Wednesday, May 20, 2009

• Adventures in Advertising: This Is a Recording

I should come clean and admit that this post is appearing in both Ad Nauseam and Editor's Sidebar since it deals with both advertising and editing. 

Hey, why waste a good post?

Many years ago, I worked at a small start-up magazine. The owner and publisher, Peter, was adamant about the need for advertisers if we wanted to grow our business.

Of course, back then we didn't actually say, "grow our business." We might "increase our business," or our business might grow. But the idea of "growing" a business hadn't made its way into the vernacular yet. However, if it had, Peter would have said it. I've never liked the expression, although I'm hard pressed to explain why. You "grow" corn. You "grow" turnips. But damn it, you don’t "grow the farm." Likewise, your children "grow," but you don't "grow your children."

I'm not sure what the difference is, but it still sounds wrong to me.

It's kind of like prepositions. If I said, "I'm going to Montreal on a bus," you wouldn't think anything of it. Well, you might think, "That's a hell of a long bus ride," but that's about all. You might think, "Why is he going to Montreal when everything he could ever want is right here in Toronto?" but other than that, it wouldn't seem odd. 

On the other hand, if I said, "I'm going to Montreal on a car," then you'd think I was going to make the trip strapped to the roof, like some dead grandmother in an urban legend. 

Why "on" a bus, but "in" a car? Only the language gods know for sure.

And maybe Noam Chompsky. He knows everything. Or thinks he does.

At any rate, there was no question Peter was right about one thing: without advertisers, we'd go belly-up inside of four months.

Our only disagreement was how to go about getting these advertisers. Peter thought that cold calls were the answer. We'd simply call every business in the area and convince them to place an ad.

My plan was to take the magazine to the businesses most likely to have an interest in it and pitch them.

In the end, we decided that cold-calling was the best way to get Peter off my back.

Our other disagreement revolved around who was going to do the cold-calling. 

Since I was already doing layout, writing, editing, photography, research, and re-wiring the phones to give us two lines without the phone company knowing about it (a task for which I was eminently unsuited and in which I failed to accomplish anything other than discovering first-hand that telephone lines carry much more juice than you might think), I kind of figured maybe someone else could do it. Someone like -- and I was just spinning thoughts off the top of my head -- the receptionist whose job consisted of answering the phone twice a day. On a busy day. 

Except during that unfortunate period of time when the phone wasn't working.

To Peter, however, the only person capable of making effective cold calls was me. My protestations that I was already over-worked, and had absolutely no talent in calling people for ads, only served to bring out the positive thinker in him. I was selling myself short, he told me. After all, with absolutely no training, hadn't I rewired the phones to give us two lines without the phone company knowing about it?

Well, no. In fact, we'd had to bring in the phone company to fix the phone -- after telling them that the wiring had been mucked up during renovations.

Naturally, in the end I did the cold-calling.

After several days without a single response, Peter finally figured out what the problem was.

It wasn't that we were calling completely random businesses without regard to their nature or need for magazine advertising.

It wasn't that we were trying to commit them to a sizeable outlay on the basis of nothing more than a voice on the phone (a phone which, on my end at least, had an annoying buzz in the line).

No, the problem was that since the message was being given by a live person, it was bound to have variations in tone and pitch, which threw off the scientific effectiveness of the cold call.

What was needed was consistency. He'd read research about it.

The answer, of course, was a pre-recorded message and automatic dialling system.

Unfortunately, we had no automatic dialling system, having barely escaped with one working phone after the repairman had initially expressed doubts that the wiring could have become screwed up in that particular way from renovations -- especially when there were no signs of renovations having been done in the last 30 years. Nor did we have a means of recording anything by way of the phone itself. Our only recourse was to use a tape recorder. One of us (and by "one of us," of course, I mean me) would record a message, then for each call place the receiver near the recorder and play it back.

What? I'm serious. I'm telling you -- I was there.

Anyhow, Peter wrote out a carefully worded message, and that night I spent a couple of hours reading and re-reading it into the tape recorder. The next morning, when I was sure he was in the office, I got him on the line and played it for him. When it was finished, I asked him what he thought.

He'd hung up.

And right then I learned one of the most important lessons in advertising: If even the client can't sit through the ad, it's probably not going to work.

The other lesson I learned was that without advertising, a magazine can go belly-up in even less than four months.

It only took us three.


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

• What social marketing can learn from learner-centered education

If a lot of the philosophical language surrounding the new social network marketing sounds vaguely familiar, it should: we've heard it all before from the good folks in the educational field.

Beginning in the late sixties, picking up force in the seventies, and becoming the foundation of pedagogy in the eighties, the "learner-centered" approach to education called for a shift of control from teachers to students. The idea was that students were in a better position to know how they learned than were the teachers. Given the freedom to do so, students would essentially teach themselves, while the teachers simply provided the resources. To reflect this new approach, teachers were no longer "teachers," but "facilitators," while students became "learners." Lessons were no longer meant to be uni-directional, with one person standing in front of the class imparting information, but to be multi-directional, a "dialogue" in which the ideas and thoughts of the students were of equal, if not more importance than the authoritative course material.

