June 20, 2017
Sense, Nonsense & Shared Meaning in Advertising
By TJ DiFrancesco
It’s impossible to be a truly blank slate. Everything exists in relationship to the other things we know. This is why nonsense fascinates me. It poses an unresolved meaning. In order to even attempt understanding, we rely on (sometimes subconscious) connections we’ve made ourselves; we put a little piece of ourselves into the scene to fill in blanks. It’s act of co-creation and the meaning we get from it is very personal. In advertising, this shared meaning has a lasting impact on customers because it is ownable, authentic and creative.
What first drew me to nonsense was the playfulness of it. I remember Lewis Carrol’s infamous use of it in “Jabberwocky,” one of the poems in the sequel to the children’s novel Alice in Wonderland. Remember?
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
This is just an excerpt, but what’s so incredible about this poem is its legibility, despite the fact that the majority of the words are not in English—or in any known language. The scene we get is only half there. What a ‘borogove’ is and looks like depends on you and how your brain chooses to make sense of it. Your borogove is a chimera you and Carroll have created together.
All of this isn’t to say that nonsense shouldn’t make any sense at all. The best nonsense bends the rules of reality; it doesn’t destroy them. Think about dream logic. Things come and go, we fly, we fall, but in the dreamscape, none of this seems strange. We’re permitted a little bit of nonsense. In a really fun ad campaign, realtor.com uses dream logic to give us practical lessons. In one, a sentient dust bunny gives us tips for selling your home. The dream logic that permits something nonsensical resolves itself with wonderfully practical tips. It’s an effective and playful take on giving practical advice.
In terms of advertising, nonsense isn’t usually an ideal way to reach and engage an audience. But there are valuable lessons to be learned from the way nonsense lets our brains play around and find new ways of seeing and experiencing information. What’s important is creating work that customers can interact with in a way that creates meaning. Increasingly, people want experiences that feel authentic. By starting with something unfamiliar and providing places where a reader or viewer can co-create meaning with you, you’ve built something powerful, unique, and shared. Don’t do all the work! Think generously of your audience. Give them the opportunity to add themselves in. Provide the stepping stones across the river. And while the water isn’t new and neither are stones, looking back, we can see where we came from, how we got where we are, and what the world looks like from across the river.