“Y2K” Doesn’t Mean “You’re too Cute”

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

Anyone who thought the coming millennium would bring a new and clearer dimension to conventional advertising had better take some melatonin and disappear until the current crop of non-communicative messages has disappeared.

Come to think of it, many of us – whose reaction to the plethora of “Huh?” space ads and commercials is “Huh?” – propose that a logical Web site might be adexplanation.com, a site committed to explaining what these ads and commercials are supposed to mean. The site would be the ad agency version of a two-step conversion.

Since the Nov. 15 issue of this mighty publication hit the streets, I’ve been asked repeatedly why my acid comments in “Advertising’s Confusion Factor” (directed at Delta Airlines, 7Up, Burger King and some cellular/wireless promotions) exempted so many others. Heck, I only have one page.

But OK, with all those “millionaire” shows on the air, let’s try one of our own: I’ll send a copy of my newest book to the reader who gives me the highest estimate of how many millions are wasted each day on dumb television commercials that challenge the viewer to conclude what’s being pitched. And you’d better estimate high, because a 30-second spot on the Super Bowl costs $2 million. Who’s going to spend that kind of money for quick-and-quickly-forgotten Andy Warhol fame? You know who: dot-com companies, whose profit-and-loss statements are 180 degrees reversed from their Wall Street worth. They’re falling all over themselves to buy time. Ever hear of Angeltips.com or OurBeginning.com or Kforce.com or Monster.com? Two million per spot, guys. And a string of others is in the queue.

Check out their commercials, against any checklist you make up (I’ll trust you), for effectiveness as marketing messages.

Here comes United Airlines, with its unpleasant “Rising” campaign that points out what an ordeal airline travel is. Oops! At first everyone hated it except management. Now they’ve joined us. “Rising” has fallen.

And those guys at Ford have no sense of humor at all. The commercials for Budget Rent-a-Car (which touts Fords) show a bear barfing. What does that have to do with car rentals? Well, you never know when a Kodiak will wander into a kiosk and want to rent a car. And bear vomit isn’t that easy to come by. Check eBay and you won’t find more than one or two splashes for sale.

Geico Insurance built its empire by intelligent use of direct mail. Now Geico has animated television spots that not only make no pitch, they make the company look like a bunch of idiots. Why do that? The argument “They’re image ads, to keep the company name in the forefront of viewers’ minds,” would be an insulting reference to viewers’ minds.

And you’ve probably heard that Taco Bell’s adorable Chihuahua has won awards and attention…and, hmm, hasn’t improved sales. Back to the mini-kennel, pup. For your on-camera dominance, it’s spaying time.

Remember Prodigy, the online company founded by three giants – Sears, IBM and CBS? It should have dwarfed AOL, but it never discovered how to explain what it was and what it did. Now it’s back, spending megabucks. And it still doesn’t know what it is and what it does. Here’s a commercial that requires an instruction manual. Basketball legend Larry Bird, whose face is unmistakable, somehow is a clerk in the paint department of a big hardware store. The on-screen message: “Everyone has a potential.” Get the connection? Neither do I.

But wait. There’s even less.

Larry Bird tosses a crushed-up cleaning rag into a distant wastebasket. The on-screen message: “Are you a prodigy?” Now do you see the connection? Uh…I guess somebody’s just plain dumb. If you don’t know which of us it is, you aren’t a direct marketer.

Sigh. Back we go again to the big edge direct marketing has over other media, when it’s applied with attention to the litany you’ve seen before in this series of rantings:

The purpose of a direct response message is to cause the reader, viewer or listener to perform a positive act as a direct result of exposure to that message.

How can we miss, in a competitive shootout? We go for the jugular; they go for the armpit. Who has much to learn from whom? Whose shots make a lot of noise, firing blanks?

So OK, all you oh-so-clever members of the “Sneering at Selling” cult. Get the point? You’re in the advertising business, not the entertainment business. And come to think of it, your entertainment isn’t all that entertaining.

Just what is the purpose of advertising, anyway? What are our messages supposed to accomplish? Long before such titans as Caples and Ogilvy, and certainly since, disagreement has raged. The principal topic of disagreement is whether ads should generate a positive action or stir attention.

Attention to what?

In my opinion…and no, it isn’t a humble opinion…whoever is training communicators to value their sample reels and portfolios above results-driven communication is doing a disservice – not only to them but to all of us who claim that what we do is a profession. Even those who use sample reels and portfolios as yardsticks admit they’re a muddy kind of evaluation. And few television spots and major campaigns are the output of a single individual. Except for direct marketing, where the creative work usually is not done by a committee, many sets of mitts are in the grits.

But we have to acknowledge the other side of the coin. Could any brilliant creative work stop Budweiser’s slide? Bud Light was and is cannibalizing. Consumer preferences drive the market, and individual brands whose glory days head into eclipse can only try to hang on until tastes change again, the way they do in necktie width.

So if you had the job of advertising Budweiser, what would you do? I know what I’d do: I’d abandon cleverness, cuteness and mumble-mouthed athletes in favor of promotions, cents-off coupons, and thumping away at a Rolls-Royce image against all those “Light” Yugos out there. Is that what Budweiser is going to do? Beats me.

Do we in direct marketing stand alone in our belief that advertising and marketing messages should glorify what’s being sold, not the messenger? If that’s the case, our glory days are ahead.


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