Brands to Super Bowl: Thank you for a crappy game.

d44f4c05eaafff0286ea1cb62b8f64cbEvery commercial in the Super Bowl was better than any thirty or 60 seconds of the game or the halftime show.

And for that, the advertisers who bought time during the broadcast should be grateful. Because a whole slew of ads that in other years would have sent viewers off to get more guac or take a bathroom break became magically entertaining vs. the 3-and-outs on the field.

My own metric of “best” and “worst” spots is different than the USA Today polls and other audience polls. Because I grade on a curve: the shittier the brief, the more tolerant I am of bad execution.

Mercedes’ spot for voice-activated controls on its new C class, for example, had the kind of brief creatives dread: make a big deal about a feature that’s, well, not a big deal. So they came up with a time-worn trope: if only everything in the world worked like _________, the blank being your product feature goes here. But they get a pass (the escaping Orca helped), because the brief sucked.

But the team working on the Washington Post spot had the dream brief of all time: defend the importance of journalism in these perilous post-factual times. I mean, I’d kill for that brief. And what did they run? Essentially, a rip-o-matic. Yes, Tom Hanks did the VO but it’s not like they gave him a lot to work with. Disappointing.

Also on the wrong end of the grading curve is Olay’s fright-film homage with Sarah Michelle Gellar. Why? Because buried underneath a lot of superfluous dialogue and jumpy editing is an absolutely brilliant product-driven idea: Olay works so well, your phone’s face-recognition technology won’t unlock the phone so you can call 911. This is pure conceptual gold, and in more deft hands would have been a lock for a Cannes Lion. Over complicated and over-produced, it’s an enormous missed opportunity.

Amazon’s Alexa spot and the two Google spots are a study in contrast. Amazon, for reasons that elude me, decided to visualize everyone’s worst fears about AI-empowered personal tech, updating the Frankenstein/Golem trope with Alexa-equipped dog collars, hot tubs and space stations ruining our lives. Super-nerdy footnote: Harrison Ford, himself a self-aware robot in Blade Runner, being terrorized by his tech-enabled dog. Google, on the other hand, follows the winning playbook they used for their beautiful “Paris” Super Bowl spot of a few years back: tell a heartwarming human story and show how Google technology plays a helpful part. Clear idea, good craft, and Google’s role right-sized and authentic.

Pepsi/T-Mobile/Expensify/Sprint/Bud Light/…don’t ask me because I’m not the target and my grumpy-old-man opinion is irrelevant. But while I think the whole Dilly Dilly thing is stupid, I’m at least grateful to Bud Light, HBO and their agencies for truly and completely surprising me with the GOT ending. Way more exciting than watching the Rams punt.

Take this ad and ship it.


I’ve done enough corporate we-really-are-nice-guys ads in my life to know a non-apology when I see one. 

This ad checks all the boxes of corporate humility except one. There’s the no-frills art direction. The modest little logo in the lower left. The snowy-white negative space. The “personal” flourish of Zuck’s signature. The plain-spoken, Riney-esque syntax. 

Everything a mea culpa ad should have, except for one thing: the magic words “I’m sorry.” Zuckerberg does say “…I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time.” That’s some lawyered-up bullshit. Anytime you hear someone in the public eye say something with the words “at that time” that’s a lawyer talking. “I’m sorry.” needs to be its own sentence, without qualifiers and without hedges. 

“I’m sorry.” The magic words that open ears and soften hearts. They’re not in this ad because Mark Zuckerberg is not sorry. What’s more, he’s not sorry that he’s not sorry because you and I are not his customers. We are the product. And products don’t get apologies.

They get sold.

Trump’s hiring practices explained.


For a man prone to superlatives, Donald Trump sure seems comfortable with mediocrity in his key appointments. I’m not talking about ideology here. I’m talking about competence and experience. There are plenty of whip-smart hard-right conservatives who know their way around government.

But Trump surrounds himself with nincompoops, neophytes, family members and sycophantic retainers. Jared Kushner is in charge of everything but the White House kitchen. Ivanka meets with world leaders. Spicey, who admittedly has a crap job, is terrible at it. Bannon is by all accounts smart, but otherwise looks and acts like a homeless person. Then there’s Manafort, Burwell, Roger Stone, Boris Shteyngart, Omarosa….why?

