Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is that a Na'vi in your Happy Meal?

A few days ago I saw "Avatar", which is the best argument in recent years for the continued existence of movie theaters. The visual experience is overwhelming, and the old-fashioned good-triumphs-over-evil storyline prompts communal feelings of joy and triumph.

The very next day I saw a McDonalds promotional spot that, in the way these spots do, mashed together bite-and-smile shots with clips from "Avatar". I don't blame McDonalds for jumping on the "Avatar" bus, and I certainly don't fault James Cameron and his bankers for laying off a chunk of their $350 million bet. The co-promotion itself is pretty ambitious, with scannable code on McDonalds packaging that you show to your computer's webcam to unlock proprietary "Avatar" content online.

But the :30 spot is a horror. I've worked on fast food, so I know the promo spots go to the B-team. It just kills me to see images from this beautiful movie flattened, shrunk and dunked in ketchup. How much better it would have been to have 2 dudes shoving fries in their face talking about the movie:

"Didja see Avatar yet?"
"No--how was it?"
"Can't really describe it, man. You gotta see it. Don't eat that last fry."
"Just tell me about that blue chick."
"You gotta see it. Talking about it just ruins it."

etc etc

Sampling laundry detergent or cookies works. Sampling art: not so much. Here it would have been better to suggest, conceal and tease.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How to sell buying less.

One of the nicest sentiments I’ve seen expressed in any, er, branded content this holiday season isn’t even a holiday ad.

It’s eBay’s new campaign, an example of which you see above. If you can't read the headline, it says "Last year's music player at half price still plays this year's music at full volume."

The urge to get and have will always be with us, but eBay’s message that gently used things can still have meaning and value is a good one, and in sync with the 2009 zeitgeist without being manipulative.

Spending $150 for last year’s model instead of $300 for this year’s doesn’t automatically mean $150 left over for charitable giving. Or debt reduction. Or savings for college. But it at least opens the door of possibility, and gets you thinking.

Not to mention, it’s a very smart, insightful way to get people to think differently about eBay, and it isn’t even the first. Goodby’s “People are good” campaign of a few years back, when people still feared internet commerce with strangers, was crazy good too.

The only off-note is the stupid endline “Come to think of it”, which has been used on everything from cigarettes to cars to food—usually by brands that are on the brink of extinction because no on thinks about them anymore.

The best endline would have been no endline. But that doesn’t take away from a singular achievement: a campaign that sells its product hard at the same time it encourages you to be a better person.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It took a lying evil behemoth to get me to blog again.

It’s no blinding insight that advertising often resorts to, ahem, a selective presentation of facts to make its case. So do we all, every day, in our dealings with others. Freshly blown-out hair and artful make-up are a selective presentation of the facts. Your resume is a selective presentation of the facts. That guy’s picture on is a selective presentation of the facts.

We live in a world of truthiness. We know our mileage may vary. We know prescription drugs have all sorts of side-effects. We get it. But there are instances in advertising, as in life, where the presentation is so utterly, fantastically deceitful, so at odds with “the facts on the ground” as the generals say, that even a lard-ass, narcoleptic failed blogger is roused to protest.

Seen this ad?

You can’t have missed it. AT&T, which was seeing big share gains against Verizon Wireless purely because of its exclusive iPhone offering, was knocked on its ass when Verizon Wireless started its “We have a map for that” counter-terrorism surge. “We have a map” isn’t going to win anything at Cannes this year, but it’s tearing a new one for AT&T by reminding everyone of a simple truth: AT&T’s coverage sucks. That they appropriate and pervert Apple’s “We have an app for that” to deliver the message just makes it nastier and more memorable. And the visual comparison of Verizon’s coverage, blotting out the entire map of the United States except that place in Idaho where the Unabomber lived, to the hollowed-out emptiness that is AT&T’s coverage, is incredibly powerful.

So how did that anemic coverage schematic grow into the vast orange, sea-to-shining-sea coverage map in AT&T’s ad?