Much the same has been occurring in the realm of social network marketing. Its proponents insist that the consumer is better positioned to know which advertising techniques work, and which don't. We are to move away from simply broadcasting information about our product or service in an authoritative and uni-directional fashion, choosing instead to engage in "conversations," the content of which is driven as much by the public as by the company trying to sell to them.

And how has this worked?

Well, in the educational field, it turned out that when you asked students (sorry, "learners") the most effective way of teaching them (sorry, "facilitating their education"), they responded by telling us to either entertain them, or leave them alone. Course curriculum became subject to whatever pop-culture trends were enjoying their fifteen minutes of fame at any given time, and classroom instruction turned into classroom discussions in which the only opinions that counted were those of the "learners."

Speaking as a college prof who is tasked with trying to teach the products of this system how to write a coherent sentence, I'd have to say it's been less than a resounding success. 
"After that I applied for [name of college] and had to write a English test to get in and believe it or not I passed with an excellent mark they even called me to welcome and congratulate me into the program, yeah I was just as surprised as you" (personal essay from student, aged 23)
The profound illiteracy and lack of general knowledge with which we're faced on a daily basis is disturbing -- not to mention debilitating to our motivation. The multi-billion dollar educational system is a sham, and we know it; but there's nothing we can do about it. Too much has been invested in the philosophy, and those most fully indoctrinated in it (public and high school teachers) are hardly likely to suddenly admit it's all been a big mistake. Meanwhile, those of us with the least indoctrination are in the post-secondary institutions, and therefore unable to bring about meaningful change where it would do the most good -- in the lower grades when students' minds are still open to learning.

In the advertising industry, things are showing signs of going in much the same direction. It turns out that when you ask consumers (sorry, "participants") the most effective way of advertising to them (sorry, "engaging them in brand conversations"), their response is eerily similar to that of the students: either entertain us, or leave us alone. In place of uni-directional ads, they want YouTube videos which can be remixed and redistributed to their friends. Instead of information about product features, price, and availability, they want to see the CEO of the company sending out 140 character Tweets about the boring meeting he's in. 

Speaking as an advertising commentator, I'd have to say that this, too, has been less than a resounding success. Despite the millions of words praising the effectiveness of social network marketing, there have been shockingly few examples of anything approaching a decent return on investment. Where companies set up their own social networking platforms, the only visitors they get are those already committed to the brand: which is fine, but the very nature of such platforms encourages confrontation, and those visitors can easily take offense if their comments or incidental complaints aren't dealt with in the fashion they expect. And where the brands are trying to invade pre-existing social networks, they open themselves up to mischievous attacks which have a far higher potential of going viral than do the brands' feeble attempts at being "hip."

The danger, of course, is that advertising, like education, will find itself overly-committed to a system that simply doesn't work; but which nobody is willing to step away from.

Students don't want to go to school, and if you ask them to redesign it to their liking, you end up with a social club. Likewise, consumers don't want advertising, and if you ask them to redesign it to their liking, you end up with...well, a social club.


Monday, May 4, 2009

• Best Before #1

Welcome to "Best Before," a semi-regular feature in which we look at advertising tropes that are long past their best before date -- if they ever had one to begin with.

The customer as moron

The concept

Upon using the client's product or service, the consumer is overcome with an inability to function in a normal fashion. He or she (generally he) becomes incapable of normal social interaction, loses all interest in sex, and is often oblivious to physical danger.


  • Arby's: A young couple sits by the side of a lake at night. When the beautiful woman suggests a dip and runs to the water taking off her clothes, her boyfriend repeats the word "dip" a couple of times and then drives off for an Arby's beef dip sandwich.
  • Casino Rama: Another man, another attractive woman, another lake. After having spent the night at Casino Rama, the man is unable to pay attention to her because...well, it's not clear, really. At one point we see the world through his eyes and there's a vague bright spot in the centre of his vision but at another point he asks if the cloud doesn't look like a motorocycle. Not only is it insulting, but it makes no sense.
  • A&W: A young man is so enraptured by the burger he's eating that he completely fails to notice the young woman flirting with him, and uses the napkin on which she has written her phone number to wipe his mouth. (I've already written about A&W dumbing-down what started out as an intelligent, mature, and amusing campaign.)

The problem

Is it even necessary to spell it out? Maybe there's a point to portraying those who don't use your product as stupid, although perhaps insulting the people you're trying to seduce has its drawbacks. But where is the logic in making your own customers look like idiots?

Common sounds making a rhythmic tune

The concept

A series of natural taps, bangs, or other sounds combine to form a tune or distinct rhythm.


  • Maxwell House: The first, and probably most effective, would have to be the Maxwell House percolator. This was so successful that while it hasn't been aired for decades (percolators having been replaced with drip), those of us old enough to have grown up with the original ads can still remember the tune.
  • Folgers: More recently, Folgers has tried to duplicate the phenomenon. As a couple prepares breakfast in the kitchen, each item they put down adds another "note" to the tune. Unfortunately, the Folgers "tune" is not particularly distinctive and it takes repeated viewings for the intent to become clear.
  • Can't remember: In a remarkably forgettable commercial, the entire family beats out a pointless rhythm and then they all look extremely pleased with themselves.

