Friday, June 25, 2010

You Can Get with This, or You Can Get with That – An Advertising Miscue

Still another cross post from
As Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest) tells us in This is Spinal Tap, “There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” In advertising and marketing I feel it’s a fine line between genius and disastrous.

I love and appreciate brave advertising and marketing campaigns – such as the Old Spice campaign I’ve written about before. A company aware of a shortcoming and embracing it to create a unique identity, (“With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.”), is deserving of praise.

Riskier still, and difficult to pull off, is mentioning or showing your competitor’s product in your ad. Recently Burger King introduced a breakfast sandwich that looks an awful lot like McDonald’s, market-dominating Egg McMuffin breakfast sandwich. BK embraced this fact and attempted to own it. The TV spot featured the King character breaking into McDonald’s headquarters and stealing the blueprints for their sandwich, then rolling out a BK copy cat. The voiceover says, “It’s not that original, but it is super affordable...” (They sell the sandwich for $1.) Pretty honest and clever. (Though it may be time to hang up the drive through statue-inspired King character.)

But during recent World Cup games I witnessed what I would consider the advertising blunder of the year.

My kids are very athletic, mostly soccer, but also biking and swimming and other sports. We mostly hydrate them with water, but every once in awhile we pick up a sports drink, almost always Gatorade. But one of the things I am always aware of is that Gatorade can be high in calories and carbohydrates. Fine for the kids who are running around, but not ideal for me, a guy with a more spectator-ish relationship to the sports.

Along comes a commercial featuring a beauty shot of Gatorade, “G.” The copy announces that the drink has 50 calories per 8 ounce serving. I thought, “Hey, that’s not too bad.” Then the bottle gets knocked out of the frame by a different Gatorade drink, “G2” and the graphic explains this drink has 20 calories per 8 ounce serving. “Even better!” And I recently saw that product in the supermarket. I’ll make a note.

Then that bottle gets knocked out of frame by another Gatorade product, Propel water. It only has 10 calories per 8 ounce serving! And I think to myself, “Well, I’ve had the water before and didn’t really like it, but it’s good to know that Gatorade offers a fairly wide array of products with varying calorie content. “

And then the ad goes south.

The Propel water is knocked out of frame by a blue Powerade bottle. It has zero calories per 8 ounce serving. Well, that’s all fine and good, but they’ve spent about 25 of the 30 seconds showing me Gatorade. And they’ve sold me on how there are always options with Gatorade. Oops.

I give Powerade credit for not being afraid to show their competition, but perhaps they should have spent less time with the Gatorade on screen? Or not shot the product so beautifully? Or maybe mocked the competition for having too many choices and then presenting the fact that their product is always the lowest calorie sports drink?

Worse still is the fact that the Gatorade bottles they show are not 8 ounce bottles. They are 20 ounce bottles. So now I erroneously associate the low calorie content with the larger bottle. If you must show me Gatorade, at least show me the service size you are talking about. Otherwise you are giving your competitor a “serving size bump.” (You know how that works, “Only 5 calories per serving! How many servings in this candy bar? Oh, well, 531.)

A nice try, but Powerade’s new calorie count ads are, in sports terms, a swing and a miss.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Snore of Shock Value

This is a May 2009 post from my Communications blog. Which can be found here...
Later this month a new movie is opening that has already caused quite a stir because of its content. The movie features a young female actress, Chloe Moretz, swearing. A lot. And using words that make adults cringe.

It’s not the first time filmmakers have put adult language into the mouths of kids to shock and amuse. Remember the very potty mouthed, Bobb’e J. Thompson in the very funny and crude, “Role Models?” How about the surprise moviegoers felt in 1977 when then 10-year-old Quinn Cummings called Richard Dreyffus an “asshole” in “The Goodbye Girl?” Or for me, the granddaddy of all potty mouthed kids, Chris Barnes as Tanner Boyle in “The Bad News Bears.” (Yes, the original, 1976 version. Another entry on horrendous remakes of classic films is brewing.)

The profanity in this new film has generated a fair amount of publicity – outcry over the foul mouthed little girl. There have been calls for censorship and new standards for child actors. Personally, I think it’s all nonsense. I don’t believe in censorship. Not exactly, anyway. I have a totally different problem with this film – a film I’ll go see, by the way. My problem is the actual name of the film, not the content.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the film is “Kick Ass.”
I remember seeing a preview for the film months ago and laughing that the main character’s super hero name was Kick Ass. But my amusement shifted to bemusement that the filmmakers would give the film the same name. I remember thinking, “well, there goes network TV advertising, on ABC at least. And no DVD sales in Wal-Mart.”

I know the film is based on a popular Marvel comic of the same name, but so what? They could have given the film another name. Someone like me, who doesn’t know of the comic may not have known the film was based on a comic book, but Fanboys and Fangirls would certainly know. And don’t think the filmmakers kept the name to keep the fan base happy. We all know they will complain no matter what. It’s what they do. Fanboy = Hater.

So now we’ll be inundated with the word “ass.” On posters, on TV, and movie marquees. And that’s how standards start slipping. The more kids see it and hear it, from parents and on the news and in the newspaper, the more acceptable the word becomes. We become desensitized to it. It proliferates. And then we climb one more rung down the ladder to the next word that used to be bad but someone is determined to make tolerable. Now, is this word so bad? Well, no, I guess “ass” is not so bad. It is, however, not a word I would use if I could help it with my kids, or a clergy member, or the President of the United States, or in a client presentation. Do I use it other times? Of course. And exponentially worse words. And I know I’ve slipped and used that word and worse in front of my kids. But I strive not to. There’s a time and a place for everything. And as the lines begin blurring we all lose out.

