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.

shopclassassoulcraft

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

HGS001

 

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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Doing lines.

The first tangible fallout from Honda’s decision to wrest its business from forever agency Rubin Postaer to Mullen is a new theme line:

Start something special.

I mean, really? Anyone who has ever worked on a project of this nature recognizes this line for what it is: the stuff you write first, then throw out in disgust. It’s low-level copywriter cleverness that says nothing and means nothing. Also, it uses 2 of the worst  words in English: “something” and “special.”

Coming as it does on the heels of Toyota’s lame “Let’s go places,” it got me thinking about the role of tag lines (or “strap lines,” as the Brits sexily refer to them) in modern advertising. When I first started as a copywriter during the late Jurassic period, The Line was everything: a magic incantation that unlocked a client’s budget and launched a thousand ads.

Tide’s in. Dirt’s out.

Avis. We try harder.

It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.Image

Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.

You’re in good hands with Allstate.

 Lines were what made brands—and creatives– famous. Lines were what people played back when asked what they remembered about ads they’d seen.

 As recently as the late 90s, lines still seemed to matter:

Just do it.

Think different.

Image

Got milk?

 But now, in 2013, big theme lines seem oddly quaint if not downright irrelevant. Quick, when you think about the E-Trade campaign, do you remember the line? No—you remember the smartass baby. What’s Amazon’s line? Or Starbucks? Or Twitter’s? Or Chipotle’s?

Traditionalists—and by that I mean the people writing the Op-Ed pieces in Ad Age—would argue that the decline in the importance in endlines is really a function of the decline in quality of endlines. That a line as good as “We try harder.” would be just as powerful now as it was then, but today’s marketers aren’t demanding them and today’s copywriters aren’t coming up with the goods.

While I do believe many younger copywriters are functionally illiteratepostliterate, I’m not so sure that’s the root of the problem. I think other forces are in play. The first, and maybe the most obvious, is the rise of the image, both moving and still. Easier and cheaper to produce than they used to be, easy to copy and share, better suited than words for smaller screens, capable of bypassing rational filters and burrowing into our primitive lizard brains, images are the primary currency of modern advertising.

And because pictures matter more than words, ad schools train creatives to focus on picture-driven work. Flip through any issue of Archive and you’ll see page after page of striking images, with a logo and 3 words tucked into the lower right corner.

The more culturally attuned brands understand this and in fact, owners of two of the more famous modern-era theme lines, Apple and Nike, have dispensed with them.

But in other companies, the desire for lines live on, even as they shuffle through one forgettable motto after another. For certain types of organizations, the need is as much logistical as it is conceptual. The same line stamped on everything from golf shirts to TV anthems gives an illusion of cohesion and purpose. It provides a sense of order, and buys a CMO a little breathing room. I’ve worked on a lot of those, and since the ultimate goal is not meaning but consistency, it’s not a huge amount of fun.

Another type of company that still care about end lines is the one that is in the process of becoming. Like a teenager growing into adulthood, it tries and discards different identities until it figures out who its true self is, and then wants the world to see. I’m working for one of those companies right now—and it’s incredibly fun.

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Jessica, meet Jennifer.

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This is not the first, nor will it be the last, consumer-generated parody of the MasterCard “Priceless” campaign.

But it may be the most awesome.

First, there is its sheer destructive power. The detonation of this twenty megaton shame-bomb means lowlife Michael and his new girlfriend are done in Greensboro, a conservative town even by North Carolina standards.

The part about funding the media buy with the marital investment account heaps financial retribution on top of the shame.

But my favorite part is the throwaway line at the bottom: “Tell Jessica you’re moving in.”

How brilliant is that! In five words it says, I’m throwing you the hell out of my house, and by the way I know everything about your ho—her name, where she lives, her original hair color…everything. And don’t think I won’t use the information.”

Thanks to AdFreak for finding this gem.

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If we just had another petabyte of data, we could totally crack this brief.

One of the most oppressive memes of 2013 surely must be “big data.” It has bubbled up out of the quant swamp and gone mainstream. This week’s Ad Age dubs itself “The Data Issue”—irrefutable evidence that big data’s moment is just about over.

The cover story is about “How Data Spawned the Geico Gecko” but a close read reveals quite the opposite. Here, in an interview, is Geico’s CMO Ted Ward:

 “The Gecko was “hatched” with absolutely no research or even the intention of producing a long-running, iconic campaign.  The fact is we analyzed results from running the first set of Gecko TV spots and liked the bump in business volume. We were able to attribute the increased business to the campaign and decided to move forward with additional Gecko executions.”

So…the idea was a lucky accident, but it seemed to be working so you decided to stick with it. That’s Big Data? Please. That’s advertising. That’s why there are still agencies around and not just server farms.

Data and analytics can help you spot an opportunity in the marketplace. It can help you understand your customer. It can tell you what’s working and what’s not. It cannot, and never will, riff “Geico” into “Gecko.” Why pretend otherwise?

I admire Mr. Ward’s Geico campaigns, and the team at Martin who produces them. Both the gecko and the Cavemen were felicitous one-offs that the marketing team had the good sense to recognize had more potential. The fact that both ideas happened on the Geico account suggests a good working environment and a trusting agency-client relationship. Luck, after all,  favors the prepared. Suggesting that sifting through mountains of shopping data takes the luck factor out of the creative equation is just magical thinking.

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