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By Lewis Blackwell

February 6, 2014 | 7 min read

The latest edition of The Drum contains contrasting views on the new Guinness ad, Sapeurs. Where John Jessup argues its creative merits, here former Creative Review publisher Lewis Blackwell struggles to grasp where the charming Sapeurs fit into the Guinness brand story.

Is ‘Sapeurs’, the new ad/film/campaign from Guinness, another masterpiece to further enrich a great heritage of outstanding marketing from the brand?

I‘d like to say that but I can’t. Instead, while full of respect for the ‘content’ stars, I feel soiled with every viewing.

The 1m 40 sec commercial and the 5m 6 second supporting short film try hard. They are made with skill, if little inspiration beyond the magnificent topic they have appropriated. In setting about their fauxdocumentary task of celebrating the ‘Sapeurs’, the set of fashionista men who strut the streets of Brazzaville, these films are brutally shackled by the one thing they really should celebrate: Guinness.

Not for a moment do we sense that the brand has credibility in the story. Guinness’ only role is to pay the bills and buy a gratuitous product shot or two. When the product pouring and consumption shots are shoe-horned in, there is no sense of a relaxed fit. Instead, we’re choking, or perhaps laughing, on the constrictions of a pointless plug.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m all for marketeers moving away from banging us over the head with the virtues of their products and the weight of worthy endorsements they can muster. I love the idea of brand values being stretched into creating beautiful, provocative, tangential communications that use marketing pounds and dollars to tell us more about the world or support artistic endeavours.

But ‘Sapeurs’ doesn’t really do that. Instead it falls painfully in the middle. A disastrous double-whammy of failure occurs through a chronic loss of nerve and lack of imagination. The films don’t know whether to be one thing or the other – be advertising or be a sponsored documentary. It’s the very fact that the product demo is slipped in quickly to the films that makes them fail as both advertising and honest documentary. The brevity of the product demos makes them weaker than if they were more shameless: the unenthusiastic product-handling shots are like an embarrassed awards-show host saying ‘let’s have a quick word from our sponsor – but keep it brief!’.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the campaign will be to work as a case study in what can go wrong with content marketing if you don’t really believe in yourself; if you lean too heavily on the content you associate with rather than letting fly with saying something confidently about your subject and being honest about your motives.

The tag-line ‘Made With More’ is supposed to justify the whole exercise. So, at root, the films are explained by a terrible pun: these men go to great lengths with how they dress, they stand out and are rather wonderful because of it, and hey, that’s just like Guinness with its rich dark brew in a world of uniform lagers! Who really buys that? The stars of the film may drink Guinness in their private lives but somehow I doubt it even more than I doubt George Clooney always chooses Nespresso. And because it is faux-documentary, it’s actually more important that I believe the Sapeurs’ product choice than when I see a Hollywood celebrity mug for the commercial.

Rather than ‘Made with More’, this Guinness campaign is made with less. Less inspiration, less product truth, less creative difference. The whole creative approach is a watered-down retread of real photojournalism that has already covered the culture in more depth, more clarity, and with creativity.

Photojournalists Daniele Tamagni and Per-Anders Pettersson powerfully documented the men of Le Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes in their separate projects, work motivated by a curiosity to tell real stories about our world, rather than sell stout. I would be very surprised if their work was not close at hand during the research and development of this campaign.

I have absolutely nothing against selling stout, I should add. I am all for it. I like Guinness and I like the branding, historically. But to mash up documentary truth with advertising truth... that’s a messy job.

It’s salutary to compare this campaign with the supposed greatest commercial of all time, that hit of 1999, ‘Surfer’. This advertises Guinness (present tense as it’s still out there working on YouTube) through showing us some guys waiting for a big wave before ecstatically enjoying long-board surfing. As they ride the giant breaker the spume turns into white horses and the narrator spouts wonderful nonsense about Ahab. At the end a product shot is accompanied by the line ‘Good things come to those who...’. Yep, another pun – waiting for great waves, waiting for the Guinness to pour, a questionable equivalence of expectation and satisfaction. But all of this base metal is transformed into gold by the almost ridiculously high artistry of the exercise – it’s out-and out entertainment where the fantasy mode allows us to buy into the brand association in a very different way to the interrogation of truth that is required in the documentary mode of ‘Sapeurs’.

The old hit appeals to our emotions while the new flop makes the mistake of playing to our reasoning, which invites us to fail it. It’s not enough to appropriate the fantastical outfi ts of the Sapeurs – their creativity and strange genius is all too clearly not Guinness’.

You don’t really need to know that the stylist added extra clothing, and that the filming took place in South Africa rather than the trickier streets of Brazzaville, to feel it lacks real authenticity. However, a BBC report is one of several that points out the stretched documentary truth.

Doubtless Guinness and its agencies may come back and boast impressive stats to show that running the campaign has lifted awareness, penetrated a key demographic, etc. But then, as the P&G and Unilever’s of the world know, weight of media coverage obscures a thousand creative sins.

The fact is ‘Sapeurs’ is no ‘Surfer’ and Guinness struggles to make the connection with Sapeurs culture. The only distinctive truth about the films is that they leave a bitter after-taste.

Lewis Blackwell is an author and publisher who has won acclaim for his creative direction, editing and writing around the creative industries. A former editor-in-chief and publisher of Creative Review, Blackwell has also served as the worldwide head of Getty Images and chief creative officer at Evolve Images.

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