5 posts categorized "Advertising"

A Hundred to One

Dog ISO headline

When I first moved to Seattle, I freelanced at what was considered to be the meat grinder of the Seattle agency world. My first assignment was to serve as a production artist for a series of pet food ads. I was provided with layouts in QuarkXPress 4.0, consisting of a few dozen black and white portraits of happy Scotties, terriers, and other sedan-sized pups. The traffic person then handed me sheet of paper completely filled with three- to six-word phrases. "These are the headlines for the ads due today," she said, and scooted away.

I spent the next few minutes puzzling over the page. Some of the lines made no sense to me, outlining in scientific terms the benefits of Pet Food Special Formulation A to Crappy Pet Food Type B. Others were clever puns and riffs on animal lingo. The rest of the lines seemed like doggrel, and at the time I didn't really understand why the writer had even included them.

Until that point, I'd never been exposed to the full brain dump of a creative person, and while I could see which lines were pretty good, I was a bit stumped as to which would make the best ads.

Continue reading "A Hundred to One" »

A Case Study in Social Offsetting: CITGO

Social Offsetting

Sell now, reap the reward now, ignore the consequences later. This strategy is social offsetting. This strategy is an all too common parlance in today's advertising world.

The work can be socially responsible, but not sustainable. It can be meticulously researched, but not insightful. It can be extraordinarily gorgeous in its production values, but vapid. It can illuminate deep investment in local communities, only matched by the vast sums lavished on advertising said investments for brand lift.

A recent example is a brand advertising campaign currently running for CITGO. It's a perfect example of social offsetting -- focusing on the positive impact on local community, making an investment in social responsibility on a day-to-day basis, all the while ignoring the long-term expense owed to the world at large regarding the product that they sell.

CITGO Local Jobs Ad

Social Offsetting is a Risky Maneuver

Why is it that our oil industry, which is one of the most profitable corporate ventures in today's economy, is wasting gallons of money on incredibly dumb advertising instead of investing in our increased independence from petroleum products? This is a rhetorical question. We know the answer: employees, shareholders, political stakeholders, and franchises. Incremental profits and dividends. Short-term and long-term gains.

The greenwashing race has been on since the heady days of the BP rebrand, and long enough for the inevitable backlash to crash down on unsuspecting corporations, drag them through the muck, and gracefully recede to leave their gasping corpses on the beach for all to see. Gracefully rich corpses, mind you.

What concerns me now, however, is that oil companies with little or no "green story" are pouring money and thought into tastefully executed ad campaigns that attempt to either immunize customers from the increased hypocrisy regarding oil use in America, or shift our focus onto immediate human needs and turn a somewhat blind eye towards the future impact of the use of their products.

Looking at these dumb ads can be like reading a terrible creative brief. Take the ad which I've included here from CITGO.

Imagined creative brief: Companies such as Chevron are touting figures that point to their investment in alternative energy. Customers are angrier than ever about rising gas costs. How can we increase brand lift for Citgo and potentially increase consumption of our gasoline without a strong social responsibility/alternative fuels message?

Solution: Let's focus on the human condition. Let's make it personal. It's more important than ever to foster brand loyalty towards a specific brand of gas, since it's pumped by a local gas station near your home. It's not about the price of the gas. It's about supporting local business and communities and the jobs in this unstable economy that are preserved. It's about the people who man the pumps.

This position would be fabulous... if it really meant anything. By reading the copy in this ad, I learned a number of things, but none of them created a real point of differentiation against other gas stations, or other local franchises, for that matter.

This well-designed, well-executed ad has only served the purpose of making CITGO look like a company that doesn't give a damn about the long-term effects of their products on society. The sale of their products benefits the owners of their franchises and their shareholders. Bully to them. But it isn't sustainable. It doesn't hold up against their competition, who are hammering on sustainability hard. CITGO just looks like they're being facile. And it never helps when the guy who owns your business also happens to be a head of state that loves to hammer on George W. Bush (which we Democrats do anyways, but we usually aren't hanging out with Fidel Castro).

As we follow this logic:

CITGO thinks we all believe oil companies (may) own our corner gas stations, and the employees that work there are shills for the man. Just like at 7-11. And McDonalds. In fact, they assume we don't know that many major corporations that sell products sourced globally are franchises or licensees. Which would make CITGO just like pretty much any other corporation that sells a parity product. They have to franchise them. They don't want to dirty their hands with the actual effort managing thousands of local retail locations would require, including becoming good local citizens on the ground level.

Since the oil industry is doing so well, it's helping to keep people employed and prosperous in a down economy. This is the same case for any scarce resource, and while we haven't reached peak oil yet, they're in the business of putting us all out of business. Again, the short-term view rears its head.

