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Why British Ads Are Better Than American Ones

British ads are better, in creative terms, than American ones, The New York Times argued on Saturday, citing an old chestnut of the industry. You can argue the case either way, of course, but within Anglo-American advertising circles, U.S. creatives often look at British ads for inspiration and not the other way around. (Compare this U.S. Nike ad with this British ad for Asics and you'll get the drift.)

Unfortunately, the Times had only a brief explanation of why this might be the case:

... it could be that black humor, oblique sales messages and deliberate provocation -- common in many British ads -- don't go down as well in the United States. And in such a big country, commercials with direct and friendly sales messages are more likely to appeal to broader audiences than artful creations that risk causing offense or confusion.
There are, in fact, three simple reasons why British ads always seem to be funnier, darker, more artsy, more interesting and just plain weirder than American ones, but it has nothing to do with talent:
  1. Britain is culturally more homogeneous than the U.S.
  2. British media consumption is more consolidated than in the U.S.
  3. Advertising rules are much stricter in the U.K.
Homogeneity: You wouldn't know it from British media, which like U.S. media is riven with political correctness and "diversity," but Britain remains a remarkably homogeneous ethnic country. Nearly 90 percent of Brits are white. British minorities are somewhat more assimilated than in America (there isn't really a black British accent the way there is a black American one, for instance). The result is that Brits tend to have a greater number of shared cultural views of the world. You won't find anyone on the British Isles to debate these points, for instance: healthcare should be largely free and universal; gun ownership should be banned; and tea should be made with water at a sustained, rolling boil and then poured directly onto the tea (and not the American way with warm-ish water and the teabag on the side). When you have that level of national agreement, your jokes can be more subtle, your ads can state fewer things overtly (because your audience already "gets" it), and you can be more sure that your points will be taken the right way.

Media: At the same time, Brits are all reading from the same page. Check this startling statistic from The Economist:

Each week 98% of adults in Britain use a BBC service. Its website receives 20m British visitors a month, according to ComScore, a firm which keeps tabs on these things. That is a third of the population--around the same as the proportion of Americans who log on to Facebook.
And if they're not reading or watching the BBC, they're getting their news from just six or so national newspapers. With everybody staying informed in the same way about the same things, it becomes even easier to work in creative shorthand.

The rules: Combine those two factors with the U.K.'s often comically restrictive advertising rules, and you've got a situation in which a high level of creativity is enforced rather than merely an option. Free speech is a tradition, not the law, in Britain, and companies are restricted about how they can advertise their products. Check out the rules for car advertising, for instance:

There must be no suggestion that a vehicle is to be preferred because of its power or speed.
With a restriction like that, what is an ad agency to do? Absolutely anything else you could possibly think of, is the answer, which is how this unpleasant, nightmare-ish ad for the Audi RS4 Quattro, which hardly shows the car, got made (video below). And that's nothing. The rules for alcohol advertising essentially prevent advertisers from showing anyone drinking, let alone enjoying it.

So the next time you hear someone wondering why it is that the Brits seem more creative you can answer: It's not about the talent -- which America probably has more of on a numerical basis -- it's about the narrowness within which British talent must operate, and break out of. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, it turns out.

Image by Flickr user harshilshah100, CC. Related: