How to Advertise With Authenticity (Or At Least Look Like You Are).

Authenticity.

Right now, authenticity is one of the buzziest buzzwords in the business world. It’s generally taken to mean some nearly ineffable combination of transparency, realness, genuineness, legitimacy and honesty. Some people believe that a lack of authenticity did fatal damage to a recent presidential candidate’s shot at the White House (do not send me emails about this). And it’s a quality that the consumers most marketers consider most valuable – those born roughly between 1976 and 1996 – absolutely require in the brands they engage with.

Of course, I’m talking about millennials, those undeniably savvy consumers who’ve grown up with instant access to troves of online information about brands and products and with perfect awareness of themselves as a target market. They know marketers are always trying to sell things to them and they know that most of those things are not going to fundamentally change their lives or make the world a better place, so let’s not pretend that they are.

See, at the same time Millennial consumers crave authenticity, they categorically reject marketing messages that are deemed “too earnest”, perceiving that as a sign of either cluelessness or cynical duplicity (this is one place that Pepsi’s ill-conceived Kendall Jenner commercial went off the rails, but only one place, and enough has been said about that already).

So where does that leave a marketer who needs to demonstrate the authenticity, the legitimate realness of his or her brand without getting too earnest or serious about it? How, for example, do you create something as patently synthetic and deliberately mercantile as a TV commercial that doesn’t set off Millennials’ hyper-sensitive bullshit alarms?

This Looks Like A Job For Metamessaging

One way to do it is with a technique that I’m calling metamessaging. Forgive me for piling onto the “meta” bandwagon but in this case the term is apt. The prefix “meta” comes down to us from Greek through Latin and connotes beyond, above or transcending whatever term follows it. In literature, meta usually refers to something that refers back on itself or, more specifically, something that pokes fun at the conventions of a genre.

So, in advertising, metamessaging refers to ads that poke fun at the conventions of advertising as a way of demonstrating that we’re all on the same side of the table, here.

Since everything is artificial, let’s make the artifice apparent.

There’s a trend afoot in television commercials with the underlying message, “Look, you know we’re trying to sell something. We know you know that we’re trying to sell something and, finally, you know we know you know we’re trying to sell something. So let’s drop all pretense. We won’t even attempt to surreptitiously establish an emotional connection between our brand and you, the viewer. We’ll discard all those traditional, rhetorical tools like pathos, ethos, empathy, story arc, character, setting and all of that stuff.  After all, those techniques are innately untransparent and inauthentic.

“Instead, we’ll make a connection by admitting, in fact, demonstrating, that this is a commercial, and that we know you know it’s a commercial. See, we’re not stuffy, old conventional marketers. No! We’re all in on the gag together. Now, don’t you love us?”

It’s the advertising equivalent of actors “breaking the fourth wall”, stepping out of their hermetic onscreen or onstage environment to address the audience directly (Think of Frank Underwood’s asides and soliloquies in House of Cards and do not send me emails about Kevin Spacey).

Here are four commercials that illustrate the trend. They each use metamessaging in slightly different ways, but they each proclaim loudly and proudly, “The Is A Television Commercial And We’d Be Sincerely Grateful If You’d Consider Buying Our Stuff.” They’re all running currently, as I’m writing this.

AT&T “More”

AT&T Grab 2

The spokesman who’s standing too close to the camera thinks he’s standing too close to the camera.

Demographically diverse, attractive and sharply dressed spokespeople slowly fill the shot, one by one, each making a different sales point about the “moreness” of AT&T’s offering. They address the camera until, around 00:15, one guy drops the Transparency Bomb by blatantly referring to himself and his onscreen colleagues as spokespeople and promising you even more spokespeople to come.

The denouement comes from the last spokesperson who’s so close to the camera that he’s not even fully visible. “I think I’m too close,” he says, acknowledging the presence of the camera and the fact that he’s mostly out of frame. We are truly though the advertising looking-glass.

Sprite “Vince Staples/Random Teenagers”

Sprite Grab

You know this is a Sprite commercial. And we know you know it’s a Sprite commercial. So let’s just have a big sign that says Sprite Commercial.

This commercial, featuring rapper Vince Staples, comes out of the gate presenting its advertisement bona fides. In fact, you need a scorecard to check off its numerous meta references.

(1) The setting actually displays the words The Sprite Commercial on a giant sign.

(2) This is clearly directed at the 12 to 18-year-old demographic who drinks fructose-sweetened carbonated soft drinks, but just to make that abundantly clear, Vince greets another actor with, “Hello, random teenager.”

(3) As an actor begins his oh-so-familiar “guzzle shot”, to the accompaniment of some corny music, a huge wave of liquid washes over him, representing instant refreshment. But wait. This clichéd sequence is interrupted by Vince, setting up the closing product shot.

(4) “Make sure they see that logo”, Vince says. “Right there, into the camera.”

(5) Finally, Vince announces. “OK, the commercial’s over” as the scene cuts abruptly to blackness.

There’s no hidden agenda here, consumers. Not one bit. This is a Sprite commercial that’s all about Sprite commercials. Get it?

