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