Advertising & Promotion
If you have ever worked in or are interested in marketing, advertising, or retail, this book is a must read. I Can Get it For You Retail plots a course for success in the real world with the inside scoop on several of the most successful retail marketing/advertising campaigns in Canadian history:
- Black's is Photography
- Leon's - Don't Pay a Cent E …
The hotly debated report from the frontlines of mounting backlash against multinational corporations.
A national bestseller, No Logo took Canadians by storm when it was published last year in hardcover. Equal parts cultural analysis, political manifesto, mall-rat memoir, and journalistic exposé, it is the first book to uncover a betrayal of the cen …
NEW BRANDED WORLD
As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard. When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel around the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship? — David Ogilvy, founder of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency, in Confessions of an Advertising Man, 1963
The astronomical growth in the wealth and cultural influence of multinational corporations over the last fifteen years can arguably be traced back to a single, seemingly innocuous idea developed by management theorists in the mid-1980s: that successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products.
Until that time, although it was understood in the corporate world that bolstering one's brand name was important, the primary concern of every solid manufacturer was the production of goods. This idea was the very gospel of the machine age. An editorial that appeared in Fortune magazine in 1938, for instance, argued that the reason the American economy had yet to recover from the Depression was that America had lost sight of the importance of making things:
This is the proposition that the basic and irreversible function of an industrial economy is the making of things; that the more things it makes the bigger will be the income, whether dollar or real; and hence that the key to those lost recuperative powers lies ... in the factory where the lathes and the drills and the fires and the hammers are. It is in the factory and on the land and under the land that purchasing power originates [italics theirs].
And for the longest time, the making of things remained, at least in principle, the heart of all industrialized economies. But by the eighties, pushed along by that decade's recession, some of the most powerful manufacturers in the world had begun to falter. A consensus emerged that corporations were bloated, oversized; they owned too much, employed too many people, and were weighed down with too many things. The very process of producing — running one's own factories, being responsible for tens of thousands of full-time, permanent employees — began to look less like the route to success and more like a clunky liability.
At around this same time a new kind of corporation began to rival the traditional all-American manufacturers for market share; these were the Nikes and Microsofts, and later, the Tommy Hilfigers and Intels. These pioneers made the bold claim that producing goods was only an incidental part of their operations, and that thanks to recent victories in trade liberalization and labor-law reform, they were able to have their products made for them by contractors, many of them overseas. What these companies produced primarily were not things, they said, but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing. This formula, needless to say, has proved enormously profitable, and its success has companies competing in a race toward weightlessness: whoever owns the least, has the fewest employees on the payroll and produces the most powerful images, as opposed to products, wins the race.
And so the wave of mergers in the corporate world over the last few years is a deceptive phenomenon: it only looks as if the giants, by joining forces, are getting bigger and bigger. The true key to understanding these shifts is to realize that in several crucial ways — not their profits, of course — these merged companies are actually shrinking. Their apparent bigness is simply the most effective route toward their real goal: divestment of the world of things. Since many of today's best-known manufacturers no longer produce products and advertise them, but rather buy products and "brand" them, these companies are forever on the prowl for creative new ways to build and strengthen their brand images. Manufacturing products may require drills, furnaces, hammers and the like, but creating a brand calls for a completely different set of tools and materials. It requires an endless parade of brand extensions, continuously renewed imagery for marketing and, most of all, fresh new spaces to disseminate the brand's idea of itself. In this section of the book, I'll look at how, in ways both insidious and overt, this corporate obsession with brand identity is waging a war on public and individual space: on public institutions such as schools, on youthful identities, on the concept of nationality and on the possibilities for unmarketed space.
The Beginning of the Brand
It's helpful to go back briefly and look at where the idea of branding first began. Though the words are often used interchangeably, branding and advertising are not the same process. Advertising any given product is only one part of branding's grand plan, as are sponsorship and logo licensing. Think of the brand as the core meaning of the modern corporation, and of the advertisement as one vehicle used to convey that meaning to the world.
The first mass-marketing campaigns, starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, had more to do with advertising than with branding as we understand it today. Faced with a range of recently invented products — the radio, phonograph, car, light bulb and so on — advertisers had more pressing tasks than creating a brand identity for any given corporation; first, they had to change the way people lived their lives. Ads had to inform consumers about the existence of some new invention, then convince them that their lives would be better if they used, for example, cars instead of wagons, telephones instead of mail and electric light instead of oil lamps. Many of these new products bore brand names — some of which are still around today — but these were almost incidental. These products were themselves news; that was almost advertisement enough.
The first brand-based products appeared at around the same time as the invention-based ads, largely because of another relatively recent innovation: the factory. When goods began to be produced in factories, not only were entirely new products being introduced but old products — even basic staples — were appearing in strikingly new forms. What made early branding efforts different from more straightforward salesmanship was that the market was now being flooded with uniform mass-produced products that were virtually indistinguishable from one another. Competitive branding became a necessity of the machine age — within a context of manufactured sameness, image-based difference had to be manufactured along with the product.