Xfinity xFi Wi-Fi “Dinnertime”

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 3.18.42 PM

Hang on a second, voice guy. See, we all know that we’re living in an Xfinity commercial so there’s nothing odd about speaking to an off-camera man.

This commercial for cable provider Xfinity’s xFi Wi-Fi service starts out looking pretty conventional. We see warmly convivial families gathered around dinner tables through the ages as a voiceover describes dinnertime as a time for family connections. Around 00:15, we arrive in the current day and see a family at a dining table, “connecting” via digital devices and ignoring one another completely.

At this point, mom looks off camera and asks the disembodied announcer to stop talking, “One second, voice guy.” The announcer hears mom and obeys her request (very meta) and she uses her own smartphone to pause the family’s Wi-Fi signal, forcing the family to talk to one another in person.

In my unsolicited opinion, this is an excellent commercial. Metamessages aside, it presents a relevant, human benefit based on a unique product feature in an entertaining and engaging way. It’s also the only ad I can think of that pitches the ability to turn off the advertised product as an exciting and unique attribute.

Nationwide Insurance, “Peyton Manning/Brad Paisley/The Jingle Sessions”

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 3.29.19 PM

Brad Paisley sings “What did I just get into”, to the tune of “Nationwide is on your side”. It’s meta piled upon meta.

I’ve saved the most meta for last. It’s not just a commercial that acknowledges it’s a commercial for a brand. It’s a commercial about the jingle for a brand. The “Nationwide Is On Your Side” jingle was introduced 48 years ago and it’s so ingrained in the American psyche that Nationwide and their ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, believe all that’s required to drive home their brand’s message is to reference that famous, seven-note phrase.

In this ad, former quarterback Peyton Manning (who’s been in so many different commercials that he’s practically a metamessage unto himself) gives singer Brad Paisley helpful input on how to render the jingle, “in your heart”. There’s never a mention of anything about Nationwide, no attempt to differentiate the brand from dozens of competitors. It’s just a single, musical phrase, repeated over and over and over and wrapped in some amusing bro-banter.

Does Metamessaging Work? Insight From A Sample Of One, Certified Millennial

 As I was writing this, I had the opportunity to bounce the premise off a millennial friend (who’s not in the advertising or marketing business). The only one of these commercials she remembered seeing (they’re all running currently, as of mid-November, 2017) was the AT&T spot described at the beginning of this article. She’d only seen that one because it had run in the New England Patriots versus Atlanta Falcons football game the previous Sunday. And she only saw that because football games are the only conventional television programming she and her friends watch with any regularity.

She did have an opinion on the AT&T commercial. She liked it a lot. She described it as “Brash and nervy” because, “It pokes fun at the same thing I’d poke fun at. It’s preemptive fun poking. We’re all sharing the joke. It’s sassy.”

My friend gets it because AT&T gets it. The commercial worked for her precisely because it acknowledged, without the slightest trace of earnestness, that it was selling cellular service and pounding out more and more features with more and more self-acknowledged spokespeople.

But did it work as a persuasive message? Probably not exactly the way AT&T would hope. Here’s the rest of my friend’s review:

“Commercials may help with initial introductions, to see what’s out there in a broad sense (like browsing through a dating site and throwing out the dogs). But I always need some real, unscripted voices behind the things I purchase. If I was looking for new cell service, I’d look at Reddit or other sites for reviews. Maybe ask some friends what sucks about their carriers. But even a cool commercial wouldn’t sell me. This specific commercial just didn’t annoy the crap out of me.”

So, metamessaging is one way to “not annoy the crap out of” our audience. I hope that isn’t the best that advertisers can hope for in the long term. But it may have to do for now.

Linkography

 

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How does your brand taste?

Why every single brand of detergent, insurance, refrigerator, light bulb, motor oil, plant food, semiconductor, investment counselor, industrial robot manufacturer, disposable dust mop and galvanized roofing nail needs “taste copy”.

When I was a young copywriter I had the privilege of working on several Anheuser-Busch beer brands (to be clear, I was one of a small army of copywriters and art directors sharing that privilege). One of the great parts of that job was attending Beer School, where we learned about the magic of beechwood aging, what several tons of hops and malted barley smell like (delicious), what a barn full of Clydesdales smell like (also, surprisingly delicious) and the difference between lager and pilsner

One of the not-so-great parts of that job, at least to a young copywriter’s way of thinking, was being forced to internalize the sacred mantras of the Anheuser-Busch brands’ “taste copy.”

Each A-B brand had a set of words – mostly adjectives – that were used to describe the particular flavor of that particular brand. Budweiser was always “distinctively crisp and clean.” Michelob was always “smooth and mellow”. Michelob Light was always “rich and smooth.”

Those words were to appear in that order in every piece of communication, whether it was a TV commercial or a coupon ad. And woe betide the high-spirited, creative puppy who took it upon him or herself to “improve” on that copy.