They lied. Not in the “We can grow your penis overnight” way of low-life, unregulated advertisers. Because AT&T isn’t a corner hustler. It’s a big company, with a big legal department. So they did it the old-fashioned way: in the fine print.

As a service to readers in their baby-boom years, and to young ‘uns who read digital newspapers, let me bump it up a few point sizes, make it nice and big so you can read it:

“Map depicts an approximation of outdoor coverage. Map may include areas served by unaffiliated carriers, and may depict their licensed area rather than an approximation of their coverage. Actual coverage area may differ substantially from map graphics.”

“Actual coverage may differ substantially from map graphics.” This is not “Your mileage may vary,” brothers and sisters. This isn’t even Glen Beck on a bad day. This is lying, corporate style. For shame.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Getting 'Faced.

After disdaining Facebook from afar ever since my daughters starting obsessing over it 4 years ago, I joined up 3 weeks ago so I could disdain it up close.

I was not disappointed.

After I completed the signup process, the first person suggested to me as a Friend (as opposed to a l/c friend, who is someone you actually know and like and see from time to time) was my 75-year old former boss from the ‘80s, now living la vida loca in Boca. Facebook had clearly jumped the shark long before my sad 57-year old self signed up.

I went to my Homepage?/Room?/Place?/Wall? and gazed in wonderment at the spectacle unfolding before my eyes. I felt guilty and ashamed—but not enough to keep me from scrolling, mesmerized, through the idle thoughts of current employees, bikini photos of ex-employees and the minute-by-minute documentation of all these people’s lives.

It would be easy to think, Jesus, who cares? Except that each dispatch—“Just got back from the dentist.” “Psyched for the weekend!!!” “Having ramen for dinner.”—is greeted with a chorus of thumbs-up validating comments.

I felt like Shelly Duvall's character in The Shining when she discovers the bat-shit crazy stuff Jack Nicholson's been writing all this time. The horror!

Three weeks rummaging through this dumpster of compromising pictures, coma-inducing reportage and rampant narcissism lead me to these conclusions:

1. People have way too much time on their hands.

2. Facebook is an irony-free zone. It may be a relatively new medium, but it’s about as edgy and cynical as Lutheran Bible camp.

3. Using a Facebook Wall to talk to someone is like using a Predator Drone to conduct diplomacy.

4. When your client, regardless of category or target demographic, asks you whether they should have a Faebook “presence” (the word itself is a dead giveaway), say No.

Regarding the latter, I used to say No without having ever been on Facebook myself. Now I can say No with much greater confidence. And, because I’d never ask a client to do something I wouldn’t do myself, I’m de-Friending?Listing?Booking? myself today.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A challenging day.

Humankind cannot bear too much reality."
--T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

It's been a challenging day.

The weather has been challenging, the fraudulent use of my credit card in Madrid is a challenge, and my painting contractor's sudden, unexplained disappearance will certainly pose a challenge going forward.

My 3rd quarter mutual fund letters to shareholders make abundant use of the word "challenging," as do CEOs reporting missed targets on analyst calls. Having all their franchise players injured was certainly a challenge for the Mets.

The beauty of "challenging", as opposed to, say, "totally and completely fucked," is that challenge is noble and invites rising, whereas total and complete fucked-upness is depressing and invites sitting down or--even better--going to sleep.

Euphemisms have their place in civilized life. They grace the skids for little white lies meant as a kindness, and they minimize the gross factor in discussions about bodily functions. But I've never understood euphemisms that mask truths, fool no one, and leave neither speaker or listener feeling better.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Make yourself scarce.

Seeing these new Starbucks ads everywhere confirmed my feeling that whatever elan this brand once had, it has lost. In fact, the sheer ubiquity of the campaign added to the problem. I mean, here’s an ad that basically sells scarcity—we use only 3% of the world’s beans—and then they plaster the message everywhere!

Part of what used to make Starbucks cool was that they didn’t advertise. Yes, they did the occasional (and sweet) holiday effort, but they didn’t spend a lot, the ads didn’t sell very hard, and it all felt artisanal and small-bore...exactly what you want from makers of $3.00 cups of coffee. Dropping $100 million on an ad campaign says “We’re the Micky D of coffee” no matter what the headline is.