The answer we’d like to believe is that better-qualified people have too much honor and self-respect to work for Donald Trump.

Don’t believe it.

When the President of the United States, even Cheeto Jesus, asks you to join his team, and if his policy views even mildly overlap with yours, it’s very tough to say no. Trump could have had an inner circle that was seasoned, informed and good at their job.

I think the simpler, and therefore more likely to be correct, answer is because Donald is bent. And bent people need other bent people who won’t rat them out and won’t have moral qualms about doing more bent stuff.

Neither the corporate world nor even the government fits this paradigm well. Instead, look at the Sopranos: a wily, blustery capo surrounded by wackos and hangers-on, and a family that chooses to ignore Tony’s criminal behavior because they like the BMWs and bling. They’re all complicit, they’re all at risk–which makes them loyal in a way an untainted person could never be.

Viewed this way, Trump’s HR strategy makes more sense. The innermost circle is family (including Jared, son of a felon). The next ring out is the bent brigade, many of whom could easily wind up doing a perp walk for everything from perjury to working for a foreign government to money laundering to fraud. They’re all in this together, thick as the proverbial thieves.

Big Pussy? Chris Christie. Silvio, with that pompadour? Bannon. Christopher? Jared. Omarosa? KellyAnn. See? It all fits. Feel free to fill out the rest of the cast before they start stamping out license plates.



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We have only ourselves to blame.

When the going gets weird, the weird go pro.

–Hunter S. Thompson


Ad people are a pretty left-leaning bunch (the great Hal Riney and a few others being notable exceptions) and that certainly describes me. So like my fellow progressives, I’ve been in a self-pitying sulk since last Tuesday night. Staying off Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo for a week freed up some think time, and since this is a dead siteblog focusing on advertising, these thoughts are addressed to my colleagues:

Stop blaming Comey.

Stop blaming Bernie.

Stop blaming Millenials.

Stop blaming the media.

And most of all, stop blaming people with different values and different cultural reference points than yours.

You’ve all sat in enough focus groups and “ethnography” studies to know America isn’t Billyburg or even Hoboken.

You know–because you’ve told your clients this in defense of your craft–that emotions guide decision-making, not reason.

You were taught—or should have been if you weren’t—that before a customer can care about what you know, he needs to know whether or not you care.

The Democratic campaign leadership failed on all these counts. They wrote off an enormous swath of the voting public as Flyover Zone yahoos: too dumb, too ill-informed, too bigoted and too Jesus-loving to bother with.

And only after the damage was done, did they consider the possibility that some of those yahoos might have voted for Hilary if they were accorded just a smidgen of respect and attention.

Progressives—and I’m assuming at my peril that means most of my advertising cohort–were appalled at the alternate universe of Trump supporters: an echo chamber of true believers reinforcing and validating each others’ views.

The irony, of course, is that the exact same could be said of our own liberal bubble. Confident in our enlightened perspective and superior grasp of the facts, we commiserate with each other online and express our wonderment over this turn of events. We need to spend less time on HuffPo and more time with real people unlike ourselves if we’re ever to get our heads out of our collective asses and turn this thing around.

Remember the Maslow hierarchy from Psych 101? Let me jog your memory:maslowshierarchyofneeds-svg

Basic, primitive needs come first. That’s how we’re wired. When the crappy, highly processed cereal filled with government-subsidized corn and sugar is $2 a box and the locally produced, GMO-free granola is $8 and I’m making $10.25 an hour, I don’t want to be lectured about healthy eating. I may or may not be willing to support gay marriage, or welcome immigrants, or keep crazy people away from guns. I may be open to understanding and accepting the validity of other people’s religious beliefs.

But right now, I got other shit to think about, OK?

That’s what we lefties always get wrong. We’re always assuming the issues we’re passionate about—equality, inclusion, personal growth, the environment—should be everybody’s top priority. But all those issues fit into the tiny blue triangle of self-actualization at the top of Maslow’s pyramid. The rest, a giant submerged iceberg of hurt and need, is what the Democratic campaign ran into and then sank.