So the role of advertising changed from delivering product news bulletins to building an image around a particular brand-name version of a product. The first task of branding was to bestow proper names on generic goods such as sugar, flour, soap and cereal, which had previously been scooped out of barrels by local shopkeepers. In the 1880s, corporate logos were introduced to mass-produced products like Campbell's Soup, H.J. Heinz pickles and Quaker Oats cereal. As design historians and theorists Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller note, logos were tailored to evoke familiarity and folksiness (see Aunt Jemima, page 2), in an effort to counteract the new and unsettling anonymity of packaged goods. "Familiar personalities such as Dr. Brown, Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and Old Grand-Dad came to replace the shopkeeper, who was traditionally responsible for measuring bulk foods for customers and acting as an advocate for products ... a nationwide vocabulary of brand names replaced the small local shopkeeper as the interface between consumer and product." After the product names and characters had been established, advertising gave them a venue to speak directly to would-be consumers. The corporate "personality," uniquely named, packaged and advertised, had arrived.
For the most part, the ad campaigns at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth used a set of rigid, pseudoscientific formulas: rivals were never mentioned, ad copy used declarative statements only and headlines had to be large, with lots of white space — according to one turn-of-the-century adman, "an advertisement should be big enough to make an impression but not any bigger than the thing advertised."
But there were those in the industry who understood that advertising wasn't just scientific; it was also spiritual. Brands could conjure a feeling — think of Aunt Jemima's comforting presence — but not only that, entire corporations could themselves embody a meaning of their own. In the early twenties, legendary adman Bruce Barton turned General Motors into a metaphor for the American family, "something personal, warm and human," while GE was not so much the name of the faceless General Electric Company as, in Barton's words, "the initials of a friend." In 1923 Barton said that the role of advertising was to help corporations find their soul. The son of a preacher, he drew on his religious upbringing for uplifting messages: "I like to think of advertising as something big, something splendid, something which goes deep down into an institution and gets hold of the soul of it.... Institutions have souls, just as men and nations have souls," he told GM president Pierre du Pont. General Motors ads began to tell stories about the people who drove its cars — the preacher, the pharmacist or the country doctor who, thanks to his trusty GM, arrived "at the bedside of a dying child" just in time "to bring it back to life."
By the end of the 1940s, there was a burgeoning awareness that a brand wasn't just a mascot or a catchphrase or a picture printed on the label of a company's product; the company as a whole could have a brand identity or a "corporate consciousness," as this ephemeral quality was termed at the time. As this idea evolved, the adman ceased to see himself as a pitchman and instead saw himself as "the philosopher-king of commercial culture," in the words of ad critic Randall Rothberg. The search for the true meaning of brands — or the "brand essence," as it is often called — gradually took the agencies away from individual products and their attributes and toward a psychological/anthropological examination of what brands mean to the culture and to people's lives. This was seen to be of crucial importance, since corporations may manufacture products, but what consumers buy are brands.
It took several decades for the manufacturing world to adjust to this shift. It clung to the idea that its core business was still production and that branding was an important add-on. Then came the brand equity mania of the eighties, the defining moment of which arrived in 1988 when Philip Morris purchased Kraft for $12.6 billion — six times what the company was worth on paper. The price difference, apparently, was the cost of the word "Kraft." Of course Wall Street was aware that decades of marketing and brand bolstering added value to a company over and above its assets and total annual sales. But with the Kraft purchase, a huge dollar value had been assigned to something that had previously been abstract and unquantifiable — a brand name. This was spectacular news for the ad world, which was now able to make the claim that advertising spending was more than just a sales strategy: it was an investment in cold hard equity. The more you spend, the more your company is worth. Not surprisingly, this led to a considerable increase in spending on advertising. More important, it sparked a renewed interest in puffing up brand identities, a project that involved far more than a few billboards and TV spots. It was about pushing the envelope in sponsorship deals, dreaming up new areas in which to "extend" the brand, as well as perpetually probing the zeitgeist to ensure that the "essence" selected for one's brand would resonate karmically with its target market. For reasons that will be explored in the rest of this chapter, this radical shift in corporate philosophy has sent manufacturers on a cultural feeding frenzy as they seize upon every corner of unmarketed landscape in search of the oxygen needed to inflate their brands. In the process, virtually nothing has been left unbranded. That's quite an impressive feat, considering that as recently as 1993 Wall Street had pronounced the brand dead, or as good as dead.
The Brand's Death (Rumors of Which Had Been Greatly Exaggerated)
The evolution of the brand had one scary episode when it seemed to face extinction. To understand this brush with death, we must first come to terms with advertising's own special law of gravity, which holds that if you aren't rocketing upward you will soon come crashing down.
The marketing world is always reaching a new zenith, breaking through last year's world record and planning to do it again next year with increasing numbers of ads and aggressive new formulae for reaching consumers. The advertising industry's astronomical rate of growth is neatly reflected in year-to-year figures measuring total ad spending in the U.S. (see Table 1.1 on page 11), which have gone up so steadily that by 1998 the figure was set to reach $196.5 billion, while global ad spending is estimated at $435 billion. According to the 1998 United Nations Human Development Report, the growth in global ad spending "now outpaces the growth of the world economy by one-third."
This pattern is a by-product of the firmly held belief that brands need continuous and constantly increasing advertising in order to stay in the same place. According to this law of diminishing returns, the more advertising there is out there (and there always is more, because of this law), the more aggressively brands must market to stand out. And of course, no one is more keenly aware of advertising's ubiquity than the advertisers themselves, who view commercial inundation as a clear and persuasive call for more — and more intrusive — advertising. With so much competition, the agencies argue, clients must spend more than ever to make sure their pitch screeches so loud it can be heard over all the others. David Lubars, a senior ad executive in the Omnicom Group, explains the industry's guiding principle with more candor than most. Consumers, he says, "are like roaches — you spray them and spray them and they get immune after a while."
