Saturday, September 18, 2010

What The Heck Are They Advertising?

There is something funny about advertising – if done correctly, it can galvanize people into reacting the way the advertiser wants; if done incorrectly, it can take down a product line or an entire company. The latter is rare, but Classic Coke is the perfect example of a product not living up to the hype of the campaign. I have been in this game in one form or another since 1971. A long, long time that doesn’t seem possible to me until I look in the mirror or see photos of myself. I have seen a lot of good and a lot of bad advertising in my day. I have produced a lot of good and a lot of bad advertising in my day. And I had thought I had seen almost everything when it comes to advertising prowess (or lack thereof).

I was wrong. Oh, so very, very wrong.

Commercials for colleges are a very tricky thing. They want you to know how strong an education your child will get if they go there, they want to show off the campus with the monolithic buildings and areas of peace and calm where students can escape the daily rigors of higher education and contemplate lifeforms living on a dust mote and whether we, too, are living on some dust mote in some other universe. Colleges want to show solid and long-term quality of education. These elements are what build trust. The last thing a college wants to show is weakness. A college doesn’t want to get on Playboy magazine’s list of the Top 10 Party Campuses in the nation. No. They want to show serious academic credentials and, in the case of the larger colleges, collegiate sports prowess. Preferably the college can show both. Watch a college football game to see what I am talking about.

Let’s travel to Middle Tennessee and an art college that has recently moved into a new building that has some wonderful features that make the campus green and inviting. I would have said high-tech, but it isn’t quite there yet; there are elements that have to be updated but won't be for a while. As part of the overall awareness campaign process, a new web site was launched, new swag was produced, and a new advertising campaign was launched. The web site is nice, although it has many grammatical and factual errors on it. (Not good for an institute of “higher learning”.) The swag, I’m sure, is of the highest quality. A recent tweet saying the people at this college really know how to party is a bit iffy when it comes to the message of how serious the college is about its curriculum and the education their students recieve. (I know the mentality, though....'we're an art college so we don't attract the typical student. This is what our students will think is "fly"'.) But it’s the TV commercial that has me – to use an old, granny-like term – flabbergasted. Proudly stated in this thirty-seconds of typographic mayhem is the fact that the college has a new faculty and a new curriculum.


Does this mean for the past 37 years their curriculum and faculty – gasp!— sucked? Does it mean that their awarded diplomas were given via inferior instruction and an inferior course of study? Does this mean that all the students over all the years were short-changed? I’m not even sure how this can be argued into positive positioning for the existing students and the parents of potential students.

“Hey! Up to now you’ve gotten sub-par coursework. We’re correcting that.” Nope. That doesn’t work.

“We did the best we could, but now we have good people in here to teach you. The other instructors were not as good as we wanted. The new instructors can handle the tougher courses we’re now teaching.” Nope. That doesn’t work.

A constantly evolving curriculum is expected and doesn’t need to be part of an advertising campaign. I expect that a medical university is going to continually update its coursework to meet the needs of a changing technology. I expect that an architectural curriculum would evolve to teach the most recent advances in the field. That goes without saying. Ohio State, Western Kentucky, Harvard, Bubba’s College of Hair Design…none of them ever, ever, ever would put a commercial on the air or information on their site that suggested their curriculum was inferior and needed to be changed. (OK, maybe Bubba’s would, but let's not focus on them.) By stating they have revamped their curriculum this college has stated they didn’t know what they were doing before. Even with all the award-winning, highly successful instructors they had teaching there. Even with the awards they proudly state their students have won over the years. If I were the competition, I would be jumping all over that college’s message and stealing students away by the droves. No matter how you slice it, an institute of higher learning spouting that it has a new faculty and a new curriculum does not engender confidence.

Colleges have a fine line to walk. They have to make parents feel confident their children will get the best education possible while making the potential student salivate to go there because of all the college has to offer. Confidence does not spring forth if you advertise the fact that you really, really screwed up - for almost four decades. It springs forth over the fact they have been around for that amount of time and they have been successfully growing to meet the students’ needs. I’m thinking this is what was trying to be stated, but it doesn’t come across that way. Not in the least.

Choices in words are critical when creating advertisements. One wrong word, one wrong inflection, one misspelling can tear an entire campaign down, whether it is in print, on-air or online. An idea might seem really ‘cool, yo!’ on the outset, but by taking a step back and looking at the message from all angles, you can catch glaring mistakes like this which can ultimately hurt the company you're trying to promote.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

What Do We Tell The Kids

I'm not sure what people are thinking these days. I drive through town and see bumper stickers with the B-word splashed proudly across it, bumper stickers and window clings showing cartoon characters peeing on something (usually a logo), and general obscenities displayed without thought to who will see these words and who won't. I can't tell you how often I hadtofield questions from my children and grandchildren asking what that meant or listening tothem try to read the phrases and then having to tell them what they are saying is not acceptable in polite company. Then I have to try to explain why, if these phrases or words are not acceptable in polite company, they are being worn in public.

