Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Good, the Ad and the Ugly

"There are a lot of great technicians in advertising. And unfortunately they talk the best game. They know all the rules ... but there's one little rub. They forget that advertising is persuasion, and persuasion is not a science, but an art. Advertising is the art of persuasion."
Bill Bernbach

It used to be that a good advertisement made you laugh, smile or cry but a great ad was one that you had to watch at least five times before you got the deeper message. Not because it was too complex to understand but because it had layers and subtleties that you would not fully appreciate in your first or second viewing. It was a story whose finer points slowly unfolded with each new viewing; that is what we in the industry used to call a great advertisement. Hard to believe today, but those ads were ones people wanted to watch over and over again. It was these subtleties that made the brand in them memorable, relatable and formed an emotional bond with consumers long after the ad itself had stopped running. There was one other trait in those ads that set them apart from the dribble we are subjected to today. Advertising used to be based on strategic gut and creative instinct, with a little bit of research done to gain insight into the needs and motivations of your customers. The advertisements themselves were never subjected to research, or focus grouped to death with prospective customers. Those ads were based on ideas; today’s advertising is built on research and rarely has a discernible idea behind it. I loathe research not because you are unable to learn or because I believe that admen know better than anyone else but because of the way it is conducted. Rather than use research to better understand consumer behaviour, attitudes and beliefs, it is used to show customers five different ideas and ask which one they like most; all that achieves is the worst possible middle ground and lowest common denominator. If people always knew what they wanted and could articulate it, the world would be a very dull, unimaginative and limited place with few inventions or breakthroughs ever taking place. And besides you can never make everyone happy. The truth is that the industry uses research as a means to cover their backsides. By asking the consumer, they absolve themselves of any responsibility for failure. There is a reason the phrase is “risk and reward” and not “safety and reward.” I close this argument with one fact that may startle people. Apple, the most admired and coveted brand on the planet, now also the biggest company (bigger than Google and Microsoft combined), has a policy to never do consumer research or testing when developing new products and services. I rest my case about research.

The US SuperBowl is watched as much for the advertisements as for the American football played. Some even argue that the ads are more popular than the game itself; which could be true depending on the teams that end up competing. This yearly television event is the most watched TV show in America, and also the most expensive to buy an ad on. A TV spot can cost from $3.5 million to $4 million for 30 seconds, depending on the placement. It is for this reason that companies use the SuperBowl as a platform to introduce new products, make big brand announcements, launch a company or simply try to gain bragging rights to having aired a SuperBowl spot. Today, one could argue that the effect of a SuperBowl spot is much greater thanks to the internet. We not only have real-time conversation through social media and live blogging during the game but also an extended post-game analysis on the Monday morning that can continue for days and weeks after the last whistle has been blown. So a good advertisement has the potential to quickly become a global phenomenon through YouTube and other places but the stakes are equally high for the misses. Given this, one would think that companies would at least make the effort to put their best foot and creative minds forward every year. Yet, the opposite seems to be true, and it feels to me like it has been getting worse every year. Let’s review five ads I picked at random from this year’s crop for SuperBowl XLVI, and you be the judge.

First I would like to offer what I believe was a great ad (and long running campaign); one that has all the ingredients of advertising that I talked about up-front.

1987, Volkswagen Golf with Paula Hamilton (DDB)

“If only everything in life was as reliable, as a Volkswagen.” This ad is truly brilliant not because of special effects or a celebrity endorsement but purely because of its simplicity and its insight that ties Volkswagen, in a relevant and meaningful way to a core human need; one that cuts across borders and boundaries. I guarantee this ad was never researched prior to making it.

Now I offer five of the worst advertisements, of Super Bowl 2012, in no particular order:

1.    Century21 Real Estate LLC

This was Century 21’s first foray into the SuperBowl, and sadly for them I would have used them to buy or sell my house before I saw their ad. First rule of advertising, never feature Donald Trump in your ad. Second rule of advertising, just throwing in a reality TV star and celebrity athletes does not mean you don’t need an idea. If they wanted to differentiate themselves as “Smarter. Bolder and Faster” then they needed to do it in a way that re-assured a prospective client of those traits, in a relevant way. Would you have faith in real estate agent who claims to be smarter than the Donald, or spends time racing Apolo Ohno and showing up Deion Sanders rather than focusing on research and your needs? I like the intention behind it but the execution leaves much to be desired…

2.    Samsung Mobile USA – Thing Called Love

I am all for big grand shows but have to admit that in this instance that I have no clue about what the “The next big thing” from Samsung is from this advertisement. It is clear they are taking on Apple’s iPhone and iPad but with what is the question. Perhaps, it is the stylus pen because we have not seen this magnitude of innovation since 1996, when the Palm Pilot launched! Or maybe it is the me too front and back video on their mobile phone? Either way, if you want to promise consumers something BIG, then have something memorable or ground-breaking to show them, or you will look like a mindless ad filled with wannabe rockers, circus rejects and random gospel choirs that leave your audience scratching their head all the way to the nearest Apple store.

3.    Pepsi – King’s Court

There were only two thoughts that went through my head when I watched this commercial. First, I felt bad that Elton John had clearly fallen on such hard times that he needed to do this Pepsi ad. Second, that if this was the opening gambit of Pepsi’s resolve to take back huge losses in market share in America – then they should just quit while they are ahead and focus on their food business.

4.    Best Buy – Phone Innovators


There is an old Japanese philosophy called “Keiretsu” relating to the company you keep, and something we often used in advertising in the spirit of first among equals, that is the company you keep rubs off on you. Idea being to always strive for partnerships and associations that help you lift your brand value and product excellence. That is perhaps all Best Buy got right in this ad by trying to associate itself with these entrepreneurs, and inventors. They forgot the second and most important part, which is to demonstrate to us how they (Best Buy) fit into this group or belong in this league of innovation – just selling more products from more companies is more than a stretch, to qualify to be first among these equals…

5.    Budweiser – Return of the King

There was a time when the Budweiser advertising stood out and was memorable, and some of the early Clydesdale ads gave people goose bumps. This ad lacks an idea, context and memorability. There is nothing tying Budweiser or the Clydesdale’s to the message or situation – the end of Prohibition; that does not hold true for any alcoholic beverage. Nor are they offering a metaphor for today. In fact, it feels like Budweiser is now owned by a foreign company who is desperately trying to feel American, and demonstrate that the brand and beer remain a part of the heart soul and fabric of America. Oh wait, maybe that is because Budweiser is now owned by a Belgian company!

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