Of course, at the time, being high-spirited, young creative puppies, we rankled under these rules. Wasn’t it our job to push hard against this boundary? Wasn’t it our duty to rend and sunder rules like these?

Processed with VSCOcam with s6 preset

Every Anheuser-Busch brand had a set of pre-approved adjectives that described that brand’s unique taste. This “taste copy” was sacrosanct

In fact, no, it wasn’t.

Especially not if we ever wanted to see our work produced. So, we all grumbled and made dark, cynical jokes and “crisped” and “mellowed” until our fingers grew numb on the gray keys of our beige IBM Selectrics.

Whether they tasted “rich and smooth”, “smooth and mellow” or “crisp and clean”, as a young copywriter, Anheuser-Busch’s mandatory taste copy made me nuts. As a not-so-young branding strategist, I find it not only darned smart, but an idea that’s well worth stealing.

So, flash forward a few decades and witness this former, high-spirited creative puppy beseeching clients to work with their researchers, planners and creatives to craft, agree on and enforce the “taste copy” for every brand.

Taste copy for every brand of what? Every brand of everything.

As young creatives, all we could see was that the fascistically-dictated taste copy prevented us from stretching our creative wings and describing Michelob as “brisk and refreshing.” What we didn’t see was all the good things the taste copy did:

  • It stopped territorial squabbles between client-side brand teams before they could even start. Budweiser owned crisp and clean. Michelob owned smooth and mellow. Period. There was nothing to discuss. Dismissed. Go sell more beer.
  • It streamlined the work because nobody at the agency or the client got bogged down reacting to focus groups’ opinions about whether or not Michelob Light really tasted “rich”. It did. It said so in the taste copy.
  • And, perhaps best of all, at least from a pure, marketing standpoint, the taste copy enforced consistency of message across all media. And this is where the concept becomes especially relevant today.

Back when I was pecking out the fifteenth variation on This Bud’s For You, “across all media” pretty much meant TV, radio, outdoor and print. Now it means all that plus web, earned, viral, social, guerrilla, buzz and body art. Which is terrific. But since creating content for each of those media can conceivably be handled by a different set of people, enforcing a consistent description of your product, what it does, how it works and what it stands for begins to look a lot less like creative handcuffs and a lot more like common sense.

Please. Use the handcuffs.

Your features are fungible and your price can be undercut. The only aspect of your brand that can’t be copied is the connection it has with your customers’ hearts and minds.

The harder trick, of course, is to create the right “copy” – I’m using that term in its loosest sense, to mean the core message that pins a brand in the heart and mind of its intended buyer – that not only appeals to the senses, but also to peoples’ need to make emotional connections with the brands they buy.

It’s not easy because people are not necessarily willing to admit (in many cases they’re not even aware) that their choice of an insurance company, light bulb or analgesic is making a critical emotional connection for them. But finding those connections – or, more specifically, finding where there may be a lack of connection and crafting your brand to make one – is the most important job marketers have in this world. Especially when competitors can steal your features and undercut your prices faster than you can say “Mexican Outsourcing Partner”.

So, by whatever means possible, discover the emotional connections that your brand can make, craft your “taste copy” accordingly (commercial: one real good way to accomplish this is to hire us to use Motiv to create an Emotivation-based Message Architecture for your brand. Ok, end of commercial), then enforce the use of that copy with draconian ruthlessness. Demand to see it everywhere your brand is written about and to hear it each time your brand is spoken of. Defy anyone to “improve” it.

And if, by chance, somebody does come up with something better, well, buy them a beer.

Everything is political now. Quick, how does your canned tuna vote?

Part 2 in a (so far) two-part series on Marketing And The Culture Wars.

Do you ride with Uber or with Lyft? Do you shop at Nordstrom? How about T.J. Maxx or Neiman Marcus? Will you serve your family food from Wegman’s? Or have lunch at Chick-fil-A? Do you exercise in Under Armour or Nike? Your choice could mark you, at least in some peoples’ eyes, as an America-hating Trotskyite or a deplorable, gun-loving xenophobe.

While the politicization of every single aspect of our lives may be annoying or even amusing to regular folks, it’s a minefield for marketers. In most of the aforementioned cases, a political position has been thrust onto those brands. They didn’t get to choose their side.

Atlanta-based fast feeder Chick-fil-A has always leaned right, and it’s occasionally gotten them into hot water (nevertheless, Chick-fil-A recently passed KFC as America’s #1 chicken chain). But what about Wegman’s, a Northeast regional supermarket with the highest customer-satisfaction numbers in the industry and revenues to match? They’re catching heat from liberal shoppers because they sell Trump-branded wine (they’ve been carrying it for nine years).

Ditto Uber, which got crosswise with the same kind of consumers when they lowered prices in response to a strike by The New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The taxi drivers joined a protest at JFK airport against President Trump’s immigration order and Uber executives saw an opportunity for a win-win. More people would ride Uber to JFK at a reduced cost. But left-leaning citizens immediately launched #DeleteUber, a social media outcry calling for people to purge the offending brand’s app from their smartphones.

Out, damned right wing, fascist, hate app!