Isn't it enough that we're bombarded with this kind of thing on a daily basis when walking down the street or getting on to Facebook, Twitter or other social media site? People feel they can say anything they want without any repercussion. I can't even count the number of times I have walked down the street and people drop the f-bomb as if it were no different that saying 'hi'. We use WTF without thought. Words like hell, damn or the s-word are used without regard to the audience. All this does is teach our kids that saying these type of words is perfectly ok.

Now, a company that caters to people of all ages....from early teens to oldsters like adding to the rash of obscenity-laden advertising and marketing. I'm talking about these three ads for Geek Squad:

How do I explain these to my younger children or grandchildren?

Some say this is brilliant advertising. That it touches on something everyone can relate to. Who hasn't said something like this at one point or another when the computer locks up or goes the way of the Kabuki Trail? Of course, if our children say any of these words, we would send them into time out. So why is this ok in a public location?

If I walk into an adult bookstore, I know I'm going to see certain material that is not appropriate for all ages. I go into a store where I am supposed to be able to bring my kids and see signs like this, I'm not a happy camper. I don't expect it. I expect something more family friendly. If I open a magazine that isn't published by Larry Flynt, Hugh Hefner or Bob Guccione, I don't expect to see something like this smacking me in the face.

Have we as a society become so inured to obscene language that the use of it in a public location where children of all age groups can see it has become acceptable? I don't find this creative, I find it offensive and totally unacceptable. I don't want to walk into a store or open a magazine and have to explain what is being said in these ads or why. Maybe I'm old. Maybe I'm too conservative. But why should I be blind-sided with inappropriate images or language everywhere I go?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Marketing and The Political Candidate

It's election season in case you hadn't noticed. Time for all the politicians to come out of the woodwork and swarm the airwaves with messages that skirt defamation suits, give promises that could only be met if hell freezes over, and fill our weary ears with endless "I approved this message" messages. And, once again, the political machine and their marketing arms believe that we are so stupid as to believe even one eighth of what is being said.

So, the question is, what marketing genius (geniuses? genii?) ever thought that in this day and age someone would actually believe that one person could go to Washington and change the way Congress, the Senate, or government overall works? Right now, my area is being inundated with political spots touting how Candidate X will march into Congress and reduce their pay. Uh...yeah! Right! Candidate Y is saying they will march right up those Capital steps and reduce the number of members of Congress. Uh....yeah! Candidate Z will give the boot to Washington, DC. Right! I've looked very closely at these politicians -- I literally have nose prints on my TV screen from looking so close -- and not one of them, no matter how hard I squint or cross my eyes or blur my vision, looks one iota like Jimmy Stewart. I hate to tell you but Mr. Smith ain't goin' to Washington, Mr./Ms Marketing-Person-Responsible-For-These-It's-A-Wonderful-Life-Fictions.

Again, I ask the following: Who do these people think they're fooling?

Is there anyone out there who really believes this drivel? Are we not at the point where changes need to occur not only in Washington (that's a whole other rant in the making) but in the way we market the people we are sending to the District of Columbia to represent us? Do these marketers actually believe the words they are putting in the candidates' mouths? I want to know what research is being done that makes these wizards of words think there are folk out there who will fall for their messages. There's a lot of rural areas around my 'neck o' the woods', but I have yet to meet any of those fine people living there who are so dimwitted as to believe an individual man or woman can singlehandedly change the way the entire US government currently does business. I'm sure there probably are some who might believe these messages, but I don't want to know them. I really want to live in my own little hermetically sealed bubble and pretend they don't exist.

But I digress.

Each election year we, the people, state in the immortal words of Roger Daltrey and The Who: 'We Won't Get Fooled Again'. Yet each election year, some marketing firm, some hired gun, manipulates a candidate into thinking the only way to get their message across is to fool the people one more time. Market to a second grade mentality. The audience doesn't understand the issues; they don't care about the issues. All they want is change and you're just the person to do it! And the fool of a candidate believes what he is being told and spouts those retread messages out in an unconvincing manner. He or she gets on camera, tries to be an actor and look sincere and politically savvy, and reads their lines in a monotone fashion that makes the acting in Plan 9 From Outer Space look like Oscar-worthy performances.

The politician as actor? I think not. The actor as politician? Been there, done that.

