint the walls of your prison – escape it.”

  • Strange Ant as I do write a bit in Japan and, as you’ll have seen in my books, I am interested in Zen. But the person my work is most often likened to is Jacques Derrida. I don’t mind the comparison other than I rather pride myself on my book titles and he didn’t seem to care at all. Of Grammatology must be the worst book title of all time. No wonder it didn’t sell that well. However he must have been well pissed off, as I would be, by everyone using his invention, Deconstruction, wrongly. I’ve seen people use it on this blog and many others to mean take apart, rather as you might take a car apart in the order in which it was made, in fact to reverse construct it. I laugh out loud sometimes as this is nothing close to what Derrida meant by Deconstruction at all. It’s really much simpler than that. It’s to do with uncovering and unsettling the dichotomies that lurk within any use of language. Next time you hear someone say deconstruct have a little laugh up your sleeve on me Ant. Oh shit are you the one that goes on about being working class? If so please ignore the above as I know people pride themselves on such status and I wouldn’t want to talk over someone’s head and appear patronising.

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    Kevin – I like the direction you went with this; the whole concept of subliminal messaging. But I want to make sure I am clear on what I posted earlier. With the widespread adoption of new technologies like TIVO, commercials on TV are more and more being run at home in fast motion. I think TIVO’s share of the digital video recorder market is something north of 50% of the market here in the US. But even with standard video recording, users are increasing manually fast forwarding
    through the commercials.

    That is the real world context. The ads are still there, and they are
    still being viewed, just at 10X speed.

    This means that ads have to function – logos need to remain visible, the narrative needs to remain consistent – at both normal playing speed and at fast forward. The goal of the focus sessions, as I understand it, was to insure that even at fast speeds the message of the ads was being communicated.

    What I got from your post was a whole other idea that separate
    content could be communicated at different speed/context; the fast message being, for example, “for those of us too busy to wait for a commercial to play, we laugh as we use product x”, or “for those of us savvy enough to hook up their own TIVO player, we need product y to gloat to our neighbors”, etc.

    I think I’ll put Koyaanisqatsi on the DVD-player tonight. It’s been a
    while since I’ve watched this film and I’ve always admired its imaginative use of time-lapse photography; but then again, maybe it is just the topnotch Phillip Glass score which makes the film so great.


  • Hi Jack.
    As you point out, “deconstruction’ and ‘Deconstruction’ are two very different things. But I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone confuse one for the other. The Derrida stuff is really interesting. One of my favourite writers, Dennis Potter, once wrote, “Words themselves – the very material of our discourse – increasingly take on masks or disguises.”

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    This is a great opportunity to film ads 10 times slower, so that when they get ored they run ads at normal speed when they fast forward. It would mean their own boredom enlightens them, and your ad could be the first to provide content within the context of changing minds. You can’t get accused of subliminal thinking, because when played at normal speed, nobody will get it. It could bee a hoot !

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    Really nice idea Kevin,
    But you do need a client who can afford it.
    You’d also have to pay 10 times the media, so for a 30″ spot you’d get a 3″ ad on FF.
    Good idea though.

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    I think I remember HHCL doing something like that about 10 years ago on Mazda(?). An ad designed to be watched on FF.

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    RE: But you do need a client who can afford it.

    So compromise: make a 60 sec. slomo ad (“only” twice the cost) which plays 6 sec. at FF. And use the slomo to your advantage somehow; still make it your primary vehicle.

    I know that FOX a couple years back made a show of running 5 sec. “quicky” ads to foil users from fast-forwarding through them (Here, Google found something for us, And I like the miniature scale that this line of thinking is taking very, very much. Very Borgesian in that – which means we are close to the zeitgeist IMVHO. Note: the 10X ratio is round and off the top of my head. Maybe it is only 2X?

    Note also: I am thinking, is there any sound at fast forward? Dang, I think not. I remember a Dave blog from some weeks back on the primacy of music in delivering/melding the message to the user. Looks like in this context one would need to use silence to one’s advantage somehow.

    Note also: any stroboscopic effects to be had designing at two speeds? Particularly reverse rotational, a.k.a. “stagecoach-wheel”, effects. Just playing here.


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    There are those who ignore the message. whatever and wherever it is? Isn’t it just our job to put it out there, wherever ‘there’ is?

  • Don’t ads need to have have a real relationship with whatever they’re fitted within?
    The most popular of the little TV shows I make are filled, literally filled, with specific, relevant and completely targeted ads aimed at their viewing audience. They are completely within their context. The viewers don’t have any problem with them, because they are in line with the programme’s topic.

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    Hi Dave,

    Now you mention it, I remember a Mazda ad with a red car with two or three snow lines whizzing through it too. I think it may have had something to do with “An unmissable offer from Mazda you’ll have to play back and listen to again”.

    I guess that’s when recording films on TV was at it’s height before CD format.
    What would be intriguing is how to record sound FF and play it back without any glitches, but I wouldn’t like to carry the lady beyond the river on that one.

    Clients?, I guess anyone who likes an idea enough will stump up the cash for it. Maybe TiVo would be interested. Everyone could fast forward through the ‘B’ Films, critics reviews, product placements and all the other sponsors and get to some meat. An ad with impact.

    As for the cost of booking space on media ???
    This one’s for all you Media Directors desperately chasing media deals out there:
    “Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player” by Elton John.

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    If ‘Content is king’ aguably Context is the kingdom, it provides the meat to the bones, the chalk to the cheese (etc etc) yet what I would argue is that the interesting area is in fact the emotion certain environments/context emit. As Kevin Roberts states ‘”Only emotion excites people to action. If you’re trying to be persuasive what are you going to do? Give your consumer a list? Or give them a dream? Martin Luther King did not say: “I have a mission statement” so true

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    Yes stacey, contex is the Kingdom
    Content is Cupid.
    His arrow’s name is attention,
    directed by interest,
    fired by desire,
    piercing by action.

    So what do we call the bow?