16 December 2012

Roman Triumphs... and Santa Claus Parades

There's no earthly reason why Santa Claus Parades still exist.  But they do, God love 'em.

Like most media, they remain years after the termination date foreseen by the pallid party-poops of pop-culture prognostication.  These are the same breed who predicted that film would end live theatre, that the phonograph and Radio would end live concerts.  That Television would end Radio, and that the Inter-web would end both.    
You'd better not pout, I'm telling you why...

Santa Claus parades made sense in the mid-19th century, as urban centres grew, and new 'department' stores appeared.  In the late 1880's, the Schipper and Block Department Store of Peoria Illinois launched the tradition, perfected (pardon the home-town bias) a decade or two later by the T. Eaton Company of Toronto.

Why parades?  As a marketing tool (see under 'L' for "look at me, look at me, look at me") their purpose is obvious;  parades were commonly staged back then to create buzz and attract attention to the arrival of a circus or traveling theatre troop.

Here's where it gets fun:  the Santa Claus parade, as we know it, is a direct DNA descendant of the Roman 'Triumph'-  a grand arrival in the city of a victorious leader after a major military victory.  Sometimes the parade included spoils of war (such as the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem following the Jewish revolt, or even citizens captured and enslaved).  It was a big 'hurrah' for the home team, and a big 'nana-nana-boo-boo' to the vanquished.
...Antonius Pius is comin' to town.

At the end of the Triumph- as with today's parade- came the main attraction:  the triumphant leader, typically in a chariot drawn by two horses- a biga, in Latin-speak. Four horses constitute a quadriga

Santa Claus, in the lore of Clement Clark Moore, drives an octiga. Is there a Latin term for a team of nine?  Here's guessing the Romans never anticipated Rudoph.

Curious how our customs- parades among them, evolve, and devolve, and reinvent, emerging in forms oh so far removed from their earliest ancestors.

Close your eyes a moment and imagine taking your kids to the mall this month, for a chance to sit on the lap of the Roman Emperor Titus, of the Flavian dynasty.

Photos $7.  Or two for 12 denarii.



28 October 2012

Personifying the Brand: Lessons from Apple

So you're marketing Apple's iPhone 5, and you can choose any voice in the world for your ad.  Who do you choose?

Let's assume you're going for celebrity-association:  the uncredited voice of a mainstream celebrity.  Do you want the street-smart smokiness of a Mary Louise Parker?  The dyed-in-the-wool outsider vibe of a David Duchovny?  The sage likability of the so-trendy Peter Dinklage?

There are a kabillion 'right' choices, give or take.  Yet Apple chose a Georgian-born, Michigan-raised leading-man-slash-character actor, whose career took a sharp upward turn just this year:

Jeff Daniels.

Casting Daniels is as much about the right personality fit as it is about the right voice.  Daniels, to millions, soared back to the summit of the popular noggin when cast this year as Will McIlvoy in Aaron Sorkin's The Newroom.  Like the Apple brand, McIlvoy represents the un-establishment establishment:

The very sound of Daniels' voice represents the trendy newness of Sorkin's controversial hit show (controversial in that it's shameless about its political point of view),    Daniels himself may not be the age of the target consumer- but then, neither were Gandhi or John Lennon or Albert Einstein as the world remembers them.

Smart marketing is done with a feel for the great conversation (what used to be called 'buzz').  Right now, at the 'gut' level, Daniels is the perfect fit.

* * * *

Speaking of Gandhi, Lennon and Einstein:  here's another very interesting tale of Apple voice casting.   Perhaps you've caught wind of a recording Steve Jobs did voicing their famous "Think Different" ad.

Word is that this Jobs version never aired.  Apple instead chose instead to tap the brand equity of Richard Dreyfuss:

There's a popular line-of-thought today that Apple were fools to go with Dreyfuss, who's good, in favour of Jobs, who's brand took off during his second tour-of-duty with Apple, and soared with his illness and death. (It was Jimmy Hendrix, ironically, who'd said "once you're dead, you're made for life."

Jobs would not have been the better casting choice at the time.  Dreyfuss was.  But Jobs is the most potent choice now, his place in the Great Conversation hs changed, which makes me think that if Apple wasn't responsible for the recent buzz over the Jobs "never aired" version of this ad, they're undoubtedly thrilled that it's getting all the buzz.

Great voice casting is about so much more than mere voice and personality.  It's about seeing where the popular parade is headed, then finding your place just in front of it.

29 September 2012

Why Great Ads Aren't Written for the Client

There's an ugly, inevitable moment when I pitch a campaign to a new client. It's when I tell her:  "I didn't write this for you."

