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GP 23 August 2006: I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing

Some of the Greats.  The advertising that catches our fancy on  TV, perhaps in a newspaper, maybe even on the Internet, usually turns out to be less than meets the eye.  It turns our head, but more often than not, does not generate a lot of sales or provide enduring vitality for a brand to create some real staying power.  Even when we turn to the list of campaigns that have excited insiders in the advert community over the decades, only a very few seem resilient. The Advertising Age 100 quickly becomes 5 or 6 lone morsels when we pour through the list.  The following ads tickle us, not because they are funny, but because they are so simple and direct that they lodge permanently in our memory: 

  1. Avis, “We try harder,” Doyle Dane Bernbach Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1963
  2. Ivory Soap, “99 and 44/100% Pure,” Proctor & Gamble Co 1882
  3. Hathaway Shirts, “The man in the Hathaway shirt,” Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, 1951
  4. Reagan for President, “It’s morning again in America,” Tuesday Team, 1984
  5. Wendy’s, “Where's the beef?,” Dancer-Fitzgerald-Sample, 1984
  6. AT&T, “Reach out and touch someone,” N.W. Ayer, 1979

All of them drive home a simple point that the companies—and, of course, the Reagan Campaign—needed to make so that the world could say, “Why, they’re something special!” 

Of the lot, we think the Avis proposition is the best.  In fact, the company should go back to this “Try Harder” motto.  Avis, at its smartest, played the giant killer, a small but agile opponent to the giant Hertz, somebody who had to strive harder because he’s number two.  It’s nice to buy a service—in this case a car rental—from somebody who says he is working overtime for you.  Of course, we should mention that we rented from Avis just the other day, and the cocky counter man gave us driving instructions that cost us time and money.  Yet, at its best, Avis still has a little of the feisty spirit of Robert Townsend.  He once headed it and went on to write Up the Organization, a simple truth little business book. 

Advertising now has become complex, indirect, ironic: often you simply don’t know what’s being sold or said.  Or what the point is.  Jock Elliott, the second chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, in his time the world’s best advertising agency, told us, before he went on off to join the immortals, that he simply did not understand advertising any more.  It just made no sense to him and seemed to be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  Jock, incidentally, was fond of saying that he wanted to create advertising that rings the cash register. 

Nothing to Laugh at.  When we were growing up, Alka-Seltzer was something taken by much, much older people who drank too much.  Along the way, it ran some absolutely hilarious TV ads that featured tortured actors saying, “I cannot believe I ate the whole thing.”  It was a campaign that everybody loved, but there was a hitch.  It seems it did not move much product.  That’s the trouble with chortlin’ ads: they often wipe the smiles off of sponsor faces because everybody loves ‘em but nobody buys the product. 

Such wonderful flops speak directly to the dilemma of present day marketing.  All sorts of tricks and dodges fog up our advertising, and the customer fails to get the point.  Fairly sage people have written about the pitfalls of humor.  Humor seems to work fairly well with small products—say, candy—that don’t  involve a big buying decision but fails when it comes to computers, cars, or even diamonds, according to marketing professor Harlan Spotts

“Humor is an effective tool for selling products like candy and gum, because consumers don't have to do much decision-making before they buy such items,” Spotts said.  “These are the products that we buy for enjoyment,” he said.  “These are products people don’t take seriously. 

“But humor doesn’t work in ads marketing products such as sports cars, jewelry and designer clothing, because people have very personal ties to those goods,” Spotts said. “Ads poking fun at those products offend some consumers so much that they will not buy the product.” 

Moreover, guffaw advertising probably goes over better on the radio, than in newspapers or even on TV.  Piel’s, a Brooklyn beer, never really was memorable ‘til Bob and Ray—Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding—took it on.  Over the radio they became Bert and Harry Piel, the mythical Piel brothers.  Their humor had a light touch and captivated large audiences.  Despite all the recognition the Piel brothers received, they did not move much beer, because the ads lacked the final 10% that makes a sale.  That said, radio comedy can do the deed.  But it’s not an easy to sell with the twists and turns humor takes. 

Good Guy Selling.  The same problems crop up when companies try to mingle environmental and social messages about themselves with their product sales.  These messages add complexity that is many times worse than that encountered when you throw in a laugh.  The good news is that companies are becoming more environmentally and socially sensitive—way out in front of our politicians.  But the bad news is they don’t know how to blend social and sales communication.  Carol Holding, a branding strategist in Manhattan, thinks most companies are throwing away brand equity by not putting  their Green stuff into their sales pitch, although she thinks a few are seizing this opportunity: 

New ideas are generated by engaging with publics out of the ordinary, with critics, futurists, environmentalists, people in markets seemingly too poor to be considered as potential markets — in short, with audiences introduced by CSR engagement.  Once considered risky behavior, engaging in these new relationships is uncovering profit-making (or cost-cutting) ideas business has never thought of before.  Leaders like Nike, Unilever, Philips, Coca-Cola, Motorola, and Citibank are all making profit from what started as a CSR project.  Each company was out front with its brand, talking to its markets and looking for ways to sell products that will help both the citizens, its business—and it’s own citizen brand. 

