In praise of clichés
Everyone always talks about originality like it’s the holy grail of creativity. But how often do we see original in advertising or editorial? How often do we see original winning awards? How often do we see original anywhere?
What people really want is what they know. Something they’re comfortable with. Originality requires effort to understand, it needs to be engaged with, translated and understood. But if you can give people what they’re already familiar with – albeit in a new way – it’s an easier sell.
That’s why clichés rule, and why they should be embraced. So much effort goes into trying to create the new, but so often the new is rarely the best. It’s easier to improve on the original than it is to be the first and the best.
We all use Pinterest, but few remember ffffound, or Mlkshk. Uber’s made the headlines but who uses Hailo? When was the last time you searched the Web with Dogpile or ask Jeeves? But I bet you’ve used Google five times today already.
The Beastie Boys ignited the trend for retro-moustached seventies style media with the 1996 video for Sabotage. And Cadbury are still cashing in on that particular cliché in their advertising, as are 118 118, and Just Eat. It even spawned the Movember movement, that saw many of your workmates sprouting ridiculous face furniture for charity.
And why not? It’s fun.
Why does all lifestyle photography look the same? Why does all sports photography look the same? Why does all food photography look the same? Why are all perfume commercials the same? Why is every motoring show trying to be Top Gear?
Because it’s what people know. They’re comfortable with it. It’s easy to digest. It’s proven.
It’s why people still order cod and chips instead of haddock and chips – though few could taste the difference.
How often, when people order a Coke (and they always order a Coke) and they’re told the restaurant only has Pepsi, does the customer turn down the alternative? Never, because they’re the same thing.
Procedural crime dramas are all the same. That’s why the genre even has its own name. It’s procedural, it’s a drama and it’s about crime. And the procedure is the same as it’s moves from the beginning of each episode to the end. You know what you’re going to get. It’s not original, but it’s familiar. And we like that.
That’s not to say that original isn’t good, but it has to be done with excellence. It has to be so good that it’s undeniably brilliant. So striking, so unforgettable, that it shines brighter than anything anyone’s seen before. Otherwise it’ll be forgotten when someone else comes along and does it better.
Being original and brilliant is hard, if not impossible, to maintain with any consistency. Setting the bar higher and higher still is demanding. And if you can’t hit those heights time after time you’re left not with original and brilliant, but just original. And that’s a really hard sell.
So we mustn’t be afraid to embrace the cliché, and do what’s tried and tested, but we need to do it well. Do it really well. There’s nothing wrong with being “me too” as long as what we’re producing isn’t just a poor imitation. Then you get lost in the crowd.
There’s a lot of mediocrity out there. A lot of mediocrity that’s being sold very well, and celebrated and lauded. We all know it and we see it all the time. Too often cliches are used to cover up mediocrity and they get away with it because it still resonates even when it’s badly done. But you can’t get away with it forever.
Variations on a theme.
A lot of sports photography looks the same, but the person who does it probably better than anyone is Tim Tadder. Do what he does, sure. But bring something new. Give it a twist. Your twist.
Be the Tim Tadder for the clients who can’t have Tim Tadder. Be the British Tim Tadder, or the Tim Tadder who shoots corporate portraits in that style. Or the Tim Tadder for clients on a budget (was there ever a client who wasn’t?). Or the Tim Tadder who specialises in photographing ballet dancers. Be like Tim Tadder, but not exactly like Tim Tadder. That jobs already take. By Tim Tadder. You can’t be him. You’re you, so do what he does, but bring yourself to it. Be like David Bailey. Be like Perou or Martin Parr, but if you try to BE them you’ll be mediocre, using cliché to get away with it.
Movements come and go, just like stereotypes and themes and memes. But brilliance lasts because it evolves. It never stands still. A brilliant creator borrows and adapts and makes it their own. But they understand what resonates and they build on that foundation, because it’s already been tried, tested, focus grouped and proven. They put themselves into it, and experiment and bring new ideas to the table. They mitigate the risk of originality by shaping what already works for their own purposes.
And then occasionally, just when we’re all familiar and comfortable with their work, they surprise everyone by doing something totally different.