Advertising Crtiticism

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, This 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”

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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”

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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 buy. 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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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.