These employees have money to support local communities, since they're doing so well. Ah... just cause they're doing well doesn't mean they're supporting local communities. Don't assume that everyone that owns a CITGO station is a good samaritan, unless it's required as part of their corporate charter (which I wouldn't be surprised if it was.) But this is a small point. You're still selling gas. Are you really being telling me something in this ad I didn't know already?

What really gets my goat, however, is that I spotted the CITGO ad in Harper's, where you practically need a Master's Degree to read some of the book reviews. These well-educated readers are going to see this ad, think about it for two minutes, and shred it with their intellect like a hot knife through Earth Balance buttery spread. Especially since the editors at Harper's have focused on peak oil issues and energy independence as a major topic of interest for some time now. Did your media planner read the magazine before making the buy? Did your media planner think that 97% of Harper's readers would know that CITGO is effectively owned by Hugo Chavez? (Actually, they might score some points there with those wacky Marxist college professors.)

Yes, it helps when you place your dumb ads in magazines where people will recognize just how dumb they are. Now come up with something better that doesn't belittle the real situation we're in.

I'm waiting with bated breath for the ad campaign from McDonald's about how they're supporting local businesses, as well as farms and slaughterhouses, and by extension making the world a better place.

The Right Kind of Transparency

Clearly, if we have cars, we need some kind of fuel. I totally understand that. I have an old Corolla that I drive to client meetings and band practice. I can't be so much of a hypocrite that I can't understand that I'm contributing to the problem. In fact, I'm educated enough to know that if I could reduce this argument to a simple answer, we wouldn't be having it. It's a wicked problem that will take hundreds of years to unravel.

However, I am mindful enough to think of the impact of my driving four miles to work, and try to minimize it by bussing or biking. I am investing time, energy, and attention into ventures that are looking to get us out of the petroleum game, both in making lifestyle choices (such as buying very local foods), in choosing socially responsible investment vehicles, and in having been a vegetarian for 13 years.

And because of this, and because the biodiesel movement is fraught with all sorts of risks and perils, I actually appreciate it when companies such as Chevron point out that they've invested $1B in alternative energy and are attempting to migrate their business into that as a long term venture. $1B is a drop in the bucket compared to their profit margin last year, and their marketing has its own hypocrisies that piss me off and will be mentioned in a later post. But I appreciate it when they don't skirt around the fact that we need oil now, but are trying to sell me a future with reduced independence. This "putting ourselves out of business" argument holds a lot more weight for people who are mindful about their footprint.

Now, if you've made it this far through this unintentional screed, you're going to be very interested in what follows. (And I should disclose that I wrote all of the above before I went to the CITGO Web site.)

For some reason, CITGO actually pushed to the public not only all of the TV and print ads, but also the media schedules for their ongoing campaign, their top-level market research, their audience segmentation and personas. I think it's pretty rare when a corporation puts live to the viewing public the thinking that supports their advertising at a strategic level. And there's a good reason why we don't expose this thinking to our audience. It makes corporations look ruthless, manipulative, and reductive. In many ways, that summarizes intelligently executed marketing strategy. However, seeing the wizard behind the curtain has a way of making the puppet show look mighty flimsy.

Thanks to CITGO, I know that I fall into the Progressive Activist category when it comes to their marketing. They've created a lovely logo to personify my recycling-junkie ways. They've told me when they'll be reaching me with these ads. They have big plans to educate the masses about their efforts. They've identified the issues of greatest importance to me and my corporate fellows, such as Environmental Stewardship, Local Ownership, and Social Development. Yes, Environmental Stewardship is one of eight pillars of their positioning, but they aren't talking about reducing dependence on oil. After all, it says on their Web site that "gasoline is still cheaper than bottled water" with regard to how much value they can squeeze out of every ounce of crude.

Yes, I'm quoting somewhat verbatim from copy on their Web site.

Yes, it is quite embarrassing to tell your customers on a page advertised on their corporate site exactly how you're going to convince them that you're not all that bad. Then again, look at poor Barkley out of Kansas City. They couldn't stem the PR nightmare and the flood of money that gushed out when 7-Eleven pulled out of working with CITGO in 2,100 stations due to its ties to Venezuela and Hugo Chavez. Even local gas stations are doing the same today. CITGO is clearly looking for a way to purchase themselves out of a rock-bottom brand position with the American public.

And they've continued that downward trend beautifully by showing me just how much they consider me part of their future. CITGO's exposure to the public of their market research and segmentation plans, how they are working to shape my opinions to like them more, and the lengths they want to go to do so in public, bald language, is both arrogant and galling.