“Out, damned right wing, fascist hate app!”

Lyft execs, no doubt sensing the direction of the political winds, racked up righteousness points by announcing, via an email to all of their customers, that the company would donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union.

We don’t have a dog in this fight (unless somebody makes us).

Marketers have historically tried to keep their brands politically neutral. It wasn’t too difficult. Until recently, it would’ve been hard to assign a particular political position to a can of soda, a credit card or a smartphone app. But, given our current political climate, that’s changing fast.

Marketers don’t talk about it out loud, but traditionally, if your brand was forced to pick a side on a cultural, social or political issue, it was usually safer to err toward the progressive side. You don’t need to convince conservative consumers that American business is a force for good in the world. But if you’re, say, a Big Oil Brand, you might want to convince liberal-leaning consumers that you’re not utterly evil by pointing out how you’re investing billions erecting windmills, turning pond scum into fuel and combating malaria.

All that is true, and big oil brands make sure we hear about it. Professional activists wail about greenwashing and virtue signaling, but there aren’t enough of them to make much difference to brands with broad audiences. Even if it were just a matter of optics (and it’s not – big oil companies invest huge amounts in renewable and alternative energy), big brands like Shell, Hewlett Packard, Citibank and GM would still have a strong incentive to engage in liberal rather than conservative activism.

It’s what you might call asymmetrical righteousness.

Conservatives may smirk and roll their eyes when a big oil brand promises to build windmills and reduce pollution, but a fair number of progressives believe that our continued use of fossil fuel is dooming civilization. America’s Chevy Suburban drivers are not going to storm Chevron’s headquarters if it invests a few billion bucks in making gasoline from soybeans. But America’s Subaru drivers might very well do so if it doesn’t.

“Next stop Houston, boys. We’ll teach those craven pantywaists from Exxon to mess around with alternative fuels!”

The same kind of asymmetry happens in social issues, too. Progressives drove the CEO of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, out of his job for donating $1,000 to an organization that opposes gay marriage. But conservatives will never try to hound Tim Cook out of Apple for supporting the same issue. For the Right, gay marriage is a moral and political controversy. For the Left, excluding homosexual couples from the institution of marriage isn’t just wrong, it’s deliberately evil.

All of a sudden, left isn’t always right.

So, it’s always made sense for marketers, when forced, to lean slightly to the left. At least until recently. In my last blog post I wrote about the conservative group, One Million Moms, who works to drive content it views as family-unfriendly from television. One campaign encouraged consumers not to buy Nature Made vitamins until the brand stopped sponsoring the “deviant and anti-Christian” show Teachers. Who knows how the people who run Nature Made actually feel about the issue? Nobody. But they pulled their ads, thereby tacitly affirming that the Right is right.

“Take that, you lefty-coddling wussy retailer. See if I ever buy another St. John suit from you!”

In response to then-candidate Donald Trump’s infamous remarks about grabbing women, a pair of women who describe themselves as “a brand strategist and a grandmother” launched #GrabYourWallet. It’s a social media movement that encourages people to boycott retailers who do business with the Trumps.

Perhaps in response to #GYW’s efforts, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and T.J. Maxx have all removed Trump-branded merchandise from their shelves. When in doubt, lean left. Right?

Not so fast.

A crusade that seems to have sprung from Washington, DC’s affluent Northern Virginia suburbs is mobilizing conservative women to march into high end department stores and present the managers with shredded store credit cards. The reason? Said Mary Carson of Vienna, Virginia to a Nordstrom manager – a retailer who had removed the Ivanka Trump line of shoes from their stores, reportedly due to poor sales, prior to the inauguration – “You all really are the best store in the area. It’s a shame you couldn’t keep your mouths shut about our president.”

Consumers aren’t just expressing their vexation by boycotting particular brands. There’s a lot of “protest purchasing” going on, too. It turns out that all that detestable Trump wine has been flying out of Wegman’s. And, as of today, Ivanka Trump’s perfume is the fastest selling fragrance brand on Amazon.

Marketers can try to stay apart from the political, social and cultural rumpus and hope that it blows over soon. But the smart ones will have plans in place to deal with the seemingly random events that can force a brand to pick a side. Famed advertising man Bill Bernbach is said to have said, “A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.”

To which a lot of marketing directors might reply, “A principle isn’t a principle if I didn’t pick it.”

Linkography

Money Talks. And Sometimes It Yells, “Shut Up!”

Part One of an (at least) two-part series on Marketing and the Culture wars.

On January 8, 2017, The New York Times published an article in the Sunday Review section with the title How To Starve Online Hate. In it, writer Pagan Kennedy (great name) describes how Nathan Phillips, an environmental science professor, visited the right-wing website, Breitbart News, for the first time, just to see what all the recent fuss was about

Breitbart Headline: Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy

On the website he was surprised to see an advertisement for Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the very grad school where he’d gotten his degree. Why would an environmental science program willingly spend money to advertise on a website that’s famous for denying climate change?