So, if consumers are like roaches, then marketers must forever be dreaming up new concoctions for industrial-strength Raid. And nineties marketers, being on a more advanced rung of the sponsorship spiral, have dutifully come up with clever and intrusive new selling techniques to do just that. Recent highlights include these innovations: Gordon's gin experimented with filling British movie theaters with the scent of juniper berries; Calvin Klein stuck "CK Be" perfume strips on the backs of Ticketmaster concert envelopes; and in some Scandinavian countries you can get "free" long-distance calls with ads cutting into your telephone conversations. And there's plenty more, stretching across ever more expansive surfaces and cramming into the smallest of crevices: sticker ads on pieces of fruit promoting ABC sitcoms, Levi's ads in public washrooms, corporate logos on boxes of Girl Guide cookies, ads for pop albums on takeout food containers, and ads for Batman movies projected on sidewalks or into the night sky. There are already ads on benches in national parks as well as on library cards in public libraries, and in December 1998 NASA announced plans to solicit ads on its space stations. Pepsi's on-going threat to project its logo onto the moon's surface hasn't yet materialized, but Mattel did paint an entire street in Salford, England, "a shriekingly bright bubblegum hue" of pink — houses, porches, trees, road, sidewalk, dogs and cars were all accessories in the televised celebrations of Barbie Pink Month. Barbie is but one small part of the ballooning $30 billion "experiential communication" industry, the phrase now used to encompass the staging of such branded pieces of corporate performance art and other "happenings."
That we live a sponsored life is now a truism and it's a pretty safe bet that as spending on advertising continues to rise, we roaches will be treated to even more of these ingenious gimmicks, making it ever more difficult and more seemingly pointless to muster even an ounce of outrage.
But as mentioned earlier, there was a time when the new frontiers facing the advertising industry weren't looking quite so promising. On April 2, 1993, advertising itself was called into question by the very brands the industry had been building, in some cases, for over two centuries. That day is known in marketing circles as "Marlboro Friday," and it refers to a sudden announcement from Philip Morris that it would slash the price of Marlboro cigarettes by 20 percent in an attempt to compete with bargain brands that were eating into its market. The pundits went nuts, announcing in frenzied unison that not only was Marlboro dead, all brand names were dead. The reasoning was that if a "prestige" brand like Marlboro, whose image had been carefully groomed, preened and enhanced with more than a billion advertising dollars, was desperate enough to compete with no-names, then clearly the whole concept of branding had lost its currency. The public had seen the advertising, and the public didn't care. The Marlboro Man, after all, was not any old campaign; launched in 1954, it was the longest-running ad campaign in history. It was a legend. If the Marlboro Man had crashed, well, then, brand equity had crashed as well. The implication that Americans were suddenly thinking for themselves en masse reverberated through Wall Street. The same day Philip Morris announced its price cut, stock prices nose-dived for all the household brands: Heinz, Quaker Oats, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Procter and Gamble and RJR Nabisco. Philip Morris's own stock took the worst beating.
Bob Stanojev, national director of consumer products marketing for Ernst and Young, explained the logic behind Wall Street's panic: "If one or two powerhouse consumer products companies start to cut prices for good, there's going to be an avalanche. Welcome to the value generation."
Yes, it was one of those moments of overstated instant consensus, but it was not entirely without cause. Marlboro had always sold itself on the strength of its iconic image marketing, not on anything so prosaic as its price. As we now know, the Marlboro Man survived the price wars without sustaining too much damage. At the time, however, Wall Street saw Philip Morris's decision as symbolic of a sea change. The price cut was an admission that Marlboro's name was no longer sufficient to sustain the flagship position, which in a context where image is equity meant that Marlboro had blinked. And when Marlboro — one of the quintessential global brands — blinks, it raises questions about branding that reach beyond Wall Street, and way beyond Philip Morris.
The panic of Marlboro Friday was not a reaction to a single incident. Rather, it was the culmination of years of escalating anxiety in the face of some rather dramatic shifts in consumer habits that were seen to be eroding the market share of household-name brands, from Tide to Kraft. Bargain-conscious shoppers, hit hard by the recession, were starting to pay more attention to price than to the prestige bestowed on their products by the yuppie ad campaigns of the 1980s. The public was suffering from a bad case of what is known in the industry as "brand blindness."
Study after study showed that baby boomers, blind to the alluring images of advertising and deaf to the empty promises of celebrity spokespersons, were breaking their lifelong brand loyalties and choosing to feed their families with private-label brands from the supermarket — claiming, heretically, that they couldn't tell the difference. From the beginning of the recession to 1993, Loblaw's President's Choice line, Wal-Mart's Great Value and Marks and Spencer's St. Michael prepared foods had nearly doubled their market share in North America and Europe. The computer market, meanwhile, was flooded by inexpensive clones, causing IBM to slash its prices and otherwise impale itself. It appeared to be a return to the proverbial shopkeeper dishing out generic goods from the barrel in a prebranded era.
The bargain craze of the early nineties shook the name brands to their core. Suddenly it seemed smarter to put resources into price reductions and other incentives than into fabulously expensive ad campaigns. This ambivalence began to be reflected in the amounts companies were willing to pay for so-called brand-enhancing advertising. Then, in 1991, it happened: overall advertising spending actually went down by 5.5 percent for the top 100 brands. It was the first interruption in the steady increase of U.S. ad expenditures since a tiny dip of 0.6 percent in 1970, and the largest drop in four decades.
It's not that top corporations weren't flogging their products, it's just that to attract those suddenly fickle customers, many decided to put their money into promotions such as giveaways, contests, in-store displays and (like Marlboro) price reductions, in 1983, American brands spent 70 percent of their total marketing budgets on advertising, and 30 percent on these other forms of promotion. By 1993, the ratio had flipped: only 25 percent went to ads, with the remaining 75 percent going to promotions.
Predictably, the ad agencies panicked when they saw their prestige clients abandoning them for the bargain bins and they did what they could to convince big spenders like Procter and Gamble and Philip Morris that the proper route out of the brand crisis wasn't less brand marketing but more. At the annual meeting of the U.S. Association of National Advertisers in 1988, Graham H. Phillips, the U.S. chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, berated the assembled executives for stooping to participate in "a commodity marketplace" rather than an image-based one. "I doubt that many of you would welcome a commodity marketplace in which one competed solely on price, promotion and trade deals, all of which can easily be duplicated by competition, leading to ever-decreasing profits, decay and eventual bankruptcy." Others spoke of the importance of maintaining "conceptual value-added," which in effect means adding nothing but marketing. Stooping to compete on the basis of real value, the agencies ominously warned, would spell not just the death of the brand, but corporate death as well
Around the same time as Marlboro Friday, the ad industry felt so under siege that market researcher Jack Myers published Adbashing: Surviving the Attacks on Advertising, a book-length call to arms against everyone from supermarket cashiers handing out coupons for canned peas to legislators contemplating a new tax on ads. "We, as an industry, must recognize that adbashing is a threat to capitalism, to a free press, to our basic forms of entertainment, and to the future of our children," he wrote.
Despite these fighting words, most market watchers remained convinced that the heyday of the value-added brand had come and gone. The eighties had gone in for brands and hoity-toity designer labels, reasoned David Scotland, European director of Hiram Walker. The nineties would clearly be all about value. "A few years ago," he observed, "it might have been considered smart to wear a shirt with a designer's logo embroidered on the pocket; frankly, it now seems a bit naff."
And from the other side of the Atlantic, Cincinnati journalist Shelly Reese came to the same conclusion about our no-name future, writing that "Americans with Calvin Klein splashed across their hip pocket aren't pushing grocery carts full of Perrier down the aisles anymore. Instead they're sporting togs with labels like Kmart's Jaclyn Smith and maneuvering carts full of Kroger Co.'s Big K soda. Welcome to the private label decade."
Scotland and Reese, if they remember their bold pronouncements, are probably feeling just a little bit silly right now. Their embroidered "pocket" logos sound positively subdued by today's logomaniacal standards, and sales of name-brand bottled water have been increasing at an annual rate of 9 percent, turning it into a $3.4 billion industry by 1997. From today's logo-quilted perch, it's almost unfathomable that a mere six years ago, death sentences for the brand seemed not only plausible but self-evident.
So just how did we get from obituaries for Tide to today's battalions of volunteer billboards for Tommy Hilfiger, Nike and Calvin Klein? Who slipped the steroids into the brand's comeback?
The Brands Bounce Back
There were some brands that were watching from the sidelines as Wall Street declared the death of the brand. Funny, they must have thought, we don't feel dead.
Just as the admen had predicted at the beginning of the recession, the companies that exited the downturn running were the ones who opted for marketing over value every time: Nike, Apple, the Body Shop, Calvin Klein, Disney, Levi's and Starbucks. Not only were these brands doing just fine, thank you very much, but the act of branding was becoming a larger and larger focus of their businesses. For these companies, the ostensible product was mere filler for the real production: the brand. They integrated the idea of branding into the very fabric of their companies. Their corporate cultures were so tight and cloistered that to outsiders they appeared to be a cross between fraternity house, religious cult and sanitarium. Everything was an ad for the brand: bizarre lexicons for describing employees (partners, baristas, team players, crew members), company chants, superstar CEOs, fanatical attention to design consistency, a propensity for monument-building, and New Age mission statements. Unlike classic household brand names, such as Tide and Marlboro, these logos weren't losing their currency, they were in the midst of breaking every barrier in the marketing world — becoming cultural accessories and lifestyle philosophers. These companies didn't wear their image like a cheap shirt — their image was so integrated with their business that other people wore it as their shirt. And when the brands crashed, these companies didn't even notice — they were branded to the bone.
So the real legacy of Marlboro Friday is that it simultaneously brought the two most significant developments in nineties marketing and consumerism into sharp focus: the deeply unhip big-box bargain stores that provide the essentials of life and monopolize a disproportionate share of the market (Wal-Mart et al.) and the extra-premium "attitude" brands that provide the essentials of lifestyle and monopolize ever-expanding stretches of cultural space (Nike et al.). The way these two tiers of consumerism developed would have a profound impact on the economy in the years to come. When overall ad expenditures took a nosedive in 1991, Nike and Reebok were busy playing advertising chicken, with each company increasing its budget to outspend the other. (See Table 1.2 on page 19.) In 1991 alone, Reebok upped its ad spending by 71.9 percent, while Nike pumped an extra 24.6 percent into its already soaring ad budget, bringing the company's total spending on marketing to a staggering $250 million annually. Far from worrying about competing on price, the sneaker pimps were designing ever more intricate and pseudoscientific air pockets, and driving up prices by signing star athletes to colossal sponsorship deals. The fetish strategy seemed to be working fine: in the six years prior to 1993, Nike had gone from a $750 million company to a $4 billion one and Phil Knight's Beaverton, Oregon, company emerged from the recession with profits 900 percent higher than when it began.
Benetton and Calvin Klein, meanwhile, were also upping their spending on lifestyle marketing, using ads to associate their lines with risqué art and progressive politics. Clothes barely appeared in these high-concept advertisements, let alone prices. Even more abstract was Absolut Vodka, which for some years now had been developing a marketing strategy in which its product disappeared and its brand was nothing but a blank bottle-shaped space that could be filled with whatever content a particular audience most wanted from its brands: intellectual in Harper's, futuristic in Wired, alternative in Spin, loud and proud in Out and "Absolut Centerfold" in Playboy. The brand reinvented itself as a cultural sponge, soaking up and morphing to its surroundings. (See Table 1.3, Appendix, page 471 and Absolut image, page 32.)
Saturn, too, came out of nowhere in October 1990 when GM launched a car built not out of steel and rubber but out of New Age spirituality and seventies feminism. After the car had been on the market a few years, the company held a "homecoming" weekend for Saturn owners, during which they could visit the auto plant and have a cookout with the people who made their cars. As the Saturn ads boasted at the time, "44,000 people spent their vacations with us, at a car plant." It was as if Aunt Jemima had come to life and invited you over to her house for dinner.
In 1993, the year the Marlboro Man was temporarily hobbled by "brandblind" consumers, Microsoft made its striking debut on Advertising Age's list of the top 200 ad spenders — the very same year that Apple computer increased its marketing budget by 30 percent after already making branding history with its Orwellian takeoff ad launch during the 1984 Super Bowl (see image on page 86). Like Saturn, both companies were selling a hip new relationship to the machine that left Big Blue IBM looking as clunky and menacing as the now-dead Cold War.
And then there were the companies that had always understood that they were selling brands before product. Coke, Pepsi, McDonald's, Burger King and Disney weren't fazed by the brand crisis, opting instead to escalate the brand war, especially since they had their eyes firmly fixed on global expansion. (See Table 1.4, Appendix, page 471.) They were joined in this project by a wave of sophisticated producer/retailers who hit full stride in the late eighties and early nineties. The Gap, Ikea and the Body Shop were spreading like wildfire during this period, masterfully transforming the generic into the brand-specific, largely through bold, carefully branded packaging and the promotion of an "experiential" shopping environment. The Body Shop had been a presence in Britain since the seventies, but it wasn't until 1988 that it began sprouting like a green weed on every street corner in the U.S. Even during the darkest years of the recession, the company opened between forty and fifty American stores a year. Most baffling of all to Wall Street, it pulled off the expansion without spending a dime on advertising. Who needed billboards and magazine ads when retail outlets were three-dimensional advertisements for an ethical and ecological approach to cosmetics? The Body Shop was all brand.
The Starbucks coffee chain, meanwhile, was also expanding during this period without laying out much in advertising; instead, it was spinning off its name into a wide range of branded projects: Starbucks airline coffee, office coffee, coffee ice cream, coffee beer. Starbucks seemed to understand brand names at a level even deeper than Madison Avenue, incorporating marketing into every fiber of its corporate concept — from the chain's strategic association with books, blues and jazz to its Euro-latte lingo. What the success of both the Body Shop and Starbucks showed was how far the branding project had come in moving beyond splashing one's logo on a billboard. Here were two companies that had fostered powerful identities by making their brand concept into a virus and sending it out into the culture via a variety of channels: cultural sponsorship, political controversy, the consumer experience and brand extensions. Direct advertising, in this context, was viewed as a rather clumsy intrusion into a much more organic approach to image building.
Scott Bedbury, Starbucks' vice president of marketing, openly recognized that "consumers don't truly believe there's a huge difference between products," which is why brands must "establish emotional ties" with their customers through "the Starbucks Experience." The people who line up for Starbucks, writes CEO Howard Shultz, aren't just there for the coffee. "It's the romance of the coffee experience, the feeling of warmth and community people get in Starbucks stores."
Interestingly, before moving to Starbucks, Bedbury was head of marketing at Nike, where he oversaw the launch of the "Just Do It!" slogan, among other watershed branding moments. In the following passage, he explains the common techniques used to infuse the two very different brands with meaning:
Nike, for example, is leveraging the deep emotional connection that people have with sports and fitness. With Starbucks, we see how coffee has woven itself into the fabric of people's lives, and that's our opportunity for emotional leverage.... A great brand raises the bar — it adds a greater sense of purpose to the experience, whether it's the challenge to do your best in sports and fitness or the affirmation that the cup of coffee you're drinking really matters.
This was the secret, it seemed, of all the success stories of the late eighties and early nineties. The lesson of Marlboro Friday was that there never really was a brand crisis — only brands that had crises of confidence. The brands would be okay, Wall Street concluded, so long as they believed fervently in the principles of branding and never, ever blinked. Overnight, "Brands, not products!" became the rallying cry for a marketing renaissance led by a new breed of companies that saw themselves as "meaning brokers" instead of product producers. What was changing was the idea of what — in both advertising and branding — was being sold. The old paradigm had it that all marketing was selling a product. In the new model, however, the product always takes a back seat to the real product, the brand, and the selling of the brand acquired an extra component that can only be described as spiritual. Advertising is about hawking product. Branding, in its truest and most advanced incarnations, is about corporate transcendence.
