Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Sod off, ad world

Ed. - I wrote "Sod off, ad world" in 2002. Recently I found it floating around my hard drive and decided to publish it here. It's a bit out of date, but still relevant, particularly to marketing directors and ad students. Enjoy.

"If people hate advertising so much, how come I see all these 14-year-olds walking around with swooshes on their shirts?"

Hmm. Curious, isn't it? Anybody else got a question?

"How come some of the best brands in America run ads that don't seem to be selling anything?"

That's a great question, and the answer relates to underwear, but before I go into that, I want to take one more. Anybody?

"How do I use advertising to get people to buy my product?"

Well, that's not just a question. That's the question. Let's take a stab at it.

Why we pee while the commercials are on.

Advertising has been around for millennia. But back in, say, the 1940's, America's mental environment was still relatively uncluttered. There was a certain innocence to advertising back then. "The Kid in Upper 4" was so well-loved that competing railroads hung it in their own stations. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was such a popular Montgomery Ward point-of-purchase piece that it went on become a carol more annoying than any of today's ad jingles. Consumers were enthralled by simple-minded taglines like "It's straight whiskey." Ads seemed kind of neat.

But by the 1960's, advertising had run amok. Businesses were getting away with supply-side marketing. The novelty of advertising wore off and was replaced by consumer boredom. And boredom lead to resentment.

Suddenly a few agencies had an epiphany. Instead of regurgitating their corporate masters' mission statements, the agencies decided they ought to serve as consumers' representative to corporate America. So they put themselves in the shoes of consumers and thought, "If I was looking at this ad, what would I want it to say?"

That process gave birth to some astounding ideas. So the brave agencies took their ideas to some equally brave clients and brilliant, enduring brands like Volkswagen and Avis were born. All because a few folks believed that consumers deserve interesting advertising.

When these creative geniuses took it upon themselves to better the mental environment of America, they inadvertently exposed the heavy-handed totalitarianism of the rest of the marketing community. But not every client got the message. And not every agency had the fortitude to spread the gospel. Today, there are still a few agencies building brilliant brands and a slew of dinosaurs spending obscene amounts of money to push boorish fluff upon the public.

So why do people hate advertising? Because the few good ads they see remind them that the mental environment is violated every day by marketing directors with big budgets and closed minds.

Can we please get to the underwear?

OK, OK, I promised underwear. "Showing your underwear" is industry slang for running an ad with a strategy so transparent a four-year-old could figure it out. To prevent you from complaining that I misled you, I'm now going to write about Victoria's Secret.

Most people in America consider themselves independent. Which essentially means they don't like being told what to think, unless they enjoy what they're being told to think about. Victoria's Secret has the luxury of reminding people to think about sex. My unofficial survey reports that 100% of Americans enjoy thinking about sex.

Victoria's Secret's ads get to show their underwear. Literally. And figuratively.

But most businesses' ads don't. Because most businesses' ads don't carry messages like, "Sex is fun."

Think of it like this. The Socket Wrench Company's marketing director says, "The most important thing about my company is that we’re friendly." So he green lights an ad that reads, "The Socket Wrench Company is very friendly." Maybe there's a smiling receptionist in the ad.

A few days later the ad runs. America yawns.

This ad showed its underwear, and it grossed people out.

What should The Socket Wrench Company have done? Well, let's look at an example. I was leafing through an award show book the other day. I saw an ad that read, "We've had some complaints that Monday was a really long day but we've checked and it wasn't." At the bottom was a picture of a Timex watch.

Funny, yes. But Timex doesn't run ads for fun. So what possible reason could it have for greenlighting this ad? I had to think about it for a few minutes, but then I got it. The ad was laid out in bright white type on a neon blue page. Timex was advertising how easy it is to read its Indiglo watch. Without ever mentioning it. Without giving consumers anything to yawn at. The ad simultaneously engaged consumers and told them about a real, tangible product benefit without ever seeming abrasive or preachy.


Another example? Nike ran a TV commercial for women's running shoes that showed a beautiful woman escaping from a chainsaw wielding maniac. It was brilliantly conceived. The overt message - Nikes are fast - was inescapable. So was the subconscious message, though I doubt many people could articulate it. What Nike said under its breath was, "Our shoes help women transform themselves from helpless sex objects into strong, independent heroes."

A great message from a great brand.

The things you want to say the most in your advertising sometimes must be said to the consumer's subconscious. That's why America's best brands occasionally run ads that make you go, "Huh?" They're communicating a product benefit through non-rational channels in order to bypass your predisposition to ignore ads. If a non-marketing person can see your ad and tell you what the strategy behind it is, your ad probably sucks.

Don't show your underwear in your ads. Unless it's really nice underwear with a model inside it.

So I need to start selling lingerie?

Well, sex sells sex. Which makes writing ads for sex pretty darn easy. But if everybody goes into underwear, how am I going to buy that socket wrench I need?

The solution is to find a way to communicate real information about your product to people who are programmed to distrust everything you say.

How do you do that?

I saw a comedian once who lobbed what he called "joke grenades." He'd say something like, "I'm going to get a license place that reads I FORGOT. That way, when I cause an accident..." Then the comedian would shut up. About 10 seconds later, the room would crack up, as everybody realized the implications of the license plate.

Great ads are like that. They tell a story but invite the consumer to finish it. They don't leave too much to the imagination, but they leave enough out there so that consumers can feel like they're part of the club that gets it.

Bingo. Now you have a relationship.

Consumers develop relationships with brands that engage them. It's not easy. If your invitation is turned down, you're screwed. But it's a lot less risky than taking the approach that most companies take, sinking millions of dollars into campaigns that annoy their way into people's heads. Jingle-writers love to talk about how well people recall their ads. Well, I recall the time my dog peed on my pillow. Who cares? What matters is whether people like you.

Any other questions?

"Didn't you just give away all the secrets of being an ad guy? Now all your clients will fire you and write their own ads."

Not likely.

You know that saying, "You can never step in the same river twice"? Well, that's how it is with culture. People's basic desires have stayed pretty static for the last few millennia. But the avenues which people pursue to satisfy those desires change by the hour. The ad guy's job is to tell his clients which avenues people are hanging out in on any given day. And then talk to those people in a language that delights them. Not easy. But fun. Especially, I assume, if your client happens to be Victoria's Secret.

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