Breitbart Headline: Climate Change: The Greatest-Ever Conspiracy Against The American Taxpayer

breitbart

Right wing website Breitbart News

The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t. Anybody familiar with how programmatic online ad placements work will understand how something like this can happen. People don’t buy online ads, algorithms do. Even the most major, mainstream marketers often don’t know exactly where and when their ads run (don’t get me started).

By letting his alma mater know, to their surprise, exactly where they were spending some of their advertising dollars, Professor Phillips became one of a new form of activists. In the past several months, a Twitter group called Sleeping Giants has sent screenshots to more than 1,000 marketers whose ads ran amidst “hateful” content. More than 500 of those advertisers – including some sizable, mainstream marketers like Lenovo, Novo Nordisk, Chase, Clarins and Visa – have pulled their ads from those websites.

Naturally, there’s been all sorts of entertaining hullabaloo over this, with loyal readers of sites like Breitbart News threatening to boycott marketers who pull their ads and people on the other side of the argument pledging to buy more from brands who refuse to give ad money to the perceived bad guys’ websites.

One Million Moms, a conservative group dedicated to fighting back “against the immorality, violence, vulgarity and profanity the media is throwing at (our) children”, has been using a similar strategy for years, calling out marketers who run ads in media that promulgate what they perceive as undesirable values.

One Million Moms campaign against indecency in the media

One Million Moms campaign against indecency

One Million Moms Headline: Urge Red Lobster To Pull Sponsorship From Impastor

In some instances, they take issue with the ads themselves, such as a Zales jewelers commercial depicting two women exchanging wedding rings and vows.

One Million Moms headline: Zales Attempts to Normalize Sin

Whether your sympathies lie with the Giants or the Moms, any true capitalist has to acknowledge that this is exactly how the world should work. To the venerable five P’s of marketing; Product, Price, Place, Promotion and People, we’re going to have to add a sixth P, Principles. From now on, a brand’s principles are going to have to at least appear to align with those of the people it wants to sell to.

If your detergent brand stands for cleanliness and wholesomeness, how can you justify paying to place an ad on a violent TV show, or a sitcom that features a sexually active pair of seventeen-year-olds? If your car brand stands for safety, then explain why you give money to a website that makes marginalized groups feel unsafe.

It’s going to be up to individual marketers to decide how to wrangle this. Can you afford to alienate group A if it gets you more business from group B? Can you message to group X and hope group Y doesn’t find out?

More and more, marketers are going to be forced to take sides in the culture wars. It won’t be comfortable, but it will be interesting.

Linkography:

How To Starve Online Hate
Pagan Kennedy
Nathan Phillips
Breitbart News
Nicholas School of the Environment
How programmatic ad placement works
Sleeping Giants
One Million Moms
Impastor
Zales Jewelers Love and Pride Collection

Holy Jurassic Park! It’s a Living, Breathing Print Ad. And it’s A Good One.

I just encountered something a lot of people believe is extinct. And, I have to admit, I’d begun to think they might be right. After all, you can only hear “Conventional advertising is dead!” and “Print advertising is thoroughly, dead. Stake-through-the-heart dead. Zombie-shot-in-the-head dead. Armadillo roadkill dead. Extinct. Fossilized” so many times before you despair and reluctantly begin believing it.

Especially when you see the evidence, or lack thereof, in newspapers and magazines. Ad pages are dwindling and the work that fills them is, for the most part, execrable. Or, even worse, just invisible.

But in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal – yes, an actual, physical, printed-on-macerated-dead-trees newspaper – I came upon this big, striking ad for Shinola watches.

shinola-apple

I was slightly familiar with the Shinola story, about how Tom Kartsotis, previously of Fossil Group, adopted the brand name of a famous shoe polish (commonly found in the antiquated putdown “You’re so dumb, you don’t know sh*t from Shinola) and is now applying it to watches, leather goods and bicycles, all assembled in a hip factory in Detroit.

The brand’s products are meticulously conceived and marketed to appeal to folks who dwell in the 11206 Zip Code or aspire to. In other words, they’re the kind of small batch, artisanally-crafted, defiantly retro, slightly twee and precious merchandise that affluent hipsters snatch up by the fistful to help define their own, unique, individual style (no judgement here, I think the watch looks bitchin’).

So, given those brand characteristics, it makes sense they’d choose a small batch, artisanally-crafted, defiantly retro medium to promote their new watch, The Runwell (even the name is retro, precious and, clearly, handcrafted).

But, this is not just a print ad. It’s a really good print ad.

The strategy is clear: this is not for just anybody and, by wearing it, you’re declaring that you, yourself, are not just anybody. The copy is persuasive, devoid of hyperbole and written in complete, correctly punctuated sentences that are packed with attitude.

And the ad is beautifully designed (I have a beef with the all-uppercase body copy, but I’ll let it go).

The Runwell costs between $600 and $1,000, right in the price range of the entry-level Apple Watch. So, the fact that the ad ran directly opposite an article announcing the new Apple Watch made it all the more juicy. This is evidence that the media agency and the creative agency actually got together and planned for this to happen.