Don't tell me how you're going to change my mind to like you more -- especially when you didn't include a Web site URL or other call to action in your ad to find out more information. Clearly, you didn't want me to look. I did. And look what I found: Beautifully designed, tastefully photographed, well-written ads calculated in a gambit to "change perceptions about CITGO among opinion leaders across the country," targeted at influentials like myself.

Guess what. You succeeded. I now have an even lower opinion of CITGO.

And I also have a parting request: Invest your advertising money in something more worthwhile, like these local communities that you love to tell me that you support.

And Now, an Interaction from our Sponsor

Rabbit Ears

You're watching the new episode of Lost on abc.com, and during the break, a little app from Google pops up that says you have two new messages on your Gmail account, there's a hurricane blasting its way through Peru, and your RSS reader has two articles you'd probably want to read before Jack and Kate start to make out.

"Entertainment with utility!" That'll be the rallying cry of the new breed of advertising married to interactive television.

Wait--don't we watch TV, go out to movies, and listen to music to escape from reality?

Definitely not. Anyone who has a young daughter or son, or has spent time observing TV-watching behavior, knows that we are now experiencing an unprecedented level of layering. Using their computer to sift the Internet for that next hot band, watching a so-so sitcom on their flat-screen TV out of the corner of their eye, chatting on their Bluetooth headset with their BFF, and maybe even having a little snack they just whipped up in the microwave. Simultaneously. I see people trying to cram as many interactions into each minute as possible.

So my thought is simple: layer the interactive experience so all those things happen within the computer. Or the TV. Or mash them up into one device. Give the audience the options to select how many layers they want. And integrate the online applications they use most into the advertising, creating utility in a domain usually reserved for talking dogs and men being chased by women due to their body spray. I'm already watching a TV show for entertainment. Make some of my advertising useful.

Sounds easy, and I'm sure Apple is already all over this in their secret R&D labs. But whomever cracks this code and creates the tightest integration will win: for consumers, for advertisers, and for those who create the platforms to deliver this kind of quality experience for their audience.

WaMu's WTF Advertising

Big Whoop

Sometimes, when seeing an ad whizz by you on a bus, or hearing a spot on the radio, you can reach straight through the ad to the creative brief -- and in a good way. A creative solution to a well-defined business problem can have a sort of elegance that practically sparkles when you see it, brimming with energy.

This isn't one of those ad campaigns. I unveil to you: Whoo hoo! (See the TV ads on their microsite here.)

WaMu Whoo Hoo

Hello, Washington Mutual -- or should I call you WaMu? Let's spend millions of dollars on TV, in-store, direct, print, out-of-home, radio, and Web site communications on a large-scale advertising and branding campaign associated with a word without any defined meaning to our audience (other than calling to mind Homer on The Simpsons and "Song 2" by Blur). We can then imbue said exclamation with the following meaning: that it is related to the experience that people have when they come in and bank with us -- specifically, as they discover the great set of benefits we provide them for free, and enjoy not being smacked with fees as they do their day-to-day banking.

Great idea in theory. But this creative approach is what I call WTF Advertising. You look at these ad executions in and out of home and go, "What the heck is this supposed to mean?" Then you connect the dots when you happened to collide with a radio spot or TV ad. I didn't for many weeks. And when I did see the ads, I was very disappointed. This is it? This is "Whoo Hoo?" Big whoop.

Here are three lessons I learned from enjoying these ads.

1. Don't do an integrated campaign with a print execution that relies on a sound.

The term "Whoo hoo" totally flops in the out-of-home executions because it has no tangible meaning outside the TV and radio spots.

The key insight and hook of your campaign isn't working if it can't be transmitted across all media in a cohesive manner using words and images that convey a solid, consistent meaning. You should never expect that someone will see more than one execution in a campaign, no matter how much money you're spending on media. Unless you embed sound chips in all your print materials, and when you pass by the billboards, it beams the words "Whoo hoo!" at your car and pipes them through your stereo speakers.

2. The entire hook of the campaign isn't supported across the customer experience after purchase.

All of the ad executions in TV and radio rely on invoking the emotional experience of starting a relationship with WaMu, and imagining how your day-to-day life and dreams become real as a result.

Dreams, meet responsibilities. "Whoo hoo!" isn't supported in the actual experience of being a WaMu customer in a consistent way after you've initiated a relationship. "Whoo hoo" becomes marketing fluff after purchase.

Since the campaign has come out, a few people who are long-term WaMu customers have mentioned to me how they have never felt "Whoo Hoo" about their banking relationship. In fact, they're looking to get out, and were prompted by the ads to make a faster exit. Was this an intended byproduct of the ads? Can't you make more money from making your current customer base happy, instead of going out and trying to land new ones? Talk about alienating your core constituency.