It may sound flaky, but that's precisely the point. On Marlboro Friday, a line was drawn in the sand between the lowly price slashers and the high-concept brand builders. The brand builders conquered and a new consensus was born: the products that will flourish in the future will be the ones presented not as "commodities" but as concepts: the brand as experience, as lifestyle.
Ever since, a select group of corporations has been attempting to free itself from the corporeal world of commodities, manufacturing and products to exist on another plane. Anyone can manufacture a product, they reason (and as the success of private-label brands during the recession proved, anyone did). Such menial tasks, therefore, can and should be farmed out to contractors and subcontractors whose only concern is filling the order on time and under budget (ideally in the Third World, where labor is dirt cheap, laws are lax and tax breaks come by the bushel). Headquarters, meanwhile, is free to focus on the real business at hand — creating a corporate mythology powerful enough to infuse meaning into these raw objects just by signing its name.
The corporate world has always had a deep New Age streak, fed — it has become clear — by a profound need that could not be met simply by trading widgets for cash. But when branding captured the corporate imagination, New Age vision quests took center stage. As Nike CEO Phil Knight explains, "For years we thought of ourselves as a production-oriented company, meaning we put all our emphasis on designing and manufacturing the product. But now we understand that the most important thing we do is market the product. We've come around to saying that Nike is a marketing-oriented company, and the product is our most important marketing tool." This project has since been taken to an even more advanced level with the emergence of on-line corporate giants such as Amazon.com. It is on-line that the purest brands are being built: liberated from the real-world burdens of stores and product manufacturing, these brands are free to soar, less as the disseminators of goods or services than as collective hallucinations.
Tom Peters, who has long coddled the inner flake in many a hard-nosed CEO, latched on to the branding craze as the secret to financial success, separating the transcendental logos and the earthbound products into two distinct categories of companies. "The top half — Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Disney, and so on — are pure 'players' in brainware. The bottom half [Ford and GM] are still lumpy-object purveyors, though automobiles are much 'smarter' than they used to be," Peters writes in The Circle of Innovation (1997), an ode to the power of marketing over production.
When Levi's began to lose market share in the late nineties, the trend was widely attributed to the company's failure — despite lavish ad spending — to transcend its products and become a free-standing meaning. "Maybe one of Levi's problems is that it has no Cola," speculated Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times. "It has no denim-toned house paint. Levi makes what is essentially a commodity: blue jeans. Its ads may evoke rugged outdoorsmanship, but Levi hasn't promoted any particular life style to sell other products."
In this high-stakes new context, the cutting-edge ad agencies no longer sold companies on individual campaigns but on their ability to act as "brand stewards": identifying, articulating and protecting the corporate soul. Not surprisingly, this spelled good news for the U.S. advertising industry, which in 1994 saw a spending increase of 8.6 percent over the previous year. In one year, the ad industry went from a near crisis to another "best year yet." And that was only the beginning of triumphs to come. By 1997, corporate advertising, defined as "ads that position a corporation, its values, its personality and character" were up 18 percent from the year before.
With this wave of brand mania has come a new breed of businessman, one who will proudly inform you that Brand X is not a product but a way of life, an attitude, a set of values, a look, an idea. And it sounds really great — way better than that Brand X is a screwdriver, or a hamburger chain, or a pair of jeans, or even a very successful line of running shoes. Nike, Phil Knight announced in the late eighties, is "a sports company"; its mission is not to sell shoes but to "enhance people's lives through sports and fitness" and to keep "the magic of sports alive." Company president-cum-sneaker-shaman Tom Clark explains that "the inspiration of sports allows us to rebirth ourselves constantly."
Reports of such "brand vision" epiphanies began surfacing from all corners. "Polaroid's problem," diagnosed the chairman of its advertising agency, John Hegarty, "was that they kept thinking of themselves as a camera. But the '[brand] vision' process taught us something: Polaroid is not a camera — it's a social lubricant." IBM isn't selling computers, it's selling business "solutions." Swatch is not about watches, it is about the idea of time. At Diesel Jeans, owner Renzo Rosso told Paper magazine, "We don't sell a product, we sell a style of life. I think we have created a movement.... The Diesel concept is everything. It's the way to live, it's the way to wear, it's the way to do something." And as Body Shop founder Anita Roddick explained to me, her stores aren't about what they sell, they are the conveyers of a grand idea — a political philosophy about women, the environment and ethical business. "I just use the company that I surprisingly created as a success — it shouldn't have been like this, it wasn't meant to be like this — to stand on the products to shout out on these issues," Roddick says.
The famous late graphic designer Tibor Kalman summed up the shifting role of the brand this way: "The original notion of the brand was quality, but now brand is a stylistic badge of courage."
The idea of selling the courageous message of a brand, as opposed to a product, intoxicated these CEOs, providing as it did an opportunity for seemingly limitless expansion. After all, if a brand was not a product, it could be anything! And nobody embraced branding theory with more evangelical zeal than Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group has branded joint ventures in everything from music to bridal gowns to airlines to cola to financial services. Branson refers derisively to the "stilted Anglo-Saxon view of consumers," which holds that a name should be associated with a product like sneakers or soft drinks, and opts instead for "the Asian 'trick'" of the keiretsus (a Japanese term meaning a network of linked corporations). The idea, he explains, is to "build brands not around products but around reputation. The great Asian names imply quality, price and innovation rather than a specific item. I call these 'attribute' brands: They do not relate directly to one product — such as a Mars bar or a Coca-Cola — but instead to a set of values."
