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Is pre-testing resulting in a procession of paint-by-numbers dance ads?


By Max Keane, CSO

April 18, 2024 | 5 min read

There’s no escaping from the ‘tries the product, dances with joy’ advertising trope. VCCP’s Max Keane theorizes that pre-testing has some questions to answer.

A man dances with joy after popping a chewing gum

/ Wrigley: Likely the ad the disgruntled gentleman was complaining about in the Telegraph

As Dave Trott recently pointed out and the Letters To The Editor page of the Telegraph echoed, there’s a surfeit of people dancing in ads at the moment.

But why?

Someone in our planning department blamed TikTok, and while I’d like yet another reason to wean myself off it, I’m not convinced it’s entirely the app’s fault.

My hunch is the answer lies far closer to home.

This hunch was further reinforced by the refreshing and candid APG talk a few week's ago, where Craig Inglis, Sarah Carter and Jon Evans discussed every planner’s favorite topic. Pre-testing. It was a chat that Byron Sharp and Les Binet later weighed in on via Linkedin.

The discussion left me more convinced than ever that pre-testing’s seemingly inexorable rise is why we’re converging on ever-similar and generic output as an industry. There’s no doubting the merits of pre-testing. I sincerely believe it can be a brilliant tool for optimization. Especially at a time when EBI tells us that only 16% of advertising is both recalled and correctly attributed.


In the rush to ‘pass the test’ and score as highly as possible, we’re all deploying the same set of dance moves. Vignettes? Out. Poignancy? Too risky.

Just aim for joy. Do it fast. And for the love of God, get the DBA in the first frame.

So in that search for the perfect peak-end, perhaps it’s little surprise that the ideas getting made seem to be more and more familiar…

Sir John Hegarty has talked famously about the wind tunnel effect, which results in identikit-looking cars because they’re all designed to the same metric of maximizing aerodynamic efficiency.

And Will Parrish, chief strategy officer at VCCP Media, consistently talks about “the race to the middle” that an over-reliance on optimization by algorithm creates. But it was Edward de Bono who said the key to creativity is breaking out of established patterns to look at things in a different way. Yet, how can we see anything differently when faced with a paint-by-numbers canvas?

The more we reward codification over creativity, the more we narrow our skill sets and cultivate an overly left-brained workforce. We risk creating a whole generation without the experience of and ability to inspire and nurture creativity.

And, if an algorithm can tell us what will work, then surely AI can make the perfect ad for the machine.

This race to the middle might well be a race to our end.

And the danger of pursuing optimization is it comes at the expense of creating standout work. But pre-testing doesn’t have to mean paint by numbers.

We’ve let this happen. We were scarred by the loss of too many fragile but beautiful early ideas. So, we found a load of shortcuts. Our natural human response was, of course, to game the system like lazy teenagers taking the easy path, ChatGPTing our essays.

It’s now incumbent on us to be better guardians. Joy might be easier to get through than poignancy because poignancy is HARD to do well. But done well, it’s transformative. See Cadbury.

Vignettes don’t tend to score highly because vignettes tend to be boring, but they don’t HAVE to be - just look at EE’s brilliant, culture-shaping vignette-fuelled relaunch.

As the APG discussion illustrated, pre-testing isn’t going anywhere. So maybe it’s time for a bit of a creative reset so agencies can start taking the difficult path again. And to start asking more of our pre-testing partners, too.

To ask for a proper ally in the pursuit of great work, for pre-testers to join us in addressing the shortcut culture we’ve all created and marched blindly towards.

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