Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The mindless tyranny of the "Rule of Three"

We are all obsessed with threes. Blame School House Rock. (That, and centuries of myth and numerology.)

Ever since I began my career in advertising, the number 3 has been a pain in my creative ass — particularly when it comes to print campaigns. We sit down to brainstorm a campaign, and unless it's a one-off, we always feel compelled to try and make three equally awesome versions of the same "big idea".

The first one is usually great. The second can be also. But the third — that extra push to make it a nice, round numbered campaign — is too often a compromise.

I believe this obsession with three execution print campaigns is universal. I see it all the time in places like Ads of The World, where agencies try to clone one or two good ideas into a "full campaign".

Here is a perfect example:

Some very creative people at  DDB, Sydney, Australia, came up with a clever (if gory) visual idea to communicate the dangers of crossing the road with earbuds on. It's a little shocking for my taste, but it is original (as far as I know) and the execution is solid.

But is it "campaignable?" is always the Creative Director's question. They most likely then looked into other deathly representations of various types of headphones and other peripherals for music players and smartphones.

But what did they come back with?

The same... bloody... ad. But with a man.

What a waste of photography and art direction to duplicate the first idea. (I don't actually know in which order these were conceived, but stay with me here.)

I understand that sometimes clients feel that viewers cannot identify with a person in an ad who is not like them — sexually, ethnically, age-wise or whatever — but I would have argued that the concept was strong enough to overcome that. And the duplication just dilutes the "wow" factor of the original.

But they kept going:

There. Now we've increased the age and ethnic diversity of the campaign. But at this point, I don't even process the concept anymore. I just think that the creative team stubbornly stuck to the one good idea they could come up with.

Damn Rule of Three. It totally ruined an otherwise impressive campaign.


  1. Is this perhaps (and maybe this IS the rule of three, but I just never knew it) just that fairly common thing one sees whereby you have a "look" for a campaign (and it is generally a PSA-type thing) and you simply drop different representatives into it (male, female, child, various ethnicities, etc.)? I thought that was sort of standard, but you know precisely how knowledgeable I am about these things. ;-)

    1. This is more than a "look", Kel. It is a very strong and specific visual concept. That's why it is diminished by mindless repetition — it hits so hard it can only do so once.

      You're thinking of campaigns where a photographic style or gesture becomes the common thread of a campaign for showing diverse people behind it. That's a different kind of thing.