In a spectacularly misguided effort at social-network relevancy, Starbucks CEO Howard Shutlz laid out his thinking for the company’s “partners” (read: hourly employees) in this YouTube video:

If you’ve built your brand through advertising (as, for instance, Folgers did in coffee), then there are good reasons to keep advertising. If you built your brand as “the third place”—essentially, an experience rather than a bunch of product claims—then advertising ought to be a waste of money at best.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Bring back the dead guy in the fedora.

Let's say you were Lexus and you were introducing a vehicle in a new segment, somewhere between the ES and GS. Wouldn't this be an appropriate headline? Builds on their endline of the last 20 years or so, highlights a new entry, has the self-confidence bordering on swagger that Lexus has earned.

Too bad it's an ad for...Buick. What? You didn't notice that?

Friday, October 02, 2009

A new-business koan.

Which is worse: not getting past the RFP stage of a pitch and then seeing the hilariously bad new campaign from the winning agency? Or not getting past the RFP stage of a pitch and seeing the so-good-it-hurts kickass campaign from the winning agency?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Where the wild type treatments are.

One is for rebellious children of all ages.
The other one is for...rebellious children of all ages.

Monday, August 31, 2009

What makes an ad look old?

I was leafing through Penthouse while getting my hair cut and...

Wait. It's not what you think. It was the April 1974 issue of Penthouse, part of a big moldy stack my trendy barbershop found and keeps on hand. As a sociological artifact it was fascinating, on a lot of counts, most of which are not appropriate to discuss in a family blog.

Being the focused adman I am, I skipped right by Miss April, the Penthouse Forum and other appeals to my baser instincts, and focused on the ads. They seemed older--far older--than their 35 years, and I tried to figure out why. One obvious reason is that most of them were for cigarettes, but cigarette advertising wasn't banned until relatively recently, so that wasn't it.

There was the grainy, dirty quality of the photo reproduction--but now that look is slavishly recreated for its retro appeal. Ditto the haircuts and outfits (and 'staches on the guys).

ThenI realized what it was that dated those ads as surely as carbon dates rock: the typography.

Windsor. Remember Windsor? Sam Scali used it for Perdue then everybody got on board.
And Avant Garde. Lots of Avant Garde Extra Bold. Which now looks very not avant garde. And everything tracked super-tight so all the letters touched and the kerned characters got so intertwined they were almost x-rated.

I stared at that type and got a whiff of antiquity. Which is ironic because a few weeks before, I had been in Rome and while walking through the Coliseum, I had admired all the, um, Roman type chiseled into the ancient stone and thought, 2000 years later, that it looked remarkably fresh.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Nothing says “We care” like a good ™ at the end.

You’re in good hands with Allstate.™

Reach out and touch someone.™

When you care enough to send the very best.™

When companies try to get all warm and fuzzy, often it’s the two little letters
in superscript that give the show away. Yo, all you $500/hr. intellectual property lawyers out there: isn’t there a way to protect ownership other than stamping the equivalent of “Hands off my themeline” all over your stuff?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The answer:


What, in that stew of facts, could possibly be more relevant to the average parent? Or more exciting to the average child?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Your final exam in Marketing 101 consists of this question:

You need to send out a newsletter to parents and children of all California public schools to let them know of an upcoming event. Here are the pertinent facts:

1) The state has received a $500 million dollar anonymous gift to fund science and math education for every student, K-12, in the state.

2) All teachers, principals, and other administrators will gather next Tuesday in Sacramento to undergo special training for this initiative.

3) Leading scientists and mathematicians from around the world will be in attendance.

What is your headline for the newsletter?

NB: There is only one right answer.

Answer in the next post.

My thanks to Dick and Barbara Holt for supplying me with this wonderful thought experiment.

Monday, June 15, 2009

What if we made periods a happy time?

This is hardly breaking news, or even a new insight. Rather, it's a bitterly funny data point on the endless cluelessness of marketers when it comes to women.

