ADVERTISING IS OBSESSED WITH EVERYTHING NEW, CAN WE LOOK BACK TO LOOK FORWARD? ADVERTISING IS OBSESSED WITH EVERYTHING IN THE ANGLOSPHERE, CAN WE LEARN FROM OTHER CULTURES? STEFANO ORANSKY CALLS FOR A RETURN TO THE MORE ROMANTIC ERA AND STYLE OF HIS HOMELAND, QUESTIONING IF WE AREN’T ENTERTAINING THEN WHAT ARE WE DOING?

Can you imagine a place where a person tunes in to watch a show made of 10 minutes of nothing but ads, without having a gun pointed at their head?

Even crazier than that, can you imagine a place where not just a person, but millions of them do so, every day, for 20 years, with kids refusing to sleep unless they’ve seen it?

Well, I can, because that place is my country of origin: Italy

In the 1950s in Italy advertising was not as accepted as nowadays, and it was illegal to advertise during TV shows.

In this context, RAI – the Italian equivalent of the BBC – came up with the concept of an advertising format romantically named ‘Carosello’.

It was a 10 minutes show that contained 4 sketches (“caroselli”) of 2 minutes and 15 seconds each, airing between 8 and 9 pm, with extremely strict rules that had the purpose of aligning the advertising to prime time shows’ level of quality and decency.

In particular:

  • You couldn’t spend more than 30 seconds doing the actual “selling” (that’s less than 25% of the sketch, meaning ca 80% of it was entirely reserved to the story). Those 30 seconds were almost always at the very end, the part called codino, literally “little tail”. You’d agree it sounds way more derogative than “product demo”.
  • The brand and the product couldn’t be mentioned more than 6 times, and if the product was part of the scenography its name or the brand couldn’t be mentioned more than twice, and only in a shortened 10 seconds long codino.
  • It was forbidden to have a product as the protagonist of the story.
  • No more than one sketch belonging to the same category each day (e.g. only one dishwasher sketch, only one coffee and so on).
  • To show a sketch again a brand had to wait at least 10 days.

Brands were forced to actually get creative and the restrictions made them free to entertain,.  In doing so, they became free to develop creative assets that relied heavily on the power of their voice. Cartoonists were involved. National and international celebrities. Famous directors: Fellini, Pasolini, Sergio Leone to name a few. In short, those capable of shaping culture, for whom the show became an opportunity to get access to the living room of every Italian family. Advertising was walking hand in hand with the entertainment industry, rather than being its lame version or, even worse, its hijacker.

Frank Sinatra for Baci Perugina: sweet notes and sweet chocolate. Extra points for the part in which they dub him. “Grazie, Frank”.

The less obvious consequence was the format’s success: it managed to survive 20 years, with 7,261 episodes and an audience up to 20,000,000, according to the Encyclopedia of Advertising. No, I didn’t slip in an extra zero by mistake. When RAI run research on its effectiveness, 69.1% of the respondents affirmed that the show was ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, with more than 90% recalling at least something and 53% able to correctly match sketches and brands.

It cemented many Italian brands that are still famous today: Lavazza, Vespa, Bialetti, Cynar.

Some of the characters became toys for kids, conquering popularity in places as far as Japan. For example Calimero, a chick that accidentally got so dirty his mom couldn’t recognize him anymore, until he jumped into the soap responsible for the ad – possibly a not so innocent wink to racial beliefs inherited from war-time.

Calimero in the original ad, and today.

As someone way smarter than me put it, “it produced one of those quite rare situations in which the public, rather than having to put up with them, actually desires and requests more ads”

Even considering the unique historical context, there are some lessons that I’ve learned and that I still think resonate, from the story of Carosello.

First: rules are good when they are good rules, meaning that they pay homage to your public, not just your product manager. The balance of this format was disproportionately in favour of the public, and its taste and thirst for a certain kind of showmanship.

Second: entertainment might be light, but as an industry we shouldn’t take it lightly. With few exceptions, the purpose of advertising should always be to entertain the public, one way or the other. That’s what legitimise us, because people crave entertainment. It’s the reason why we play, or dance in dark rooms.

There’s a recent picture of Les Binet standing next to a chart titled “how advertising really works” with ‘Creating positive feelings & associations’ on the chart. And yet, we’ve all seen that depressing graph of the steady decline of people enjoying ads as much as the shows that follow them.
With all the extra data we need to go through, are we spending enough time trying to find an insight on what really entertains people?