Want to stand out? Then dial up the Dali

By Andrew McLean, Joint head of planning



The Drum Network article

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May 13, 2020 | 9 min read

You join this article during a hypothetical discussion happening at advertising HQ between a real person and advertising.


Advertising: “Okay, so let’s go over it one last time. We’ll tell you about products or services that we think you’ll need, or we’ll tell you stuff that we want you to cry about, and you’ll pay attention to everything we say okay?

Real person: “To all of the adverts?”

Advertising: Yes, that’s right. Also, we’ll ask you whether you’ve seen them, and we expect you to say yes.

Real person: How much of my day is this going to take?

Advertising: Pretty much all of it, we’ll be everywhere, now – shhh -- just go. And don’t forget to cry when we want you to, particularly at Christmas.

Absurd? Yes completely.

But advertising is an absurd thing, it’s surreal, mesmeric, illogical, irrational even, and that’s often when it’s at its very best. Salvador Dali had it right, surreal stands out, the absurd demands attention, and behavioural biases like the Von-Restorff effect support it.

Believe in the absurd

Not all advertising is created equal, and not all of it will garner attention, but the examples that do usually stay with us.

So I want you to think back to the illogical nature of many adverts, messages which seem to convey little but are innately attention-grabbing and memorable: a Gorilla playing the drums, an anthropomorphic Ram battering through a car advert, somebody being smacked in the face under the auspices of being ‘Tango-ed’, an advert for Beer where surfers battle amongst wave-riding horses, written like that they may seem absurd, but they all completely capture our attention.

Attention may seem like an obvious metric, but perhaps it’s underutilised and misunderstood. Research done in 2019 by Professor Karen Nelson-Field and PhD candidate Kellen Ewens, of the University of Adelaide (at the time) speaks of the default pre-attentive state we all exist in and how our attention can change through two different forms of ‘guidance triggers’.

Endogenous: A top down trigger based off an existing need, e.g. you’re searching online or leaning in to watch a video and receive a highly relevant message. It becomes your focus, and boom, there’s the action. Neither Mr Ewens or Ms Nelson-Field said the word ‘boom’.

Exogenous: Unexpected attention driven by stimulus. For example, we’re paying something low or no attention and then an ad captures our consideration because it’s highly emotive, distinctive or just plain loud.

Got it? Good. Endogenous, Exogenous, words that we’ll try to use sparingly from here on, maybe twice, tops.

The absurd, bold and surreal lend themselves to what could be described as exogenous triggers, and to simplify an out-take of this study further, it means four things for us:

Peek over the 4th wall. Advertising has often hidden its intentions firmly away from those receiving the message for fear of rumbling our obsession with consideration, desire, or intent, but recent effective advertising work seems to take a peek over that wall and challenge what customers expect to see in their daily environment.

oatly banner

Optimise to attention. Hopefully you are reading this between 10-11 on a Friday morning, because apparently that’s when we’re the most focussed and less stressed during the working week – the perfect moment to have your attention! Aside from this small window, there are environments, formats and times when we’re more likely to gain attention in media and not just in the message we employ, identify them and make them synonymous with your brand.

Subvert your category. It’s difficult to avoid subconsciously conforming, it’s easier to imitate category norms and invest where others are than risk deviating. Try this simple task - create a list of the category behaviours your brand operates within and see where you can break them. It’s a common tactic within the confines of those meetings we all attend to come up with ideas, you know, the ones that rarely yield ideas.


Bodyfirm provides an excellent example of ripping up category norms and significantly moving a category forward.

Generate new demand. Exogenous triggers seem to be a better route to growth, as they pull in attention rather than just harvesting latent demand. So how can you use distinction, stand-out and disproportionate attention, to drive and pull in demand.

There seems to be far more losers than winners in the world of advertising, but it seems that if you are designing your comms - the component parts, the messaging, the placement and position in media, the format - to capture attention, then you stand a chance of ending up closer to the winning camp.

Yeah alright, but prove it

In a world where we can reach millions of eyeballs it seems that advertising can just operate as a function of spend, and if you spend enough and reach enough people then enough of it will stick, it’s a numbers game for the risk averse.

As everything in points 1, 2, and 3 suggests, conforming to a category or brand norm is a port in a storm. It can feel like a risk to go against the pack, but creativity thrives off of being distinctive and not playing things safe. Creativity is a leap, but one that is absolutely worth making.

It pays to be different, the Von-Restorff effect demonstrates that different stands out. No, she wasn’t the baddie in Die Hard 2, Von-Restorff found that the stimulus which differs from the rest is likely to be noticed and retained. Let’s do it now, which of these do you remember: desk, chair, bed, table, hamster, wardrobe, couch.

Hamster, huh? Well, it turns out that distinction also affects your memory of that word.

Distinctiveness affects memory performance. Subjects are better in recalling items from a list that are distinct in at least one dimension. Distinctiveness of an item can be created by changing the color, the size, the meaningful-ness, the background color or many other aspects of a stimulus.

So why go to the trouble of creating something, intended to persuade/entertain/sell, and not bother about creating as much distinction as possible vs. the competitive set, or the environment in which it is communicated?

Why would you want to risk being the same as everyone else? to include the same product shots, to trot out the exact same formats on the same channels at the same time.

Now that seems illogical, for all the wrong reasons.

Keeping things creative

In our industry, creativity feels like it’s being diminished and to top it off we often pay a premium for it – not ideal considering the hard-economic times we’re facing into. A more ‘creative’ format in print can be 40% more expensive, a special buy in TV comes with price premiums attached to it, and so on and so on.

So why do we measure creativity through the same lens as everything else? clearly when measured on a cost-basis something genuinely different or stand-out will always seem less alluring. More expensive, less directly attributable benefits, none of my competitors have done it. But to put a price on creativity vs. reach is to not even measure apples with another fruit.

It’s no wonder then that plans have a similar look and feel, subsequently making creativity feel like a bonus that’s typically cut ahead of any ‘hard working BAU’ activity. Hands up for the BAU activity, it’s why we all do what we do! (it’s not, but I’m not sure how well sarcasm reads in this)

We need to work with clients and agency partners to ensure that we don’t attribute risk or a price-premium towards creativity, we have to have the appropriate measurement in place to suggest we’re making headway and measuring apples with apples, creativity needs to be able to demonstrably out punch safer choices.

In closing…

Advertising’s efforts in recent times have been on creating attribution devices for communications that are inherently data-driven and measurable, to effectively de-risk every stage of the decision process to the point where impact is all but assured, where we play it safer than safe. Now, I am all for rational decision making and appropriate investment choices, but in that environment, creativity and the chance for disproportionally positive effects are all too often restricted, the balance needs to be struck, the opportunity for growth that creativity represents needs to be held aloft and believed in.

Salvador Dali once said “Whoever wants to engage people’s interest, must provoke them” we need to rediscover our lack of fear for provocation, to be creative we need to make the leap.

Andrew McLean, joint head of planning, PHD UK


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