Ir comes in the form of a letter written by Wendi Aarons to the Always brand manager (male, of course) at Procter and Gamble. It's well worth your time to read the entire screed, but here, to whet your appetite, is the opening salvo:

Dear Mr. Thatcher,

I have been a loyal user of your Always maxi pads for over 20 years, and I appreciate many of their features. Why, without the LeakGuard Core™ or Dri-Weave™ absorbency, I'd probably never go horseback riding or salsa dancing, and I'd certainly steer clear of running up and down the beach in tight, white shorts. But my favorite feature has to be your revolutionary Flexi-Wings. Kudos on being the only company smart enough to realize how crucial it is that maxi pads be aerodynamic. I can't tell you how safe and secure I feel each month knowing there's a little F-16 in my pants.

It only gets better from there. Given the fact there is a whole ecosystem of consultants, research firms, academics, agency leaders etc. who specialize in telling the Mr. Thatchers of the world "what women want," it's amazing that these tone-deaf marketing efforts crop up so often.

Even with a wife of 29 years and 3 daughters, I don't profess to know what women want.But here's a suggestion:

Pretend you're talking to a guy.

Whatever you lose in feminine sensibility, you will avoid sounding like a pandering, condescending idiot. If men had menstrual cramps, saying "Have a happy period, bro" would get you killed.

Friday, June 12, 2009

And if this turns into a depression, we're golden!

CMOs continue to the say the darndest things. Wal-Mart CMO Stephen Quinn had this gem in this week's Ad Age:

"We were fortunate that this recession came along. It played to our positioning really well."

Yes, Stephen, it's true. Wal-Mart was very well-positioned for customers facing job loss, foreclosure and loss of life savings. Nothing like that Katrina thing where all the shoppers were cooped up in the Superdome!

Christ, it's enough to make one yearn for the return of Julie Roehm.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Adventures in media, continued.

After your Metro-North ad has been used as a poker table, anything can happen. In this case, the ad became infinitely more attention-grabbing than its hackneyed right-side-up version.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A temporary breach in the firewall.

"Good fences make good neighbors" was how Robert Frost put it. "Don't shit in your own backyard" was my father's version. They were both right and that's why, as a matter of policy and self-preservation, I usually don't post about specific happenings at my agency. Nor do I use this blog as a vehicle to promote our work.

But today I'm making an exception. We launched our new Seiden agency website this morning and I like it a lot. Not too self-conscious, not hard to navigate, easy on the eyes. I'm sure in 18 months it will look like a Pontiac Aztec to me, but right now I couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stimulate this.

One of the many odious aspects of focus groups is using the term “stimulus” to refer to the creative work being subjected to the group’s malevolent scrutiny.

When I think of a stimulus, I think of a cattle prod. Or a latexed digit going where I don’t want it to. Which is maybe apt, since another odious focus group term is “probe,” as in “Let’s probe to see if this image is polarizing.”

Painful. Dehumanizing. Clinical. Stimuli are meant to provoke reaction. But often the reaction they provoke, in the stimulated and stimulator alike, is: please please stop.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Throwing out the work.

I was hunting for an old ad to illustrate a typography point to my creative team and as I dug, I started to throw.

I threw out things that started their life as physical mechanicals. Things that were set in hot type. Things that were set by Photo-Lettering and couriered back and forth. I tossed things that never were, and now never will be, digital files.

I threw work that was laminated because lamination was the archived pdf of its day. There were cheap laminations, and fancy ones with non-glare plastic, rounded edges and felt backing.

I didn’t throw away everything. Some of this stuff still elicits a “Huh...this really isn’t bad.” Some of it smiles back at me from an earlier, sweeter moment in time. But most of it was there because it used to ride around in a large black pleather bag (hence the felt backing) trying to get me a job.

These ads were trendy-looking at some point, and now look as bad as a ‘70s haircut. Or they were ads demonstrating I had experience in a category, something we mock clients for in RFPs but have no hesitation doing for our own careers.

