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.


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.


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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Ferklempt for Clydesdales

crying into cups

We were maybe 5 seconds into the Budweiser Clydesdale spot on Sunday when the sobs started. “I love this ad so much,” my wife snuffled as the colt with the fluffy ankle hair gamboled in the field.

It took me another 45 seconds, but I too was all ferklempt by the end of the spot. And so, by most reports, was the rest of America.

What does this teach us?

People like stories. People like heart-warming emotion. People like traditions and symbols of authenticity. Always have. Always will.

And advertising agencies and marketing experts will always underestimate the degree to which these things matter. They want edge, they want snark, they want surprise. Ad people (me included) loved the Samsung Seth Rogan/Paul Rudd spot with its knowing references and cutting repartee. My wife looked at it with a McKayla-is-not-impressed expression. “Makes me anxious” was her verdict.

Some critics slagged the Clydesdale spot for being “manipulative.” Well, that’s a laugh. Advertising is supposed to manipulate you. It’s supposed to disarm your defenses, color your perceptions and guide your hand down to your wallet. Some ads manipulate with sex. Some do it with flattery. Some even do it with facts. This ad does it with an inter-species bromance but the plot line was already familiar by Homer’s time: love gained, love lost, love regained.

Works every time. You people working on that other Bud brand, Black Label, might want to keep that in mind next time around.

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The new Lincoln WTF.


I really really don’t understand the new Lincoln campaign.Take this print ad.


Why redheads?

Why make the point that they’re all different and then show only one car?

Which doesn’t look…that different?

Why isn’t the car red?

What do statistics have to do with anything?

Here’s another ad in the series, with a bunch of chefs:


Do you know who they are?

If you do, this car isn’t for you. In fact, no car is for you.

Because you don’t own a car. You take the Q train to Carroll Gardens to eat at Frankie’s 457 Spuntino (those are the Frankies in question, 2nd row, 2nd from right).

If Lincoln wanted to do this foodie version of Hollywood Squares right for the actual target market, they’d have Paula Deen, not April Bloomfield, and Chef Boyardee instead of Andrew Carmellini. Because here’s what happens when you try to get all hipster with your car advertising:

Screen Shot 2013-01-29 at 12.14.41 PM

But wait, you’re thinking. Surely the Lincoln website provides the, er, deeper engagement with redheads and trendy chefs that we’re seeking.

Not so much. In fact, not at all. But the website does take a dialuptastic two and a half minutes to load, which is more than enough time to click over to

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Bookin’ funny


I found myself laughing like an idiot by the end of the new spot, helplessly ceding my critical faculties to a dirty twist on nameonics.

The :60 commercial is really 2 spots in one. The first 40 seconds are a mildly amusing if dutiful execution of a planner insight: travelers are terrified that the hotel they book online will turn out, upon arrival, to be a disaster. This worry is exacerbated here in the U.S., where our Draconianmarket-driven economy allows for far fewer vacation days than in Europe.

In the last 20 seconds, however, the spot goes crazily off the rails, with the VO announcer yelling : “It’s booking marvelous! Look at the booking view!” and so on, like a sportscaster at an English soccer match who’s had a few too many pints but is swearing faster than the censors can bleep him. Having spent a lot of time in the company of Scottish fishing guides who say “fooking” at least 3 times in every sentence, the riff had a special relevance, but I think it’s pretty hard not to get the joke.

It’s booking stupid and sophomoric. It also gets my vote for Next Big Advertising Meme. The spot comes from Weiden’s Amsterdam office, which explains a lot. I saw it on FX’s “Justified” which also explains a lot: a network for guys with grown-up discretionary income but the sensibilities of 14-year olds. Perfect.

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American Airlines: Why? Why? For God’s sake, why?

Didn’t you learn from Tropicana?

Or the new University of California logo fail?

Your Massimo Vignelli-designed logo and livery were beautiful. Planes glinting with their polished aluminum skins hinted at the glory days of aviation and were instantly recognizable.

The linked “A” logo with its stylized eagle was perfect.


What is that new logo? A squeegee?

And the tail livery! It looks like a lint comb.

Apparently one of the drivers for this desecrationrefresh was that the new 787, some of which are on order for American, was made of plastic so it couldn’t rock the polished-metal look. How’s that working out so far?

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As I and many other bloggers and Tweeters have found out to our embarassment and horror, the social internet is a cruel mistress. Good stuff gets noticed and passed on, dull stuff sits there. It is an absolute meritocracy, and all the sponsored tweets in the world don’t change that fact.


That’s also what makes the social net a fabulous algorithm for media planning.


Buried in an Ad Age piece about Chipotle’s much-awarded “Back to the Farm” spot is a somewhat subversive—and totally brilliant– perspective on buying traditional media in a social-media world. Chipotle’s CMO, Mark Crumpacker, had this to say about why Chipotle, never a big TV spender, took the plunge with this ad:


“It’s pretty easy to figure out whether something’s popular before you go and buy media around it,” said Mr. Crumpacker. “It wasn’t as easy before without social media … the plan is to put them out there and see how well they do.”


In other words, instead of trying to figure out how many eyeballs you can afford to expose to your ad, and copy-testing the ad itself to see if anyone will remember it, just put the sucker on YouTube. No guesswork, no waste. If it’s good enough to be shared, it’s good enough to be aired.


Let @Mikey try it.

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I want Nate Silver testing my ads.

Where have I been for the last 6 months?

Refreshing Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight blog ten times a day, like a rat hitting the treadle for morphine. Silver’s last electoral map projections are still up on his site: 50 for 50. He’s left it up like a war trophy—a scalp. And the scalped head in question is most likely Gallup’s. Silver has been beating Gallup like a rented mule all election season, and with good reason: it blew the last two election cycles badly and was a major Romney-leaning outlier all the way to the end this time.