Everything about this effort is small-batch, artisanally crafted and precious. In other words, this ad was made the way effective communications have always been made, by smart people with a profound understanding of their product and their audience applying their considerable talents to the task of selling something.

Credit for this good work goes to Partners & Spade, in New York. I recently made some disparaging comments about this agency’s work for Whole Foods Markets, because I find it to be everything the Shinola ads are not, specious, sappy, packed with inflated “Here’s Why We’re Great” claims and all summed up with a chest-pounding tagline, “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store”, that I can’t believe ever got past the company’s attorneys.

A lot of my antipathy toward this work, though, is probably more personal than professional. I worked in advertising in Texas for a number of years and, during that time, every single agency in the state beat their knuckles bloody on Whole Foods’ doors, trying to get so much as a polite audience with the Austin-based grocer. But Whole Foods spurned us all, stating haughtily that they had no need of our hucksterish ways.

Now, all these years later, to see them award their business to a New York-based agency, then crank out this beautifully-shot organic pabulum, rankles my Lone-Star-Loyal sensibilities.

So, while I’ll probably be buying my kale and quinoa at Stop & Shop, if I find myself with $600 to $1,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I could easily be convinced to throw down for a Runwell, if for no other reason than to reward good, old-fashioned creative work. After all, I’m strictly a mechanical watch man. If you don’t have to wind it, I won’t wear it. I don’t believe this means I’m a wannabe hipster. I think it just means I’m sixty years old.

More Potent Marketing Messages and the IKEA Effect

In Predictably Irrational, author Dan Ariely describes the phenomenon whereby human beings naturally attach a lot more positive emotion to possessions that present a bit of challenge to obtain. He calls this The IKEA Effect.

Marketing messages can work the same way. Sometimes “Some Assembly Required” can be a very powerful thing.

A fairly recent example of this, and, in my opinion, one of the most effective works of advertising of the past five years, is the American Express “Don’t Take Chances, Take Charge” TV campaign in which everyday objects like clothing, furniture, a shower curtain and even a pair of closet doors (my favorite vignette) display sad faces while the voiceover describes how they might get stolen, lost or broken.

The faces turn happy as the copy tells us how Amex insures purchases against those very vicissitudes.

This happy yellow airplane proves I'm smart and helps American Express earn trust.

This happy yellow airplane proves I’m smart and helps American Express earn trust.

Aside from the fact that these are exquisitely crafted little films (the Bach cello music is a brilliant accompaniment), what I find particularly riveting about the ads is that you need to watch them for a few seconds to get the joke. It’s not immediately apparent that the wallet, mug of cappuccino and leather chair are “sad”.

But, by the time your brain can actually form the concept of “hey, what’s going on here?”, the coin drops, the light goes on, the synapses fire and your brain sighs with relief. You experience what I call the “aha high”. It’s the little endorphin squirt that makes you feel, without really even being aware of it,  “I get it. Thank you for proving how smart I am, American Express. I feel good about myself and I feel good about you, too.”

If you want me to trust you, don’t prove that you’re smart. Prove that I’m smart.

I don’t have any research here in my hands that demonstrates the efficacy of the American Express commercials, but I do know that I recently worked on a strategic development project for a big retailer in which we discovered the real, emotional components of the elusive thing called “trust.” One somewhat counter-intuitive insight was this:

if you want me to trust you, don’t try to prove how much smarter than me you are. Instead, make me feel smart for affiliating with you (Note: this has some pretty significant implications for any organization that sells “expertise”; whether that expertise is in home theater systems, enterprise resource planning or marketing strategy).

There are a lot of ways to make a customer feel smart. One real good one is to let them do some of the final assembly of your message all by themselves. This can be a scary proposition for some marketers. The comfortable approach would be, once you’ve gone to the trouble and expense of getting their attention with your ad or promotion or message, tell them everything. Spell it all out in clear, simple, short words. Don’t count on your audience to “get it”. And don’t dare omit anything, because you never know what part is going to connect.

But I believe sincerely (and so does Dan Ariely, who’s a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke University and a frequent TED speaker, so he must be right) that it’s our job as communicators to figure out what’s going to connect, and craft our work in a way that allows our audiences to “get it”. If we do that, they’ll value our messages more highly and we may just earn a little more of their trust in the process.

I like to watch “men like you”. I’m just not sure I want to be one.

This Australian commercial for Bundaberg Rum is hilarious. It’s beautifully produced and a hoot to watch.

I love the casting. I love the wardrobe (especially the fez). I love the song lyrics. “We pound in spikes with our bare hands…We’ll ignore that thing called Murphy’s Law.”

Brilliant. I’ve watched it ten times.

These guys look like a lot of fun, even if they are, in the end, colossal screwups. I wouldn’t mind spending a few hours in their company (if possible, in the safety of a nice, unsinkable bar), but I’m not sure I want to be one of their company.

If “men like us like Bundaberg Rum”, do I really want to be one of those men? Do I want to drink this brand and declare myself a member of this merry, but ultimately feckless band?