Plus, you know it's bad advertising when people start sending phone messages regarding said ads to your wife, asking her if said blogger feel embarrassed to be in the same profession as the people who created them. Or when people start blogging in such an eloquent manner to bring down the two-handed hammer.

3. Don't cultivate a rebel personality when you're really just pretending.

Do you sign up for banking services on a whim? Because of a feeling?

Being this unbanklike isn't necessarily good for a bank brand. Especially when banks make money off late fees, interest, etc. "Whoo huh?"

I'm a big fan of disruptive, polarizing ads -- if that's what they're intended to do. There are a number of brands, such as Axe in America, or Pot Noodle in Britain, who do a great job of being brash to the point of inspiring real brand hatred, inspiring a closed circle of ever more loyal product users.

In this case, what polarized me was recognizing the audience WaMu was really aiming at. Perhaps they have always been aiming at them, but it's just so baldly explicit in the ads, I can't help but take notice.

The people who float through dreamy interludes where they frolic and dance from the feeling of a bank that truly "gets them" -- those people are not doing so hot when it comes to finances. I can just hear the creatives presenting the concept: "The target audience -- those people 25-45 who are scrambling for money to make rent or their mortgage, that are dancing on the razor's edge with their finances to open their business or save for their children's college tuition -- will respond well to these ads. Because we've 'got their back' and a suite of great rewards for signing up with us, they'll switch to WaMu."

Gawd, that's bold. And exploitative. And insincere.

You're a bank. You hold people's money to make more money. You'd better "have my back." The last thing I want a bank to do is tell me that I'll feel good signing up for a bank account, because that feeling will fade. What I really care about is having money in my bank account and my bank not going under.

I have nothing wrong with the business strategy that is behind WaMu's staple Free Checking package. They've been hammering on it for years, positioning it in a number of different ways. It's the weak marketing strategy here that makes me cringe. WaMu isn't Umpqua Bank. Now they know how to be sincere.

You blew it, WaMu. Now go merge with Citigroup. You can join good company, as pundits have been tearing apart their ads for years.

Effective Design Strategies for Rich Media Ads

Rich media advertising has morphed from a simple way to create a more engaging banner or skyscraper placement into little mini-sites within a larger publication, complete with streaming video, games that visitors can play, built-in data capture and referral mechanisms, and other sophisticated interactive elements that five years ago would have required its own Web page and heavy development chops.

The following trends, which I noticed in recent online ads deployed by EyeWonder, exhibit many of the hallmarks of compelling user experience and design for rich media placements.


Build Your Concept from Real-World Examples

It's easy to fly some copy into your ad, show a nice photo of your product, and toss in a big button that says "Buy Now" with a low price next to it.

What's much harder is finding a real-world experience and marrying it to your product. One recent online ad that caught my eye was for the show DogFights on the History Channel. Upon rolling over the placement, the navigation of the ad is like flying your own fighter jet and locking onto a target. Upon "shooting" one of the planes you're chasing, you reveal an area of the ad. Try it out here.

Strong advertising like this doesn't require a traditional menu for navigation, or any of the common UI features you'd expect in the microsite. The behavior of the navigation is instead more like a video game -- which is an interesting analogy, since a fighter jet video game is still borrowing from the real world experience of flying a jet. (Not that I've ever flown one...)

I also love this mini-Space Invaders that my colleagues at Worktank made for the HTC Advantage, which is always great fun and can lead to some solid click-through.


Ease Your Audience Into the Virtual Experience

If you're designing a rich-media advertisement, generally you're going to disguise some kind of extended experience in a banner or skyscraper, presenting some call to action asking someone to roll over the ad. Smooth the transition into the experience, and reward them with the depth of it. Otherwise, they aren't going to interact with it over a long period of time -- and gain more interest in purchasing your product or service.

Here's an example that's less like a game and more like going on vacation. Different areas of content are part of a portion of an island in the Galapagos that you can "visit" when you expand open the placement. Try the demo here.

Both of these rich media ads are experiential in nature, matching up to the content of the television programs they're advertising. How do you translate this kind of approach into more traditional advertising for products and services? Here's a great example that raises interest while foregrounding a solid product.


Make Pass-Along Easy, and Integral to the Concept

The following example from Nissan hits the two points above and completely integrates referrals. You can use various keys on your keyboard to trigger breakdancing moves from the on-screen avatar. If you press record, the ad unit tracks your moves and allows you to forward the "movie" to your friends. This ad works like gangbusters, using some really smart ActionScripting create a big impact, and create some big awareness around the car for the right audience. Try it here.