“It was one of the best-known polling firms, however, that had among the worst results. In late October, Gallup consistently showed Mr. Romney ahead by about six percentage points among likely voters, far different from the average of other surveys. Gallup’s final poll of the election, which had Mr. Romney up by one point, was slightly better, but still identified the wrong winner in the election. Gallup has now had three poor elections in a row. In 2008, their polls overestimated Mr. Obama’s performance, while in 2010, they overestimated how well Republicans would do in the race for the United States House.”

Why has Gallup been getting it wrong? Like Mr. Romney and his party, it’s a bit stuck in the 50s, depending on land-line phones for its polling.  “Research by polling firms and academic groups suggests that polls that fail to call cellphones may underestimate the performance of Democratic candidates.

The roughly one-third of Americans who rely exclusively on cellphones tend to be younger, more urban, worse off financially and more likely to be black or Hispanic than the broader group of voters, all characteristics that correlate with Democratic voting.”

Well, duh.

But there are laws restricting access to cell numbers and the ability to make unsolicited calls. So what is a polling outfit to do? The big winners  this year were the research firms

who depended partly or entirely on online polling, which is where most Americans do their fact-finding and opining.

The stunning obviousness of this methodological flaw is

matched only by the glacial slowness with which traditional research firms are changing to adapt.

All of which got me to thinking about advertising research, which in 2012 is still rounding up the usual underemployed or retired suspects, sticking them in conference rooms with 2-way mirrors and showing them animatics or “adlobs.” It is as stuck in the 50s as Gallup, which itself had its roots in advertising research, and the reliability of the results is just as suspect.

If the triumph of Nate Silver teaches us anything, it’s that good data isn’t about the answers people give. It’s about who is giving the answers, and who’s asking the questions.


No one here but us old white people.

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Is there any place advertising shouldn’t go?

New York, April 14, 2023: Exactly 20 years after the successful decoding of the complete human genome, advertisers have found a way to encode their own messages onto our DNA.

Nike, always an innovator, went the molecular-branding route, arranging “non-working” chromosomes to spell out the famous sports gear manufacturer’s name when viewed under a microscope. “We felt that macro-level branding—billboards, shopping bags, and so forth—was no longer news. DNA represents a whole new opportunity for us” said Nike spokesperson Wan-Li Shiu-Greenberg.

 Guinness’s “Be your Guiness” app isn’t quite as subtle. Capitalizing on the fanatical loyalty of its customers, the famous brewery offers a “simple, low-cost, low-risk” genetic modification that lets them proudly display their beer of choice—on their forehead.

 The genetic tweak triggers capillary action that spells out “Guinness” across the forehead when the subject has consumed a pint of Guinness. Will other beers produce the same result? No, says company CMO Alec “Rugger” Cowins. “The same unique properties that make Guinness Stout impossible to imitate, are necessary to make the DNA modification work.”

 Says Shiu-Greenberg: “We used to think of the human genome as a blueprint. Now we think of it as a medium for branding.”

How do you feel about this dispatch from the future? Scandalized? Resigned? Psyched?

All legitimate reactions. But if your reaction is skepticism, be careful. The history of modern advertising is a steady encroachment of the commercial world into areas we once saw as sacrosanct. Hospitals. Schools. Amateur sports. Public transportation. PBS, for chrissakes.

And if you don’t think the human body is already fair game for advertisers, you haven’t heard Harley-Davidson’s marketing people talk about the many ways they facilitate tattooing their brand onto the pasty skin under all that black leather.

What has powered this encroachment? (A prejudicial term, I agree, but “expansion” really doesn’t capture what’s happening.) I think it’s a combination of 3 forces:


Message Saturation

Income inequality

Technology is the most obvious culprit. Radio, TV, internet, mobile, p2p, social sharing, cloud—as soon as a new communications technology is created, new ways to “support” it via advertising soon follow. And as technological innovation bends communication towards the hyper-personal—think cookies and Facebook data-mining—so advertising slipstreams behind it and finds new ways to get past our personal firewalls.

Message Saturation is just arithmetic: you can’t, as a gnarly old art director once told me, put 10 pounds of shit in a 5-lb. box. Advertisers used to sell 8 minutes out of every hour of programming for commercials. Now it’s as high as 26 minutes. So each message has more competition. Content—the reason people engage in the 1st place—becomes less appealing. Viewers get more fatigued and, if they’re tech-savvy, more motivated to find ad-free workarounds. Eventually, you just run out of room, literally and psychologically. “White space”—an uncluttered advertising environment– becomes a Holy Grail. Sometimes that white space is geographic, like emerging global markets. But mostly, it’s cultural—whatever parts of society and daily life that are still pristinely uncommercial. What determines which of these increasingly rare ad-free zones will remain that way? Money. Which brings us to…

Income Inequality. In case you haven’t noticed, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. This is happening not only to individuals, but to institutions and governments. Stockton and Palo Alto are both in California but might as well be in different galaxies, such is the disparity in their wealth and their prospects for the future. Palo Alto doesn’t need to pimp its hospitals, schools and infrastructure to advertisers, so it doesn’t. Stockton would sell its kindergarten classrooms to Phillip Morris if it could, which it probably can’t because there aren’t enough people left in Stockton who can afford premium-brand cigarettes. But in between Stockton and Palo Alto there are hundreds of American towns, cities and institutions who are looking hard at their budget shortfalls and their white-space assets ands wondering where, if anywhere, they can afford to draw the line.

To be continued…

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