Watch a week of prime time TV and count the number of times unimaginative writers use the word “douchebag” in sit-coms. They frequently have characters say it even when it’s way out of character. Why? Because they can. Because somebody tested the waters in 2009 and the FCC didn’t get letters and didn’t fine anybody. And suddenly it became cool to use the word as much as possible, even if it didn’t fit the situation or character because writers could shock with the word without getting in trouble. But just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. I can eat an entire large cheese pizza. But it’s not a good idea.

I find it hard to believe I’m arguing against swearing – and those who know me and have heard my colorful vocabulary may be tempted to call me a hypocrite. It’s not that I’m against people using whatever language they want. I just wish we were more careful as a society with how flippantly we thumb our nose at tradition. Recently a friend remarked that there was a time when people dressed up in a shirt and tie to get on an airplane. Now you’re lucky if your seatmate has closed shoes and unexposed underarms.

Is a movie called “Kick Ass” the end of society? No. Is it a brick on the road to the end of society? Probably. Do I consider myself a fuddy-duddy? Not at all. But will I continue to wince when the bounds of polite society are pushed? You bet your…bottom dollar…I will.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Rewarding Effective Communications

This post is the first post on my company blog. That blog will deal with communications issues and can be found at

As someone who tries to make his living communicating clearly and effectively, I spend a lot of time thinking about communication. Every day I parse and study marketing, advertising, speeches, op-eds, press releases, and other forms of communication that cross my path. When it’s well-done, I take a certain amount of professional pride in the work of one of my communicating brethren. Conversely, poor communication skills upset me. From a poorly worded passage on a website, to an attempt to communicate a policy clearly that has the opposite effect.

Take this example from a local Washington, DC public information website. This winter’s multiple snowstorms crippled the area. Inconsistent plowing made driving, and parking, a challenge. At one point, the city eased parking restrictions. Or did they? Here’s what was posted on January 18, 2010:

“No parking restrictions in effect.”

Did you read it to mean there were no restrictions on parking? Or did you read it to mean the exact opposite, that parking was restricted? It depends where you, the reader, placed the emphasis. An optimist probably stresses the word “restrictions,” and as such, can find ample spots for his car. The pessimist stresses “no parking,” and takes Metro or stays home.

Poor communication represents a professional threat to me – when the mediocre or lousy become acceptable, justifying the expense of my services becomes a challenge for me and my clients. On the other hand, good communication is a joy to behold.

The return of the McDonald’s singing, wall-mounted fish brought such joy to my heart. First introduced in 2009 singing from the wall of The Bearded Man’s garage, the fish’s ditty was stupid, the lyrics made no sense, and it was so infectious I actually went out and had a Filet-o-Fish for the first time in at least 20 years.

Now the fish is back, singing the same song that still makes no sense, but if you are like me, it is now stuck in your head for at least the next hour. And now you are starting to crave the sandwich. Maybe for the first time in decades. (If you’d like some justification for eating the sandwich, tell yourself you won’t eat the fries. Okay, you won’t finish your fries. And you’ll get a Diet Coke.)

While the Filet-o-Fish is not a regular part of my diet – I don’t think two in 20 years qualifies as even “occasional” – I do think it is important to reward effective communication. And so I will. The next time I see the ad, I will “reward” McDonald’s by purchasing the sandwich. I’ll use my wallet to let McDonald’s know I approve. Since 99% of us will never be chosen for a focus group, this type of market positive reinforcement is all we have. We should make use of it.

Consider that if you don’t reward McDonald’s for the clever Filet-o-Fish campaign, they have less incentive to produce entertaining advertising. And then you end up with a “Cash 4 Gold” spot. Uninspired, stupid, annoying, and because it costs less to produce, it can be run more frequently.

And if you hate the fish’s jingle? Well, I’m sure you aren’t alone. But can you at least acknowledge the great understated performances of the two human actors? They are comedy gold – subtle and well-conceived. Their performances are genius.

(It’s worth noting that McDonald’s is on the verge of going too far. The fish is now available for purchase in toy stores, CVS stores, and that bastion of quality products that are almost never a flash-in-the-pan, the mall push cart. If ABC announces the fish and his two buddies are getting a sit-com, perhaps in the old Geico Caveman time slot, that might be it for me for McDonald’s. My fingers are crossed that they’ll resist the urge.)

I also appreciate the new Old Spice spots. The new campaign, loosely-termed (by me) “Be A Man,” first launched in 2007 with cult movie hero Bruce Campbell. The spots were irreverent, made fun of the product, its image, and us for holding that image. They were risky. And brilliant.

As someone who has sat in creative meetings and communications strategy meetings I can only imagine how tough that sell was – but that’s a rant for another post.

The 2009-10 Old Spice campaign goes even farther – the shirtless Isaiah Mustafa appealing directly to our wives and girlfriends that they can help make us more like him. The transformation to a better us will begin when we stop buying “girly-smelling” bath soaps and start buying Old Spice so we can smell like him. Again, a great use of self-deprecating, brand-busting humor. It takes unbelievable courage on the part of Proctor & Gamble and I’m sure persistence on behalf of Wieden + Kennedy, the producer of the spots.

And for their hard work and courage I will reward them. I will change my personal habits and purchase Old Spice. I will attempt to smell like Isaiah Mustafa at least once.

I feel I will be doing my part to reward creativity, bravery, and plain old good communications. I hope my clients will continue to do the same for me. (And tell their friends.)

Let me know what you think of these two commercial campaigns. And also, have you ever changed your purchasing habits because of an advertisement you found particularly amusing or creative? Email me at