If you read the comments around the spot, you see lots of references to “puncturing the pomposity of most spirits advertising.” And how the clients are brave for embracing a strategy that dares to position their booze as the brand for “regular blokes”.

And I absolutely get that.TBFY

But I think back to the days when the continents were separating and I was a young pup copywriter on the Budweiser business and the This Bud’s For You campaign. That work positioned Bud as the brand for the American version of “regular blokes” by making those blokes, and the hard but crucial work they do, look heroic.

Maybe this is one of those wonderful and fascinating differences between Commonwealth and U.S. audiences that smart planners love to point out. Blue-collar Americans love to see themselves elevated because, as Americans, we all believe that we all belong at the top of the heap. The Blue-collar folks of the Commonwealth are accustomed to being a bit beaten up. In fact, they may well revel in their place in the (don’t tell me it doesn’t exist) hierarchy.

In some parts of the world, “At least we tried” is a rationale for bellying up to the bar, hoisting a dripping flagon and singing a lusty song. In the U.S., it’s more likely to be a rationale for sulking in a dim corner and getting soundly wasted.

So. I’ve probably made enough sweeping and offensive generalizations here to thoroughly hack off some of my British, Australian and Canadian pals. If that’s the case, I apologize. Anybody who knows me knows what profound respect (envy) I have for every aspect of British advertising. My desire isn’t to stir up controversy. It’s just to fish for comments.

And, let me reiterate, I think the commercial is a joy to watch. In the end, maybe that’s enough to make someone love the brand and ask for it proudly next time they’re downing a few with friends. And it certainly establishes a distinctive voice for the brand.

At least they tried. The Anglophilic part of me admires the hell out of that.

Sure. Screw ’em. They’re only our current customers.

A few days ago my wife got an email informing her that it was time to renew her subscription to a magazine that she’s subscribed to for at least ten years. The renewal price was $12 a year (Just $1 an issue! You save 83% off the newsstand price!).

That very same day, I received an email from the same magazine, offering me a New Subscriber Discount Rate of $8 for a year, plus a Free Subscription to another magazine.

Naturally, once we compared notes on the matter, she cancelled her subscription and I bought a new one. It’s a perfect Win/Lose. We saved $4 on a magazine we would’ve happily renewed at full price and we got a free subscription to another magazine. The magazine nets zero new subscribers and loses $4, plus whatever it costs to send us that free magazine every month.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think the magazine publishers are actually losing anything in this deal. They’ve got roomfuls of people with spreadsheets working the numbers on these transactions sixty-three different ways. They’re golden. Besides, most of their subscribers are probably not as sagacious as my wife. They’ll happily click the Renew button year after year because that’s the easiest thing to do. That’s what most marketers count on.

I’m much more interested in what this says about the magazine’s attitude toward its subscriber customers. Obviously, a new one is worth more to them than one who’s been a brand loyal customer for ten years.

Meg Tilly as Comcast. "Where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna hide?

Meg Tilly as Comcast. “Where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna hide?

Going to great lengths to get new customers while neglecting or even gouging existing ones is certainly not limited to the publishing business. Cable companies are notorious for offering extravagant introductory offers to new customers while slowly creeping rates up and up on long-term ones. After all, the cable business is essentially an oligopoly, so most people don’t have lots of options when it comes to where they can buy TV and Internet service. It’s like Meg Tilly’s iconic line in the 1993 version of Body Snatchers. “Where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna hide?”

This Just In: Cable Providers Frequently Less-Than-Equitable Toward Customers.

To be fair, I’ve learned recently that our cable company will happily make all kinds of terrific deals with an existing customer, if you call a secret phone number (which can eventually be obtained by calling their published customer service number), navigate through a moderately dense bunch of prompts and ask, straight out, “what will you do to make my monthly bill lower?”

But, just like clicking that renew button on the magazine’s email, most customers won’t ever do this. They’ll just grumble their way through life in a state of hostile dependence on their cable company (it’s what I would’ve done if I hadn’t been encouraged to seek out a lower rate by my sagacious wife).

It’s interesting to note that, once I’d “negotiated” a new, lower rate from the cable folks, I felt really good about myself, and about the cable company. But that’s a topic for another post.*

If You’ve Already Bought One Of Our Cars, You’re A Clueless Bumpkin. And Probably Fat.

The auto industry is another sector that treats existing customers like second-class organisms. It seems every commercial for “attractive lease rates” ends with something like “…available only to non-GM (or Ford or Nissan or whomever) lessees…” buried in that mandatory salvo of legal verbiflage. In other words, if we’re winning you over from another car brand, welcome, friend. If you’re already leasing one of our cars, well, not so fast.

That can't be a Buick! Buicks suck. And, by extension, so do the people who drive them. Now please buy one. Okey?

“That’s not a Buick!” Because, apparently, Buicks suck. And, by extension, so do the people who drive them. Now please buy one. Okay?

Dissing previous customers seems to be the core communications strategy behind the new Buick ad campaign. In the commercials, people gush over the great-looking new cars being driven by friends and neighbors. But, once being told that the cars are Buicks, the people become incredulous. They say things like “That can’t be a Buick!” Of course, what’s (barely) unsaid is “Because this car looks pretty cool, and Buicks have always been the very automotive manifestation of utter un-coolness.”