Is it any wonder marketing is being looked upon as something akin to the old time snake oil salesman? In this day and age, it's all about the facts. No one blindly believes the ads they see on TV or in print. They go online and research. They talk with others across the country to find out what they thought of the product. It's about social networking and having a presence on Twitter and Facebook. Something we're led to believe the politicians are learning to do. President Obama's people became masters of social media manipulation and continue to use it. Whether it is effective any more can be argued, but it sure was effective during the campaign and all the way into the White House. The problem is, most politicians might be on Facebook and their people might Tweet, but they aren't truly utilizing the medium in a modern manner. They are stuck in the Father-Knows-Best-Black-And-White world of the '50s where innocence was still in place and the general population believed that the government was filled with moral, upstanding people who truly wanted the best for this country. They're saying what they think we want to hear. Maybe some of these politicians believe what they're saying (they did appove their messages, as we all know), but if they truly think that they'll walk into those hallowed halls of Congress and put a boot to the backsides of some of the most powerful men and women in the world, well, I feel sorry for them. If they think the majority of the voters believe they will be able to accomplish that feat single-handedly, well, they're living in a dream world. Maybe they're taking a Magic Carpet Ride fueled by '60s flashbacks.

And they're trying to take us with them....

....and Toto, too!

I recently read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and, comparing it to the fiction being put forth in these political ads and online messages, I tend to lean toward the belief that ol' Honest Abe actually did kill him some vampahrs and that John Wilkes Booth was a vampahr hisse'f. That version of Lincoln's rise to the presidency is much easier to swallow than the fictional delusions of the marketing people behind today's candidates that are being thrust at me on TV, the radio, or the internet.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

When Bad Billboards Get Worse

For a lot of years now, I have been driving the highways and byways of Nashville and I thought I had seen it all when it came to billboard advertising. I have seen the good — usually a national account like Coke or Pepsi or Verizon or some such — and the bad, the most outstanding of which was a billboard for a flavored vodka that was totally unreadable. This is the story of that billboard and its progeny. This is a story Stephen King would be hard-pressed to come up with.

This billboard for Country Club Vodka had a shot of each of the vodka labels, each of which had a different highly-stylized font, lined up next to each other. The result was an unreadable hodge-podge of shape and color. A veritable cornucopia of visual cacophony that literally assaulted the senses. I would find myself staring at this mess for extended periods of time, even though I was driving 55 – 60mph through a maze of roadway where three different interstates converge. It’s a wonder I didn’t cause an accident. “But, Your Honor, I was blinded by the most blatantly bungled billboard in the history of billboards,” I could have argued. I doubt, however, it would have done me any good. And, unfortunately, the billboard was like a train wreck; even though I knew I was about to pass it and began chanting “don’t look don’t look don’t look” mantra-style at least three miles before reaching the offensive advertisement, I still drove by with my attention transfixed on that monstrosity. It called to me like ‘It’ called the little children into its ghastly clutches.

Well, I thought that was the worst of the worst, the epitome of poorly executed advertising, the Heaven’s Gate of the billboard world. I finally learned to drive a different way so its siren call didn’t affect me any more. I thought I was safe from the clutches of the 40 foot unreadable flavored vodka labels.

I was wrong.

Over the past three years, Country Club Vodka has had a campaign with the tag line, ‘Plays Well With Others’. OK. Fine. I can live with that. They are trying to sell fruit-flavored vodkas, so the line fits. Kinda sorta. Good, cheap vodka with the crisp, clean blending of apple, cherry, lemon, lime. Ummm Buddy!

But visually, here came another assault on the sensabilities. There were three billboards that cycled through those three years, each of which featured (for the most part) four people from different walks of life with fruit in their mouths as if they were mouth guards. There was a big, burly biker with a fruit wedge for teeth. There was a skinny lady of indiscriminate age. Heck, there was even a bulldog. Yep. A bulldog. With cherries hanging from its maw. I think vodka is toxic to animals, isn’t it? Then there’s the little old lady with cherries on a stem clenched between her teeth gazing longingly at the young man next to her. The woman was probably in her late 50s/early 60s. Maybe older. The young man was in his mid-20s. The lady was the ultimate cougar. But a cougar with her viginity, because, subliminally, isn’t that what’s being said? Old lady with cherries staring lovingly at an unsuspecting young man? Hmmmm. Of course, I’m not sure the people who put these ads together would have any idea about subliminal messages as ‘sophisticated’ as that.

I thought those were bad enough. And, for a very short time, the billboards seemed to have disappeared. With a sigh of relief, I hoped they had run their course.

I was wrong.