Here are two books that I highly recommend to fellow coastal and urban progressives and to advertising people in particular. In them you’ll find a more nuanced and more empathetic portrayal of people who live in a very different world than ours, but who are nonetheless recognizably human.







Going native.

“Native advertising”—what we used to call advertorials in the world of dead-tree media—are having a moment, and part of me hopes it doesn’t last much longer than that.

It’s somewhat impolitic of me to say that in a public (if lightly trafficked) forum, since my agency, like most others, is dabbling in the medium for some of our clients.

The premise is simple enough: disguise the fact that your ad is an ad, make it mimic the editorial format it’s placed in, and readers will lower their guard and be more receptive to your message. People consume media for its content, right? Ads are something to be endured, ignored or skipped. Make your ad look like editorial content and people will engage.

Well, maybe.

Since this blog exists in a data-free zone, I can’t verify one way or another if this ploy works in digital media. I know, or think I know, it doesn’t work very well in print, even though you see it all the time, especially in lifestyle publications. Usually it’s what is absurdly termed a “value added” media buy: put an ad in our rag,  and we’ll put some pseudo-editorial focusing on your brand nearby.

In practice, what happens is either a) low-level creatives at the agency are assigned the advertorial, which does nothing for their portfolio and which calls for journalistic skills they likely don’t have; or b) the publication assigns its own hacks, who do an equally execrable job. To make it worse, all this ad-plus-editorial crap is usually segregated in its own free-standing section within the mag, making it that much easier to skip the whole thing. Advertisers still do it, because it feels like getting something for nothing, but most people I know just ignore this stuff, and are under no delusions about what it is.

But what about digital?

Well, the nature of the medium is such that, frankly, it’s easier to disguise your paid-media identity. Aggregating sites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are very busy visually, and it creates ripe opportunities for subterfuge. Here’s one example, from Buzzfeed:

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 4.21.44 PM


Man, you gotta look real hard to realize there’s a wolf among those sheep. That Intel…thing in the lower right looks pretty legit. And I’m guessing it got a lot of clicks. But to what end? No one likes getting played for a sucker, and clicking on what you think is a tech article and winding up looking at some bogus Intel corporate “content”—how does that build brand loyalty?

Nowhere in this screed have I even touched the ethics of all this, because advertising people talking about ethics is like 1-percenters talking about food stamps. But still, let’s be clear: native advertising is, by its nature, disingenuous–the Devil in disguise.

And while ads–real ads– aren’t always as truthful as they could be, they make no attempt to be anything but what they are: an exercise in selling, a tool of commerce. People know an ad when they see it, and whether they pay attention or not has to do with whether they care about what’s being sold and the craft of the message itself. That, ultimately, is something I believe in my bones: that good ads go naked into the world, armed with nothing but words and pictures, and, faced with indifference and scorn, somehow prevail.

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Odd couples.

I’ve been a Wired reader since Issue 1. Back in the day, it was not only interesting, it was beautiful, with typography, art direction and production (6-color printing!) that kicked ass.

Today, Wired is still a geekfest, if more mundane looking, and also chock-full of ads in categories I can relate to, which, I guess, is the whole point of media planning.

But anyway. The following ads were all in the May issue, pages apart, which allowed my mind to group them into amusing pairings. Here’s one pair:












The Viagra ad is what it is: a legal necessity, and an ad in name only. For those paying attention, and we won’t go into why, the background is an image from one of the blue-on-blue TV spots. It hardly matters, given the copy mandatories plastered over every square inch.

But when the new E-Trade ad showed up a few pages later, it got me thinking. About how much I miss the baby, for one thing. About how “Type E” could actually be the premise of something good, except that didn’t happen. But mostly I thought, some agency made this ad look like a pharma fair-balance ad by choice-not because the FDA forced them, but because they thought it was a good idea. Does E stand for Erectile?

Here’s another pair:














Talk about a study in contrasts! We all want to be (or at least feel like) the blissed-out dude in the Virgin America ad. They took a minor amenity—a complimentary glass of bubbly—and turned it into a visually arresting, amusing ad.