Music to the ears, it ain't.  Ad campaigns are a gamble:  they risk a lot of money, and sometimes their careers- on campaigns which, by my count, fall short of their goals 8 times out of 10.

Great retail campaigns aren't written for clients.  They're written for the end user- the client's client.

Witness this spot- "Candidates," created for FedEx by BBDO New York.

A reasonably keen eye will notice the number of FedEx Office services demonstrated in the ad:  brochures, posters, copies, Photoshop, mugs & signs.

That's advertising.

Look a little deeper:  it's topical- running in the thick of the US Election campaigns.  There are times it will likely run beside the very attack ads it's ridiculing.  Rather than wallow in platitudes and promises, (the last 4 seconds notwithstanding), it entertains, by tapping the mind of the viewer.  It says "we get that you're annoyed with nasty political attacks:  so let's have some fun.  It says "we understand you."  It ingratiates by entertaining.

That's branding.

An all-time great spot?  No.  A clever combination of advertising and branding?  Definitely.

Want to serve your client?  Serve your client's client.

* * * * *
I can't give any nod to FedEx without reviving this:  a favourite from a past Super Bowl:

26 June 2012

Hate Guy-Bashing Ads?

Some friendly advice:  live with it.  'Cause it isn't going away any time soon.


The dumb guy (or husband or father) character thrived thousands of years before Ralph Kramden ever got behind the wheel of a bus.  He's a species much, much older than the comic foil in this Ad- part of Verizon's forgettable "The Elliots" campaign from McGarry Bowen of New York:

That ad is something of a rarity- one of few (that I know of) ever pulled because it picked on males.  Mysandry! cried millions.... (Thousands?  Dozens? Pairs and pairs?) of men, who prompted the ad's banishment to the nervous client's root cellar.  

In the Copywriting trade- where I live- we need comic foils, as a printer needs ink, and the koala needs eucalyptus leaves.  When conceiving characters to pick on in an ad, we're taught that it's good manners to throw our rocks upward- at those in positions of advantage- not down.

So we- I- lose nary a wink of sleep picking on my own gender. 

Why?  Because men have run the table on civilization since Moby Dick was a guppy.  Even after generations of progress in gender equity, we still get the best jobs,  the highest pay, and the best odds of corporate, judicial, spiritual and political promotion.

And women?  The generation is alive and well that remembers the Don Draper era, when men were men, and women had better have dinner on the table when he gets home.  And woe betide the little woman who fails to store-test the coffee.

Don't Try This At Home
The spankings continue in more recent advertising, if metaphorically.  You may have come a long way, baby, but not far enough to bury the 'blonde' joke: 

Hoodathunk a 'blonde joke' spot in the 21st Century.  But this one bullet-proofs itself in two ways: first by casting another female as the 'smart' one, a character who's less comely in appearance, but whose IQ clearly resides in a different postal code; second, it counts on the audience's natural tendency to throw stones (up, of course) at those who are prettier, richer, more (for want of a better word) "successful." 

Relax, men.  Rightly or otherwise, we still rule the known universe.  The price we pay is playing the part of 'safe' comic foil, in ads like this:

Got a problem with that?  One guy to another- two words:

Suck it up.



16 June 2012

How *Do* We Make Purchase Decisions?

Such a simple question. Answer it correctly and they'll rename Madison Avenue after you.

Here's the 'elevator' answer I give clients:


Suppose you're buying a car.  Many- I'd suggest most- create some sort of shopping criteria.  For instance: 
Consumer Reviews
Crash Safety
Is it Domestically Made
Available features

This is infused with personal criteria:

"I want a convertible"
"I want to leave a small carbon footprint"
"I want people to see it and say 'oooo baby!'"
"If Chrysler was good enough for dear ol' Dad, dammit, it's good enough for me."

So what drives (pun intended) the final decision?  This is the part that causes weeping and gnashing of teeth among brands, marketers and salesfolk:  

It's about comfort.

Choice is about fashion.  Really.
Ultimately, comfort with  brand- a product- a restaurant- trumps logic when making a purchase.  

People are often indignant when told this.  "Not me!" they holler, as though accused of pinching the last can of Who hash, or the rare Who roast beast. 

Comfort can originate with a memory:  the family huddled in a tent on a raining morning munching Frosted Flakes.  Often it's built on word-of-mouth- the most powerful of all marketing media.  Now and then it's based on an undefinable emotional impression created by- wait for it- a marketing campaign.  Or years of campaigns. 