Out comes Billboard #4 in the series. This time, three people — a bride with an apple in her mouth, an 80s Freddy Mercury/Tony Orlando/Village People guy with a handlebar mustache and cherries hanging from his teeth, and a heavy-set woman with an orange slice firmly planted in her mouth. At first glance, they look like illustrations. As you gaze longer into the horror that is this billboard, you see these could actually be photographs.

Of real people.

Think I’m overstating things? Well, here it is in all its ignominious lack of glory.

The assault continues! My poor, long-suffering eyes now have an all-new group of fruit-sucking strangers to stare at.

How can anyone think this sells product of any kind? And, subliminally, what’s the message being conveyed by the woman on the right? Is there a spit hidden somewhere out of our line of vision? Is that hidden spit causing that almost orgasmic look on her face? (The whole spit thing is probably going to come across as cruel and completely politically incorrect, but isn’t it incorrect to put a person into such a position where it can be construed that way?) I’m sure it can be argued that having a sip of this low-cost vodka is the next best thing to sex. Or maybe it’s better. Looking at her…….who knows.

It can also be argued that no publicity is bad publicity and that my even bringing this up is validating this layout and helping to sell this product.

I don’t think so.

I know there have got to be samples of really, really bad outdoor advertising in your market. Let’s start sharing so that maybe, some day, poorly planned and executed advertisements will be long gone from our society.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Clash of the (Tech) Titans

It's kind of fascinating how, in a few short years, Apple has launced some of the most powerful and widely accepted devices in the world. The iP trio -- iPod, iPhone, iPad -- have become synonymous with high-tech cool. So much so that Apple has now surpassed Microsoft as the largest tech company. According to Reuters News Service, Apple surged past Microsoft as "...Apple's shares rose as much 2.8 percent on Nasdaq on Wednesday, as Microsoft shares floundered, briefly pushing its market value above $229 billion, ahead of its longtime rival.

"Both stocks ended down after a late-day sell-off, but Apple emerged ahead with a market value of about $222 billion, compared with Microsoft's $219 billion, according to Reuters data."


As an Apple user since the Mac first came out way before the turn of the century and in those strange Orwellian days of 1984, I have had a personal stake in Apple's success. (Like my stake means anything in the overall scheme of things. This and $5.00 will get me a cup of coffee at any coffee house in the country, but that's beside the point.) I really didn't want a one-operating system world. I loved watching David go against the ever-growing Goliath. I wanted to see a Newton-ian shift in power as the apple fell from its height and knocked Goliath down. Not out, but down. And I also realize that that proverbial apple would have had to have been thrown upwards because Apple never seemed to gain enough of a foothold to get above Microsoft. (We all know why, so why belabor that point.)

Now, the iWorld is all about Apple. People who badmouth Apple's computers clamor for Apple products of all sort. People who complain about the expense of Mac computers will pay heavy prices for phones, pads, pods, gizmos because of their 'wow' factor and because they have an 'i' in front of the name (hmmm...iWashers and iDryers and iStoves and iBeds and....Oh, enough already!). It's actually a sign of the times as we become more and more connected via smaller and smaller devices. Are we reaching the point where so-called normal computers will no longer exist in the consumer market? Will towers and laptops be relegated to the professional world where movies like Shrek IV and Toy Story IV are created and design firms spit out ads that will inevitably be seen on the i-Pad/Pod/Phone?

It sure looks that way. And it sure looks like, no matter its history, Apple has found a niche that even Bill Gates, et al, can't quite crack.

I can't wait to see what happens next as Goliath enters the colosseum to fight Goliath.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

A New Way to Market?

This has got to be one of the more fun ideas that has come around in a while: Yarn Bombing.

Yarn Bombing is the act of creating something -- usually something artistic -- out of yarn and then leaving it or placing it or wrapping it around something in a public place. A scarf around the neck of a statue. A blanket over a park bench. A cover over lamp posts. And here's a photo from a site called that is almost the epitome of yarn bombing:

Seems like a lot of work. OK, the example above has got to be a lot of work! But there is definitely a way we marketers could utilize the yarn bombing phenomenon to promote our clients. We all have clients that are, how should I say this, a bit out there and willing to try different avenues to get their name etched in the public's collective mind. Imagine a client's name stitched and stretched around a lamp post, or stitched pocket squares left willy-nilly around town in bus stops or on park benches that prominently display a client's logo. How many would be picked up? How many discarded? Even if just a handful of people responded because of a promotion like this, it would probably be worth the effort. If you take this yarn bombing idea, start small by picking a targeted area in which to test its effectiveness, the cost per impression ratio could be easily plotted.

Legal issues aside, and we all know there would be legalities that have to be explored before attempting to do some of the more extreme versions of yarn bombing, we could easily have a new medium for physical social marketing staring us in the face.