The problem

While there's nothing wrong with the actual concept, making it work takes real genius, and there's just not a lot of that going around. The Maxwell House ads succeeded because the tune was catchy and the creation of the tune (a percolator) was directly tied to the product. None of the ads since have managed to pull off the same formula. Until they do, it's time to put this one to bed.

Our product sucks, but it's much better now

The concept

In an honest recognition that the company's product has been inferior in the past, these commercials ask the consumer to give it another shot, with the promise that it has vastly improved.


  • Ford: For over 25 years now, Ford has been begging the public to give it another chance. "Have you driven a Ford...lately?" is the longest-running incarnation of this plea. "We know that in the past our cars have pretty much fallen apart while driving off the lot," they're saying, "but it's all fixed now...really."
  • Oldsmobile: While it wasn't plagued with the same history of mechanical breakdowns as Ford, the Oldsmobile was burdened with the reputation of being an old man's car -- and the name didn't help. In an effort to make it more hip, they launched a campaign claiming, "This isn't your father's Oldsmobile," then went bankrupt a short time later.
  • Microsoft: Blatantly acknowledging that Vista was the biggest mistake since Windows 2000, Microsoft tried to win the hearts and minds of consumers with an incredibly transparent campaign called "The Mojave Experiment." In it, people were introduced to Vista under the name "Mojave" and, when they saw it running on high-end, perfectly-configured machines, many declared that they liked it. Real consumers, oddly enough, weren't fooled.

The problem

While it may seem like a good idea to be honest and admit to past failures, in real life it seldom does anything more than remind everyone about your past failures. More importantly, those coming to your brand with no previous knowledge of its past performance will learn to distrust it from your own ads. Your best bet? Improve the product from the ground up, then start advertising it on its features. Ignore the past.

That's it for this edition of Best Before. We'll have another in the future. If you have any suggestions for campaign concepts that really need to be taken down from the shelf, feel free to e-mail them to me. I'll give full credit.


Saturday, May 2, 2009

• Marketing Heroes: Michael Scataloon

In this semi-regular feature we celebrate those unsung heroes of the marketing world who, faced with products that seemed impossible to market, succeeded in defying the odds to create highly successful campaigns.

Marketing Hero #1:
Michael Scataloon

Due to a malfunction in the computers that ran their cutting machines back in the early '80s, a clothing manufacturer accidentally churned out hundreds of thousands of pants with crotches that came down to the knees. Faced with the expense of discarding all this material, the owner of the company took the problem to his ad agency, Dayton, Darton, Burnsten and O'Reilly (DDBO) to see if they could work some magic. Michael Scataloon was a lowly intern at the time, but he was positive he could sell the damaged inventory if given a chance. Since DDBO had nothing to lose, they agreed to put him in charge.

"I knew traditional approaches weren't going to work," Scataloon said in a recent interview with New Pathways in Marketing, "so I set out to explore some nontraditional approaches. We didn't have the formal concept of 'viral' campaigns back then, but essentially that's what I was after. I just needed to define the right demographic. It had to be a demographic with absolutely no fashion sense. Naturally I decided on the rap culture. I figured any group that could base a musical culture around the absence of music, while dressing themselves in cartoon clothing and jewellery was the perfect prospect for our client's pants."

Scataloon approached a couple of rap stars (even today he won't say who they were) and offered a substantial amount of money if they would wear the malformed apparel at some of their public appearances. They weren't eager to take him up on it, however. 

"Here they were, dressed in ludicrously huge, rhinestone-studded sunglasses, gold chains that looked like they'd come from the paste-jewellery counter of a 1940s Kresges, and multi-coloured bandanas with pork-pie hats on top, and they were balking at wearing these pants. Well, I didn't blame them. I had to up the ante considerably before I finally won them over. A few concerts later, however, and suddenly the 'diaper pants' (as our client had taken to calling them), were selling by the hundreds, then thousands. At the end of two months he was sold out."

Scataloon himself was somewhat puzzled by the enormous success, having started with no real marketing philosophy. "I was just banking on the lemming-like behaviour of teens and young adults to emulate their musical heroes." In retrospect, however, he thinks the pants just happened to make a statement which appealed to the members of that particular sub-culture. 

"Rappers would travel from place to place doing marathon battles with other rappers, so on the one hand they had to be mobile, and yet on the other, they had to be able to stand their ground for long periods of time. The pants said: 'When wearing me, you can travel anywhere.' But they also said: "When wearing me, you won't have to move from this spot for a week -- even to use the bathroom.'"

That the campaign was successful is indisputable. It was originally intended to last only until the damaged inventory had been sold off, but the client and the agency soon realized they had a gold-mine on their hands. There were even rumours of a movie being made about the phenomenon.

"I was approached by a Hollywood screenwriter," recalls Scataloon. "He put together a script and shopped it around, but ultimately nothing came of it. I think it was called something like, 'The Cisternhood of the Traveling Pants.'"


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