In the late ’80s, Fallon McElligott (yes, boys and girls, it was not always just Fallon) created a great campaign for the hopelessly dorky shoe brand in which an appropriately-propped basset hound stood in for whichever style was being featured.
(For a nice article about the genesis of this campaign, click here.)
But this approach—the visual pun—has, in the succeeding two decades, spread over and overwhelmed the worldwide advertising landscape like conceptual kudzu.
Open any issue of Archive at random and you’ll see ad after ad featuring a visual pun riffing off the brand name or the product’s function. In the lower right hand corner (often cropped to bleed off the page) is a logo or pack shot, sometimes coupled with a numbingly self-evident line of copy like “Kills Bugs” or “Sexy Lingerie.”
Here’s a recent example from the current issue:
If you break this ad down, it is structurally exactly the same as the Hush Puppies ad. Portfolios coming out of the ad schools are just filled with layouts like this, no doubt because they tend to do well in the shows.
Many of the same young creatives who would gag and roll their eyes at 70s-era verbal puns (“A fresh approach to frozen peas”) think Photoshopping an insurance-company logo into the shape of a down comforter is kick-ass creative.
Puns, whether visual or verbal, are what they’ve always been: a lazy man’s way out. They require no understanding of the product or the people who might use it, substituting glibness for soul.
I can think of two good cases for exception. The first is when the pun lets you say something you can’t—or shouldn’t– say straight up. The Hush Puppies work is a good example of this. Does anybody want see the literal version of ventilated shoes at work?
The second is when you’re not allowed to say anything. The long-running British Silk Cut campaign was a brilliant solution to this problem (it may actually pre-date the Hush Puppies work, and therefore be the Mother of All Visual Pun Campaigns).
These situations aside–and there aren’t that many of them, really—thinking of how your ad can be of some value in the world usually leads to better, more original work.