Portfolios, physical or digital, are no longer useful in my life. The ads that were in them no longer need to sell me or impress others or tell much of a story of any kind. The ones that still make me proud go back in the drawer. The rest can go.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ethan Coen, kickass copywriter

Coen Brother Ethan, it turns out, is not just a stupidly great screenwriter, but a poet as well. And, being the ironic, self-aware dude he is, he refused to read his work aloud. So Bill Macy read for him. You can hear it in its entirety here. But here is the title and repeating lyric:

"The Drunken Driver has the right of way."

Tell me that isn't the best headline for any safety-themed car ad ever written.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Here's to you, Mr. Bounce-it-by-Billingsley!

I’ve got a new campaign that’s flapping its wings furiously, trying to get off the ground, and if it succeeds, it will be because of a client.

We bitch about clients when they kill or maim good work. But we forget what a Herculean task they have if they actually embrace our vision. The layers. The “stakeholders.” The politics. The bean-counters. The lawyers. The processes. The sheer inertial mass of a huge organization that needs to be overcome.

And there, slogging through it with our precious idea in his hand, is our client, in his soul-crushing, Orwellian office park with little more to help him than his belief in our idea and his own sheer tenacity.

How often does it happen? Not very. Then again, how often do we do work that justifies his thankless journey?

"I think it needs kids or animals."

Monday, April 13, 2009


I’ve gone dark for a few weeks. Never a good blog-viewership move.

Why? I’m speechless.

Here are some things I’m speechless about:

Ad Age asking Julie Roehm to be on an expert panel.


The SpongeBob square bootie thing for Burger King.

Bank of America corporate advertising.

Republican “Tea Parties.”

The Celebrex :60 legal disclaimer spot.

When the bile rises high enough in the gorge, words can no longer escape.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Guaranteed 32% less bad.

One theory about this week's nice spike in the stock market is that it was driven by news that shit isn't as bad as it could be. Here's a quote from today's New York Times:

"General Electric, the blue-chip corporation, was stripped of its triple-A credit rating, an emblem of business prowess it proudly held since 1956. But its rating fell just one notch, less than some analysts predicted. Shares of G.E. soared 13 percent...
Less bad was good enough."

Maybe in these diminished times, diminished claims have their place. Think about all those DTC fair-balance warnings...we could make some kickass claims out of those:

"Shown to be 24% less likely to cause blindness, insanity or death than other cholesterol reducers."

The coal lobby's "Clean Coal" ads, which the Coen brothers savagely and appropriately turned upside down (thanks for the tipoff, American Copywriter dudes) can escape further ridicule with the truth:

"Burning coal causes less dirty, polluting smoke than burning dung or discarded tires."

Monday, March 09, 2009

Ads of the Great Recession, Part Two.

A glimmer of genius in the gloom of recession and perpetual retail blowout sales. Snaps to New York retro-crockery merchant Fishs Eddy.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Advertising is a contact sport.

You are not here to marvel at the size of this woman's diamond. You are here to marvel that she, along with me and two other people at our agency, are not dead.

We were returning from a very successful client presentation, walking east on 33rd Street, when a 50-lb. chunk of ice fell from the building roof ledge and landed two feet away. Kimb's left hand took the ice-shrapnel hit and today she's typing revisions. Way to play hurt, Kimb!

I'm not sure, but I think this is outside our scope of service with this client.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

My fishmonger is better than your agency copywriter.

Seen this morning driving up 49th Street:


Monday, February 23, 2009

How do I get Peter Arnell's job?

Advertising - Tropicana Discovers Some Buyers Are Passionate About Packaging -

The man's a serial ad criminal. You'd think Celine Deon for Chrysler would be enough to kill any five people's careers. But no! Weeks after blathering to the press about the genius of putting a hemispherical cap on his washed-out, generic-looking Tropicana redesign, Arnell was asked by Stuart Eliott to comment on the brand's decision to dump it after only a few weeks. His thought?

"Tropicana is doing exactly what they should be doing."

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Show the work first.

Here's an idea.

Show the work first. Then get the strategy approved.

I know it's not gonna happen. But it would save so much aggravation.

This is not quite the same thing as Mark Fenske's "no one ever wrote a good ad by looking at a strategy."