Tommy Hilfiger, meanwhile, is less in the business of manufacturing clothes than he is in the business of signing his name. The company is run entirely through licensing agreements, with Hilfiger commissioning all its products from a group of other companies: Jockey International makes Hilfiger underwear, Pepe Jeans London makes Hilfiger jeans, Oxford Industries make Tommy shirts, the Stride Rite Corporation makes its footwear. What does Tommy Hilfiger manufacture? Nothing at all.
So passé had products become in the age of lifestyle branding that by the late nineties, newer companies like Lush cosmetics and Old Navy clothing began playing with the idea of old-style commodities as a source of retro marketing imagery. The Lush chain serves up its face masks and moisturizers out of refrigerated stainless-steel bowls, spooned into plastic containers with grocery-store labels. Old Navy showcases its shrink-wrapped T-shirts and sweatshirts in deli-style chrome refrigerators, as if they were meat or cheese. When you are a pure, concept-driven brand, the aesthetics of raw product can prove as "authentic" as loft living.
And lest the branding business be dismissed as the playground of trendy consumer items such as sneakers, jeans and New Age beverages, think again. Caterpillar, best known for building tractors and busting unions, has barreled into the branding business, launching the Cat accessories line: boots, backpacks, hats and anything else calling out for a postindustrial je ne sais quoi. Intel Corp., which makes computer parts no one sees and few understand, transformed its processors into a fetish brand with TV ads featuring line workers in funky metallic space suits dancing to "Shake Your Groove Thing." The Intel mascots proved so popular that the company has sold hundreds of thousands of bean-filled dolls modeled on the shimmery dancing technicians. Little wonder, then, that when asked about the company's decision to diversify its products, the senior vice president for sales and marketing, Paul S. Otellini, replied that Intel is "like Coke. One brand, many different products."
And if Caterpillar and Intel can brand, surely anyone can.
There is, in fact, a new strain in marketing theory that holds that even the lowliest natural resources, barely processed, can develop brand identities, thus giving way to hefty premium-price markups. In an essay appropriately titled "How to Brand Sand," advertising executives Sam I. Hill, Jack McGrath and Sandeep Dayal team up to tell the corporate world that with the right marketing plan, nobody has to stay stuck in the stuff business. "Based on extensive research, we would argue that you can indeed brand not only sand, but also wheat, beef, brick, metals, concrete, chemicals, corn grits and an endless variety of commodities traditionally considered immune to the process."
Over the past six years, spooked by the near-death experience of Marlboro Friday, global corporations have leaped on the brand-wagon with what can only be described as a religious fervor. Never again would the corporate world stoop to praying at the altar of the commodity market. From now on they would worship only graven media images. Or to quote Tom Peters, the brand man himself: "Brand! Brand!! Brand!!! That's the message ... for the late '90s and beyond."
In the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Clive Veroni’s Spin is a fascinating investigation of how the techniques of political strategists are being applied to the world of consumer marketing.
In the early twentieth century political operatives did their work in the backroom, a shady place o …
A National Bestseller. Now available in paperback. On a Rrrroll! You may not be familiar with Ron Buist, but you know his handiwork. The Ottawa Citizen. A behind-the-scenes look at a simple business that became a Canadian icon. Tales from Under the Rim chronicles the rise of Tim Hortons, from its humble beginnings to a national institution. …
The ad men behind CBC Radio’s The Age of Persuasion combine lively social history and years of industry experience to show how the art of persuasion shapes our culture.
Witty, erudite and irrepressibly irreverent, The Age of Persuasion provides a hugely entertaining — and eye-opening — insider’s look at the ever-expanding world of marketing. …
The incessant witless repetition of advertisers' moron-fodder has become so much a part of life that if we are not careful, we forget to be insulted by it.
TIMES (LONDON), 1886
"You're soaking in it."
MADGE THE MANICURIST
Only in the age of persuasion is it possible that the first thing you hear from your clock radio in the morning, and the last thing you see before your eyes flutter slowly shut at night, are advertisements. Early each morning you might hear a half-dozen ads on the radio before your feet touch the floor. Staggering out of bed, you'll pass brand logos on your clothing as you make your way to the privy, where you're surrounded by bottles of Head & Shoulders shampoo, Colgate Total toothpaste, Speed Stick deodorant, a Gillette razor, and Ivory soap. You eye the Alka-Seltzer, remembering that glass-too-many of gin and tonic last night.
Your breakfast table resembles a logo gallery, where you sit surrounded by the images of multiple corporate brands—on a box of breakfast cereal, a milk carton, a package of frozen blueberry waffles, and a bottle of syrup. Flip on the TV and you might encounter ads for Glade air freshener, Downy fabric softener, the latest Pixar film, Ford Focus, Monistat yeast infection remedy, and a neighbourhood slip-and-fall law firm. A quick flip through your morning newspaper might reveal dozens more sales messages, from holistic healing and grocery specials to sporting goods and Jenny Craig products to men's fashions and discreet escorts, all of it before that first sip of Folgers coffee passes your lips.