Now consider the KLM ad. They should have had an easier time of it. After all, they were advertising business class, not a tricked-up version of steerage. Yet the ad is a study in depression. A white guy is curled into a fetal ball, making his lie-flat bed look cramped and unforgiving. Next to him, another white guy stares out at the dull Dutch landscape below. Between them, an odd metal divider that appears to be riddled with bullet holes. People! You are the country of kick-ass weed and Vincent Van Gogh! Loosen up!

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What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I feel for the parents of kids with severe peanut allergies.  For reasons no one seems to understand, this once-rare condition is now pretty common. So common, even the saintliest package of locally sourced, cruelty -free kale wafers has to confess on its package that it was made in a plant that processes peanuts. A co-worker tells me peanuts are banned outright at her kids’ school.

Watching their product become the food world’s equivalent to arsenic can’t be much fun for America’s peanut farmers. Coming up with a new campaign to promote peanuts could not have been much fun for the creative team, either, since you can’t acknowledge the  800-lb. legume in the room.

Hence the weirdly context-free new Peanut Board campaign:


This is pretty innocuous, even with the word “Powerful” in the headline.

I saw this ad on a commuter train, so I had plenty of time to do what I do way too much: make up snarky, immature alternate headlines. I’m not proud that I do this–it just comes over me, like a sneeze. How about…

Peanuts. There’s an Epi Pen in every bag!”

Or my favorite:

“Allergic to peanuts? More for us!”


Justify this.

Neal-McDonough-Cadillac-AdWith all the hysteria pro and con about the Cadillac spot with Neal McDonough strutting through a McMansion laying down his I’m-American-and-I’m-not-sorry rap, why has nobody mentioned the Justified connection? You see, McDonough’s character—slick, nattily dressed, unrepentantly alpha—didn’t come out of nowhere. He played the exact same character for two seasons on Justified, the Appalachian Gothic procedural on FX. Except for one thing: Robert Quarles, his character on the show, is a sadistic, closeted gay psychopath who, when he’s not slinging heroin and meth, is torturing and killing his boy toys.RED-2-Neal-McDonough No matter. He’s well-dressed, articulate, confident and totally bought-in to the American dream. One of the Cadillac creatives was watching this monster rampage through Harlan County, Kentucky and thought to himself:  Yes. That’s our man.

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Pent-up supply.

Vegetable Soup 001It’s been around 9 months since my last post, enough to insure that what little relationship this blog had to the here and now has up and gone.

That’s freeing in a way, because instead of generating content, I can write. There is a difference and now that I’ve done both, I can say I much prefer the latter to the former.

For example, in content there is no place for words like latter and former, because the effort it takes to figure out which is which is apparently insurmountable. It makes your content less snackable, and lower snackability leads to less stickiness, which kills your analytics.

Well, my blog ain’t got no analytics, so I’m free to write rather than generate. I doubt the demand has built up over the last 12 months, but the supply sure has. Explications, complaints, ironic asides and petty jealousies have all built up into a simmering cassoulet that is the very antithesis of snackable. So let’s dole it out by the cupful over the next several days until we scrape the cauldron’s crusty bottom.

First up: what everybody missed about the Cadillac spot.

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Antisocial Media.



This ad, which appears in the current issue of Maine North Woods Sporting Journal, is a rich treasure-trove of insight into rural America. In a space 2×3 inches, there’s enough material for at least 2 doctoral dissertations plus a #1 country song.

“Guns. Wedding Gowns. Cold Beer.” Yup…that about covers it. Anything else you can kill, whittle or borrow from a buddy.

While the accompanying photo shows only the first of these 3 essential categories, it takes little imagination to figure out how the other two come into play.

Is the ad’s writer riffing on us? Is he or she in on the joke?  If  “We ain’t got it, you don’t need it!” showed up in a faux-redneck ad for LL Bean or Carhartt, it would be Gold Pencil material. In a cabin in Maine way off the grid, lit by propane lantern, this ad’s irony-free, defiant pedigree is more apparent.

 For a brilliant portrait of the lives this ad reflects, read Joe Bageant’s  “Deer Hunting with Jesus.”  Propane reading light is optional.

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