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Today’s Ad Business: Land Of The Lost


Today's Ad Business: Land Of The Lost

With this year’s Super Bowl behind us, this seems like a good time to address the advertising business and how it has lost its way.

My overall comment on the array of wildly expensive and unintelligible commercials that ran: What in the world are advertisers thinking about? Most of the people sitting in my living room kept asking me, “What are they selling?” My response was that I was just as bewildered as they were. (And I’m in the business.)

When it comes to Super Bowl advertising, it would seem that all the rules go out the window. It has become an all out effort to be as entertaining as possible. It’s damn the selling message, full speed ahead. As a result, you get overproduced dance numbers, horses playing football, chimpanzees and funny vignettes with very little connection to the company or product advertised. All in all, you get a colossal waste of money. It’s as if clients and agencies say that this weekend we are in the entertainment business.

What’s the measure of success? Like a movie, it’s how well they are reviewed. The press is an enormous contributor to this phenomenon. Everybody weighs in on what commercials were most popular, leading to adjectives such as charming, hilarious, cute, crisp and funny. Sure, they will occasionally say a commercial is unfunny or silly, but you never read a critic saying, “I didn’t see a reason to buy that product anywhere.” Hey, this is the Super Bowl, and the object is to entertain, not sell.

What do I consider to be a great Super Bowl ad? Well, to me, the greatest ad ran some years ago. It was for a lock made by Master Lock, a unit of Fortune Brands. In this commercial, all they did was shoot a high-powered bullet right through the center of the lock and to the amazement of all, it stayed locked. That was one of the best product demonstrations I’ve ever seen, and it made a great commercial. Not funny, just dramatic. Not cute, it just made the powerful point that this is one tough lock.

Recent times have brought a  twist with most companies putting their commercials online so that people could see them again.

That way, people can see the same ineffectual commercial a number of times. To me, that doesn’t accomplish much, but it does enable the ad agency and the marketing folks to go to the top management and tell them how many hits the commercial received as well as its glowing press reviews. I can hear the speech now, “B.J., we sure did get a lot of extra mileage on our Super Bowl spectacular. And next year we’ve got something better planned.” Unfortunately, B.J. keeps track of the numbers. And if sales don’t reflect all that excitement, our marketing person along with his agency pals might not be around to try and generate next year’s laughs.

It’s as if the advertising industry has lost touch with the meaning of advertising. If you look at a dictionary, the definition is, “to call public attention to, especially in order to sell.” So, there it is, the role of advertising is not to entertain, it’s to sell. That means you have to present a reason to buy your product instead of your competitor’s product. That, in turn, means you must present a difference. The agency’s assignment is to find a way to dramatize that point of difference. That’s exactly what putting a bullet through that lock was about. When you consider how many locks we’ve seen shot off in movies and in television, it was pretty dramatic when it stayed locked.

Don’t fall prey to the argument that people won’t pay attention unless you entertain them. If you have an interesting piece of news or a pretty good reason to buy, you can get people to stop and listen to what you have to say.

Want an example of how to do it? Start your next commercial with a person looking into the camera and saying, “Before you zap me, hang on for a bit. I have some important news to tell you about.”

You’ll freeze everyone in their seats and get their undivided attention. Then you’ll get a chance to sell them, not just entertain them.

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1 Comment

Olga Slavkina on February 27th, 2009 said

I agree that an ad can be considered good if it communicates an “interesting piece of news or a pretty good reason to buy”. The latter is particularly important, and no matter how much cash is pumped into large-scale ad campaigns, advertising brands won’t catch customers’ attention for too long if the product is of doubtful quality. For some reason, this pretty obvious statement often remains forgotten by many companies which try to build their brands mainly through visual identity before trying to sort out their product and business strategy first.

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