It's more "No client ever looked at a strategy and had any idea what kind of advertising it would lead to."

Showing the work first would lead to better strategies. And fewer tears.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The real 800-lb. gorilla

Eric Webber's excellent recent post on the triumph of cheesy commercials like the Snuggie and ShamWow spots and the Cash4Gold Super Bowl ad highlight the difficulty of justifying huge production budgets, especially in these cash-strapped times. As Eric and his commentators pointed out, insanely expensive but crappy commercials like the new Bank of America campaign, financed on the taxpayer's dime, don't help.

But for all the talk about budget woes and ROI as the reason clients push back on pricey top-drawer production, there's another factor that never gets discussed. Insurance-peddling primates aside, it's the real 800 lb. gorilla in the room whenever clients and agency people talk craft and production value.

I'm talking about taste.

Or more properly, the lack of it on the part of many clients.

No one talks about taste because it gets uncomfortably into class issues and reeks of snobbery. It's undemocratic and toally non-PC. There's no "your taste" and "my taste." There's only good taste and bad taste, and neither correlates in any way whatsoever to people's intelligence, character or ability. Some of the biggest jerks I know have impeccably curated and art-directed lives, and some of the finest people live in houses decorated by Wal-mart.

But nontheless, taste is real. Agency folk, and especially creatives--tend to have strong aesthetic sensibilities. They can be poor as church mice living in a 400 sq. ft. rathole, but it'll be the best-looking rathole you've ever seen. If they own or wear anything tacky, it will be purely in an ironic way--the irony, of course, being lost on their clients.

Aesthetics is not a driving force in the lives of most American middle-class businesspeople. Work, family, community, church, sports, hobbies...these things come first. And because there is far more tasteless, tacky or just plain uninspiring stuff in this world than there is stylish, authentic and beautiful, the odds are overwhelming that the icky stuff will find its way into these people's homes and wardrobes.

Nor is it about money. Check out this double-height shrine to bad taste:

Why does this matter? Because part of what you're buying with a 1st tier director, music house, editor or photographer is his or her taste. Even if you're lucky to work with a client with good taste (there are some), someone who understands what a Nadev Kandar or Noam Murro brings to the work, you'd be hard pressed to translate it into incremental business results. Now take a client who doesn't even see the difference.

We all throw up our hands (or have Bob Garfield do it for us) when we look at Cash4Gold and see cheap sets, bad lighting, stilted dialogue and heinous graphics. A lot of clients (not to mention customers) looking at it say, "I'm sorry. What's the problem?"

That's the 800 pound gorilla talking. Good luck enlisting his help for your next production.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

An annoying. Annoying. Annoying way. Way to. Way to edit.

Once upon a time there was Nike’s “If you let me play” spot. It was a beautiful commercial, and edited in a startling but ultimately logical way. The echoing words, plaintive and insistent, coming from the mouths and thoughts of young women of different cultures, ages and sports, became a kind of incantation.

Fast forward to now, where this editing approach is used constantly, and annoyingly, to try to give heft to spots devoid of interest. You see it everywhere, from cereal commercials to this new IBM campaign. “We need/we need to work smarter/work smarter/smarter” indeed.

And stutter less.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Ads from the Great Recession

Following the recent layoffs at O&M and elsewhere, there are maybe 32 people left to make ads for every client in the world during the Great Recession.

Some of these clients are staggering ahead, zombie-like, their ads suggesting they don't know they're actually dead and that the living are in pain. While Citi natters on about never sleeping, a concept that was novel in the pre-digital, pre-global, pre-ATM' 70s but flat-out stupid now, ING is getting with the program by championing savings and the savers who save it.

Tiffany reacted with what I thought was tremendous speed (probably because they had this campaign ready to go for the Doomsday scenario currently unfolding) with their holiday ads talking about buying fewer, better things and gifts that hold value. Moral issues aside (and they are legion), this was clever thinking.

But I knew we were well and truly deep into the Great Recession when I saw a Gillette spot pleading with people not to re-use their disposable blades. Brother, can you spare a 5-blade Fusion cartridge?