german theropod dinosaur

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.


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.

Bundaberg Crew

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.

A Stack Of Waffles

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?


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.



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.

Business Man with Computer over his head

Ban these words and phrases for at least the next five years.

Yesterday (Friday, March 14, 2014, that’s Pi Day)  I posted a list of annoyingly abused words and phrases on Facebook and, holy cow, people I haven’t seen in fifteen years started weighing in with their own ideas about overused and irritating verbiage. By the end of the day we had assembled a definitive list of terms that must be banned and banished, if not forever, then at least for a while.

To wit:

Amazing (For the luvvagod, please, please find a new adjective. And why does everybody have to sound like a fourteen-year-old girl when they use it? “Uh-MEEEZ-ing.”)

Authentic (Do you mean crude, unprocessed, unedited, uncurated, unimproved, just simply spewed forth in raw form from some fundamental source? I’ll pass. Thanks.)

Artisanal (I saw a plastic package labeled Artisanal Lettuce in a grocery store a few days ago. It’s a plant. It grows out of the dirt. Unless scientists are “crafting” the genome of this stuff in some wonderfully, special way, there’s nothing Artisanal about it. I can’t imagine we need any further proof that this term is now absolutely dead).

Passion (This was a cool and transgressive word between 2009 and 2012. Especially in the business world. I’ll admit to getting some mileage out of it myself. Now, every schmuck’s got a “passion” about something. I just saw a commercial for Lindor proclaiming their chefs’ “passion” for chocolate. It’s made in a big factory, folks. Ditch this word immediately.)

Spot On (I know, that’s two words, so I’m doubly weary of it)

Decimate (unless you actually mean “to kill one out of ten”, and you can’t decimate objects, you can only decimate groups of people, sheesh!)


Literally (When you mean figuratively or metaphorically. That quinoa was not so good that you literally swallowed your tongue. You’d die.)

Innovate and its demon-cursed sister-word Innovation (Again, I’ve milked this one myself. But it’s time to give it the double-tap behind the ear. And it’s a shame, because it’s a real good and useful word that’s just been abused into meaninglessness.)

Wait for it…


World Class

Thought Leader (And, by the way, you don’t get to call yourself a thought leader. Somebody has to confer that title on you. But it’s still stupid. Don’t use it.).


At the end of the day…

That said…

Pivot (Just say “start over”. Please.)

Awesome (Even nine-year-old-boys don’t say this any more because it’s just that passé.)

So that’s our list, created by a couple of dozen “creative professionals” of various stripes. Oh! Wait! I have to add a term.

Creative (This is worthy of a post all its own. It may be one of the most abused terms in the business world. For now, use it very cautiously. Be thoughtful about what you label “creative”.).

Does anybody have anything to add? “Input” is welcome. There’s a term I love. “Input”. A more honest label would be “interference”.