I would have loved to have been in the meeting where the Buick brand manager told the ad agency, “Look, the cars we used to make were wallowing, corpulent, sauropods. And so were the people who bought them. But now, thanks to our ability to bring European GM models over and stick a Buick grille badge on them, they’re pretty darned good. Here’s a few million bucks. Go tell everybody.”

“If You Are Short Of Friends, I’ll Tell You What To Do. Make An Examination. You’ll Find The Fault’s In You.”

Mayme White Miller wrote those lines in 1943 (I’m sure I’m not the only person my age who had the poem they’re taken from read aloud by Mom and Dad on multiple occasions) and they’re absolutely applicable in this case. Let’s be clear. I’m in the marketing business. It’s my job, and, frankly, my joy, to help companies figure out ways to sell more stuff to more people for as much money as possible. One way that some companies do that is by offering more favorable terms or, in the case of Buick, more favorable messages, to new customers, while shunning, scorning or even outright soaking previous customers. But those companies do it for two reasons. 1) It works and 2) People let them.

People persist in doing the equivalent of blindly clicking that “renew” button because it’s easy to do. And the cable companies, the car lessors and the airlines (I’m looking at you, Delta in Atlanta) know exactly how much bitching and moaning people will do without actually doing anything to rectify the pain.

People ask, “But, Bill is this right?” And I’ll smile and answer, “Lord, but I do love capitalism.”

*There are numerous studies around that prove that companies that solve a problem for a customer are rated more highly in customer satisfaction than companies that never had a problem to begin with. This deserves its own article. Maybe I’ll tackle this subject soon. But probably not.

Here’s something sort of infuriating.

When did “sort of” become something people say all the time? I heard a neuroscientist on NPR yesterday and he must’ve said “sort of” a couple of dozen times during a 30-minute segment. He actually said “…so the old brain sort of says ‘eat those cupcakes right now because fat and sugar are scarce’ and then the new brain sort of says ‘well, I’ll only have one…”.

And those weren’t even the most egregious examples.

I hear this over and over. I’ve even heard colleagues tell prospective clients about how “we use a proprietary research technique to sort of figure out why people make decisions” and then “sort of turn those insights into ideas.”

We don’t sort of do that. We really do that. I’d think clients might feel a tad diffident about paying us to sort of deliver some results.

We’ve always had “ya know” as default conversational padding. But I think that’s just an innocent, if irritating, verbal tic. “Sort of”, and it’s almost-as-insidious brother “kind of”, seem deliberately weaselly. It’s as though people are reluctant to make a definitive statement they can be pinned down about. Is this right? Are people just more prone to waffling than they used to be?

Why?

Please, somebody help me understand where this came from. Why do obviously very smart people who know exactly what they’re talking about feel the need to dilute their pronouncements this way?

Really, I’d sort of love to know.

MAKING FRIENDS IS OUR BUSINESS

In the late 70′s, I was a writer at D’Arcy, MacManus & Masius in St. Louis, working mostly on the Budweiser account.

We were shooting on location at an “authentic”, blue collar bar in LA (despite its authenticity, it had been styled and dressed to the point that its regular customers would’ve scarcely recognized it) and, since the folks who ran the place didn’t want to shut down during prime business hours, we were shooting really late at night.

Naturally, a lot of beer was being poured for the principle actors and for the background people. The process was, “Rolling”, pour beers, deliver dialog, “cut”, dump all the beers into ten-gallon plastic buckets. Repeat.

Take after take. Time after time.

When the buckets got full, a PA would carry them outside and dump them into the gutter in front of the bar.

After a few trips to the curb, the PA was approached by one of about a half-dozen, rough-looking men who were lurking on the sidewalk. “What’s that you’re pouring out?” the man asked.

When the PA told him, “Budweiser”, the tipsy gentleman’s reaction, and that of his pals, was predictably appalled. And when the PA came back inside, he announced that he would absolutely not be making any more trips to the gutter with bucketfuls of beer.

Instead, he started setting the full buckets just outside the door. In a few minutes, he’d open the door and bring in empty buckets.

When our clients from Anheuser-Busch caught on to what was happening, they saw it as a great opportunity to cultivate some brand loyalty. They went outside and gave all the sidewalk “customers” (whose numbers had expanded threefold by this time) bright red t-shirts, emblazoned with the iconic Anheuser-Busch A & Eagle and the slogan “Making Friends Is Our Business”.

My art director partner and I thought it was a pretty questionable PR move to pass out gallons of beer to a bunch of homeless alcoholics, bedeck them with your beer company’s logo and then send them reeling into the streets of Los Angeles in the wee hours of the morning. But we kept our opinions to ourselves, since we lacked the seniority to overtly question a client’s marketing acumen.

It’s safe to assume that Budweiser made some friends that night. But how much repeat, paying business this impromptu campaign generated is open to discussion.