Charles Vallance: In praise of logic


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Charles Vallance



In his latest column for Campaign, VCCP's Chairman and Founding Partner Charles Vallance discusses how any creative endeavour needs to pay close attention to detail, but never at the expense of the end-user.

It is often said that the secret to comedy is timing. However, according to Charlie Chaplin, the secret to comedy is, in fact, logic.

This may at first glance seem counter-intuitive, but then comedy and creativity often are. Chaplin did not mean that comedy has to be slavishly logical or linear, rather that there must be a core of logic if a joke is to be funny.

For instance, two of the most disparaging words in the English language are "zany" and "wacky". That's because they're reserved for things that are trying to be funny whilst abjectly failing.

There is no inherent logic to wearing a zany tie, or a wacky shirt. So there is no inherent mirth therein.

On the other hand, there is a lot of mirth in creating a comic character who resolutely wears zany shirts and wacky ties, thinking he's a hoot, and in the process becomes a parody of the maddening office japester.

This is what The Fast Show did with the character Colin Hunt. Colin brings a narrative logic to what would otherwise be gratuitous zaniness.

We understand the absurdity that is being lampooned, the conventions that are being subverted. Chaplin's rule is observed. Mirth ensues.

So wherever there's humour, you'll find a strand of contorted logic - from the simplest pun to the most developed comic characters (be it Fawlty, Fleabag or Partridge).

Puns rely on very concise logical inversions, and therefore are often best read rather than heard. @DadJokeMan on Twitter comes up with at least one a day. He likes making puns about eyes. The cornea the better.

Advertising works with similar time lengths and attention spans to joke-telling, so the parallels are plentiful. Just like a joke, people need to "get" your ad quickly and rewardingly.

This is how to win attention and achieve memorability. But unlike a joke, we don't have dozens of opportunities to hone our delivery and comprehension. We have one shot.

Which is why, during creative development, it pays to be hyper-vigilant around issues of legibility, audibility and comprehension.

For me, these are the three main guarantors of logic. And they can sometimes be underestimated. Not deliberately or wilfully or carelessly. It's just an occupational hazard that, when we're very close to a project, a lack of objectivity can creep up on us.

We can forget that we've been through the idea a hundred times, and can thus start to make assumptions about comprehension and narrative flow. Other priorities such as performance, styling, casting or technique may distract us from the Chaplin fundamental.

As we pore over the detail, we can overlook the end-user, who will be seeing our ad for the very first time, with no assumptions, no foreknowledge and, moreover, no obligation to pay any attention

In the real world, our narrative discipline must be rock solid, otherwise the whole production is flawed. Nobody likes an ad they can't understand.

This was brought home to me the other day when we tested the same ad with two voiceovers, one for the UK and one for Australia. In Australia, the ad flew through research with gold stars and garlands all round.

In the UK, the picture was very different. The same ad struggled to command attention or generate appeal.

We felt that the disparity in response was unlikely to be due to huge national differences. And we were right. The problem was comprehension.

More specifically, the problem was a single word. A single word that people were not hearing clearly enough, and which was therefore confusing the narrative.

The poor results of an entire test film were down to the slightly muddy delivery of a familiar, commonly used word. We know this because the re-recorded version of the test film sailed through research just as successfully as its Australian counterpart.

Hyper-vigilance is not a natural or particularly enjoyable state to be in (as my feral rescue dog Annie can attest). But fear not, it is by no means constantly necessary (unless you’re Annie).

The sense check of narrative logic and comprehension needs to be applied only a few times (in creative development, pre-prod and post-prod). But it needs to be applied ruthlessly and obsessively on those occasions.

Otherwise, one of the greatest ads you'll ever make could turn out to be one of your worst. And that takes some comprehending.