And often, it's about fashion. We're being trained to judge people by the label of beer they hold at a party (trade term is 'badge brands'). About their choice of phone- Android, iPhone, or Blackberry.  About which political party they support, or whether they're a Mac or a PC .  Cars are seen as an extension of our personalities (what *is* the difference between a cactus and a Corvette?).  Sometimes- often- comfort is the avoidance of being un-cool.

Competitive brands spend King's ransoms painting an aura of un-cool around their competitors.  Nike does it by marrying their brand- by name and attitude- to victory.  Planting in consumers a nagging sense that competitor's brands are about not winning.  

Mac sucking at subtle.
Apple, by comparison, spent years personifying their main rival with pocket-protector-perfection by way of John Hodgeman's character "PC".  File Mac under 'S' for 'Sucks at Subtle.'

You can easily spend decades- as many of us have- forging a working understanding of the intangible process of purchase decisions, and how to help clients shape them.  In doing so you find yourself gravitating to two powerful conclusions:

   1.  Advertising is not a science
There is not- never can be- an algorithm for the illogical, emotional 'gut choice' that drives most purchase decisions.

   2.    Great Ads are Intuitive

The best creative marketing is the product of informed intuition, fearless 'what if' thinking, built, almost always, on a solid foundation of past mistakes.
Past mistakes are where data analysis comes in so handy.  Number crunchers can tell you tons about why people bought- past tense- or didn't buy- past tense- a product.  They help marketers understand who they're talking to, and what past mistakes to avoid. What they cannot do- ever- is tell you how to design the next campaign- the one that will shape tomorrow's purchase decisions, and offer a client's brand a favoured place in the consumer's imagination.

Step aside, you pointy-headed college kids.  This is a job for the artists.

20 April 2012

Think *Today's* Ads Go Too Far?

Easy to imagine that anything goes in ads today.  Sex.  Language.  Innuendo.  During my career, ads have broken the "damn" and "hell" barriers.  The belch barrier.  The fart barrier.  Radio spots portray orgasms.  North American TV may soon break the dreaded nipple barrier.  

But no, Virginia- in ads today, 'anything' does *not* go.  Witness the wealth of retro ads that would never, ever run today.

Nossir.  Pardon my chronological snobbery, but we're outgrowing racism. Also disappearing, albeit slowly, are traditional strains of misogyny-

Part of the many brilliant touches within Mad Men, especially the first episodes, was its cultural anachronisms-  pregnant women smoking and drinking; adults striking other people's kids.  In an early scene, the Drapers' young daughter is playing 'space alien'- with a plastic drycleaners' bag over her head.  Her mother scolds her- not because of the suffocation risk- but for dumping out the newly-cleaned clothes.  Ads become time capsules for the attitudes of their time.

Ads + time become social artifacts, reminding us of just how much our attitudes and behaviors shift.

Truly- what woman doesn't live to have cigar smoke blown in her face?

Some retro ads are outrageous.  Some-

-are downright chilling.

It becomes an interesting exercise to imagine which of today's ads will be considered equally outrageous- and anachronistic- a generation from now.

For the time being, though, let's celebrate the progress we've made.  After all, we've come a long way...

Virginia Slims: You\'ve Come a Long Way Baby!
Spike Full EpisodesSpike Video ClipsSpike on Facebook


14 April 2012

The Storytelling Deficit

For the first time in generations, Advertising is moving away from storytelling.  And it's hurting as result.

Storytelling isn't something we merely like to do.  We're wired for it.  As much today as in the days of the earliest known cave paintings.

Yet it wasn't until 1926 that Advertisers twigged on.  That year John Caples wrote this famous ad- one of the first to use storytelling as a sales device:

By the mid 20th Century, advertising had established a highly effective tradition of ad-storytelling, in print and broadcast.  Storytelling is why 'slice of life' TV ads thrive today.  However mind-numbingly stupid they are, however far they condescend to a perceived idiot-audience, (and in this case, in spite of their breathtaking misogyny) their stories, their characters make a visceral impression beyond the conscious mind's ability to block them out.

Today, all that has changed.  Thousands of new media compete for your attention.  Ads are shorter, pithier, and ubiquitous: each with less time, and increasingly buried in a blizzard of daily ad clutter.

Storytelling is disappearing.  Characters and vignettes- clever or otherwise- are disappearing: making way for advertising drive-by's.  Quick, staccato, single-use images and impressions built to stand alone.  Including "blinks"-  one-second broadcast ads:

Now we're in the era of Social Media- most about a decade old, and their language still to be written.  Texting is just the first shot.  A language that turns what I've just written into:

Storytelling is going to make a comeback- needs to make a comeback.  Not to satisfy a nostalgic baby boomer indulgence, but because it's part of our wiring.  Stories are how we're made to communicate.