She feels that you can capture whole new audience segments for your product when you talk about doing good while doing well. 

Soul Searching.  We would add, however, that companies are struggling with the problems of integrating their commercial identities with their social and environmental passions.  It is not that they are not trying. Toshiba, for one, held a wide open meeting to look at itself through the eyes of its audiences

While participants expressed favorable opinions about the high energy efficiency and durability of Toshiba products, they also delivered some tough opinions to the effect that Toshiba’s profile is obscure, that they feel little familiarity with Toshiba, and that in comparison with other companies our environmental activities are inconspicuous and our stance on the environment is ineffectively communicated. Some participants proposed that we use TV commercials and other advertising to actively communicate our contributions in the medical equipment field and other areas not related to home appliances, our environmental initiatives, and our socially beneficial activities. 

Andrew Young.  A while back, Wal-Mart hired the distinguished Andrew Young—former civil rights worker, Congressman, Mayor of Atlanta, and Ambassador to the UN—to put a face on its social and environmental activities.  But he has had to resign since he made some divisive racial remarks about the impact of transient shopkeepers in the black community.  Wal-Mart, under civic assault and troubled businesswise, having recently suffered an unprecedented profit reversal, has distanced itself from the ambassador.  Which is all to say that there a whole lot of ways to get blindsided when talking up one’s own civic virtues. 

That raspy man from Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, once said, “In the United States, doing good has come to be, like patriotism, a favorite device of persons with something to sell.”  Voices like his remind us that we must walk and talk softly no matter what we are up to.   It’s clear that companies must and will talk about their citizenship obligations that extend way beyond their determination to create shareholder value.  It is becoming clearer to most that the corporation has to create value in all sorts of ways.  But to talk about it: that’s a tricky business. 

If one doubted that social and environmental messaging demands skill and intelligence, one only has to look at the quandary of the environmental community.  Green advocates are putting out terribly muddled communications that have in themselves been a drag on environmental initiatives.  In “Tilting at Windmills,” we have noted that the environmental movement needs to recharge its intellectual batteries.  In a provocative speech, two young Turks have even bemoaned “The Death of Environmentalism.”  Well, it’s not dying, but it is sending out mixed messages. 

We have advised our clientele that social messaging can be compared to humorous advertising.  Only certain types of products and services can bear the freight of social messages.  As importantly, certain media are better than others for distributing the message.  Humor went over well on the radio. Green talk does better on blogs and other types of interactive media.  Above all, it has a consuming need to be much less tedious and pontificating. 

Stuck in One’s Craw.  Ads and discussions that take on rambling, too complex messages get lost.  In ads now, we constantly run the risk of swallowing too big a mouthful and choking.  Whereupon nothing, nothing at all, gets expressed.  To eat the whole thing is to get dyspepsia and to gag. 

P.S.  The advertising trade, as we knew it, is in retreat and will have to re-invent itself.  Corporations are no longer willing to pay the media placement fees that used to be the bread and butter of agencies: with the advent of television, the 15% fees became a license to steal and it made agencies lazy and un-creative.  Now they have all gotten into something called integrated marketing, which means they will sell you a mix of anything you can be persuaded to buy.  A lot of revenue is drifting towards the Internet as companies realize that it is effective for selling, but all the ads there, of whatever type, are of low quality, scraping the bottom of the barrel.  By and large, don’t trust anything that has integrated in the title (e.g., integrated marketing, integrated curriculum, integrated communications, etc.). 

P.P.S.  One reason companies are doing a bad job at CSR (another horrible acronym meaning ‘corporate social responsibility’) is that they have yet to come to terms with the expanded charter of responsibilities that is implied by the act of incorporation.  CSR is still regarded as an unwelcome nuisance.  Corporate managers just regard it as overhead, another burdensome cost, not as part of their compact with society. 

P.P.P.S.   The Bert and Harry idea did sell a lot of liquid when it was reincarnated to sell wine.  Bartles and James (we think it’s sort of a Ripple type wine cooler) featured a couple of old geezers who closed with “Thank you for your support.”  Translated: “Thank you for buying our stuff.”  For more on this, see the Bartles and James website.  These ads, incidentally, were prepared by the Oglivy and Mather folks. 

P.P.P.P.S.  There’s an old truism in the ad community that’s not to be scoffed at: “It ain’t creative, if it doesn’t sell.”

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