Each time we create a new medium it takes decades to define it- to create a language that plays to its strengths.  In that sense, Social Media are still in their cavity-prone years.  The language is only now being refined.

That story is only now being written.

08 March 2012

The Great Unwritten Contract with Advertisers

Excerpt from The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture

Billboards are a symptom of a large, growing problem in the age of
persuasion. While much of the work is highly creative, it, like many
other media, must figure out a way to honour an implicit contract
between advertisers and consumers which, simply put, promises that
advertisers must give you something in exchange for their imposition on
your time, attention, and space.

An ad might offer useful information,
an insight, or a solution to a problem. It might help pay for the TV
show you’re watching or the magazine you’re reading. It might simply
entertain you. The key is that it offers some tangible benefit.

Your job as a consumer is to discern which marketers are keeping
their end of the bargain and which are not. With that knowledge,
you’ll have the power to reward the honest brokers and punish the
transgressors. I suspect few people realize they have that power, but
they— that is, you— really do.

A simple letter of complaint to a brand’s
corporate headquarters can have a profound effect: I’ve seen major
campaigns radically altered in response to a handful of complaints.
On a larger scale, consumers can— and do— vote with their wallets.

03 February 2012

Flops: When Super Bowl Ads go Wrong

APPLE 'Lemmings' (1985)

Lucky for Apple- and Chiat Day Advertising, history records its legendary Super Bowl commercial 1984 as the black monolith around which he apes hollered and danced.  It was the birthing moment for the Super Bowl Ad phenomenon we know today.

Yet a year later, Apple was responsible for one of the greatest disasters in Super Bowl Ad history.  Or in advertising, period.  It's called "Lemmings."

Lemmings was directed by Tony Scott, whose Top Gun would tear up the box office a year later.  (His brother Ridley (Blade Runner / Alien / Gladiator) had directed 1984).

Apple had a bad feeling about the ad- enough so to pull the Super Bowl time it had purchased.  But when publicity swirled that they were bailing on their big followup-  and with lobbying from Chiat, who reminded them they had similar misgivings about 1984- they bought back their time and ran the ad.
Why did it fail?

This is a good time to remember that all great creative involves risk:  and all great creators fail.  Creativity is the art of imagining what isn’t, and greatness is so hard to spot during the process.  Many of the 20th century’s greatest marketing minds were involved in Lemmings.  If they didn’t’ foresee its failure, odds are pretty good that neither you nor I would have either.

The hindsight view is this:  1984 inspired viewers with a vision of a bold new creative thinking; Lemmings insulted viewers, accusing them of being suicidal drones. 

BURGER KING 'Herb' (1986)

Burger King’s “Herb” campaign was predicated on a fictitious character- the one person who’s never tried a Burger King Whopper.  Consumers were given incentives to utter the magic words “I’m not Herb” when ordering.  They campaign hinged on their buying in. 

They didn’t.

Just as a freight train might require 8 kilometers to come to a stop,  Burger King was powerless to halt its Herb campaign by the time its Super Bowl ad aired.  It was supposed to be the big moment when BK revealed Herb's identity.  By that time, bathed in flopsweat, there was nowhere for Burger King to hide.

NUVEEN INVESTMENTS 'Christopher Reeve Walks' (2000)

On paper this spot should have worked.  It had flawless direction.  Gorgeous cinematography & art direction.  No voice-over (always to be admired, when it's possible).

The problem?  Nuveen had no cure for spinal cord injuries.  Word was their switchboard was swamped in days following by people wondering what breakthrough they were referring to.

But the ad wasn't about any specific breakthrough.  It was an investment company casting its gaze skyward, musing:  'wouldn't it be nice if...', and tying its brand to that sort of thinking.

Nuveen had inadvertently offered hope, when they had none to give.  It cost them nothing to imagine;  it cost them a great deal to imagine it before an audience of 80 million.


Companies live and breathe their brands.  Sometimes they project:  mistakenly assuming their product is as interesting to the consumer as it is to them.

'Lipstick on a pig' is such a mean-spirited phrase. But honestly, it's only a razor. 

NOXEMA  (1978)

Again with the bad shaving products ad.  It's easy to be distracted by the vintage Joe Namath / Farah Fawcett casting to forget how truly awful this ad is.

For more 2012 Super Bowl ads, click here.