That happens before you travel to work, shop, visit, or play—along roads and highways bedecked with posters, signs, murals, bus benches, billboards, and store signs—and before you turn on your car radio with its ads, traffic sponsors, station promos, and contests and before you flip open your MacBook to discover a screen dotted with banners and pop-up ads. You can see where this is headed: you may already have experienced dozens of what the marketing world calls "brand exposures" and it isn't even 8 a.m. By the time you fall asleep at the end of the day to the sound of a TV ad playing, with an ad-laden magazine sagging in your hand against the duvet, you will have been targeted by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of marketing messages.
Branding is at the core of all marketing. Different marketers have their own take on what branding really is, but to me, it means defining what a product or service promises and how it differs from the competition. For example, a Volvo is just a car, but when the idea of "safety" was added, its brand was defined. Nike is just a running shoe, but the powerful idea of "personal achievement" was attached to every single advertising message they sent out, and that gave the famous footwear its own personality. Calvin Klein's clothing line is just apparel, but when the designer linked the idea of "sex" to it, sexy clothing became his category. And then there's Coke. In a taste test once, the iconic drink was compared to an undisclosed cola. People chose Coke over the mystery item almost a hundred to one. Then the undisclosed soda was revealed: it was, in fact, Coke. The difference between the two was branding: the Coke enhances your life "idea" beat the other cola, which had no idea attached to it. When people sampled Coke, they not only tasted the sugar and water combination; they also tasted the logo and the imagery, commercials, and promotions that have accompanied the drink for decades.
YOUR DAILY AD INTAKE
Metaphorically speaking, the world has come to look like a NASCAR driver's racing suit, with every square inch occupied by a logo. And it's not just physical space advertisers covet: in 2007 the Chicago White Sox sold their "official start time" to the 7-Eleven convenience store chain. All weeknight games—at U.S. Cellular Field—were scheduled for 7:11 p.m.
It's impossible to measure the exact number of ads lobbed your way on a given day, but that hasn't prevented educators, researchers, and journalists from wondering, or worse, offering educated guesses masquerading as scientific fact. This game probably began in 1957 with a speech by Edwin Ebel, then a vice-president with General Foods. To make a point, he announced that he'd done a little research of his own and had found that a family of four was exposed to 1,518 ads per day. Though there's no evidence that his research was more than anecdotal, the figure was widely repeated, and in a late-fifties variation of the "telephone game," the number was soon believed to apply to an individual consumer. In his 1997 book, Data Smog, David Shenk set the number at six hundred. That's the same figure I often quoted while giving creative radio seminars for ad agency writers, adding, from a source since forgotten, that of all those ads, most people would retain only six and, ultimately, maybe—just maybe—remember two. Over the years, I've heard people insist, with more confidence, I think, than evidence, that you're exposed to 3,000, 6,000, even 15,000 ads per day.
The trouble is, no one can agree on criteria. Are you "exposed" to an ad if you scan it with your eyes and don't consciously notice it? Do you count a radio jingle that plays in the car while you're telling your three-year-old not to throw Cheerios at your eighteen-month old? If you glance at your underwear label as you dress, does that count? And what about the quality of each ad exposure? If you read the 250-word Verizon Wireless ad on page 31 of Rolling Stone magazine, should it count as much as the Nicorette ad you'd glanced at on page 21?
Then there's the sticky business of quantifying the "average" consumer, who is, at best, a figment of the statistician's oh-so-narrow imagination. In marketing, the practice of demography can be ridiculously cloudy and vague. An advertiser might brief me on wanting to reach "Canadian women, twenty to twenty-eight years old." The trouble is, that group will include an upwardly mobile Vancouver lawyer with a husband, a dog, and a mortgage; an old-order Mennonite in Wallenstein, Ontario; and an anarchistic gay barista in Fredericton. Demographers might miss the fact that a twenty-eight-year-old mother of two could have more in common with a thirty-eight-year-old mother of two than she has with another twenty-eight-year-old. Ads will affect urban dwellers differently than those in farm country. There are just too many variables to consider demographics accurate. On the other hand, "psychographics" provide more insight because they highlight attitudes and aspirations. For example, 13 percent of Wii game users are men over fifty, but my fourteen-year-old daughter is also a Wii player. No demographic is going to reveal that, but psychographics would, as both fifty-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds who like Wii share similar attitudes in the gamer category. This kind of research identifies "tribes"—groups who share the same thinking on a product or subject. And with limited budgets, smart marketers aim at larger tribes, rather than trying to find all their customers by ferreting through multiple demographic age and income categories.
TRY THIS NIFTY EXPERIMENT
For the sake of argument, let's say you're exposed to six hundred ads a day. If nothing else, my spidey sense tells me that's a reasonable, if conservative, figure. And at that rate, you'd likely be exposed to more than 15 million ads in your lifetime. But this is all academic. The daily marketing onslaught would really hit home if you played this little game: imagine yourself trying to avoid exposure to any sort of advertising message—for just one day. Ready? Go!
Suppose you begin by fleeing your workplace, though not before stopping in the privy on the way out. What do you find? Ad posters on the walls by the sink and even in the stalls. Where gender appropriate, you'll find ads over the urinals or even in the urinals. One of my favourites was a pithy career-recruiting ad on a plastic mat in a urinal that read "Want to Be a Fireman?" And over at the sink, "admirrors" now project advertising from behind mirrors when you step up to wash your hands.
Escaping the washroom, you make for the elevator only to find . . . more ads. Not only are these high-rise sarcophagi home to poster ads; they're fast becoming home to one of the more popular new ad media: flat screen monitors that pipe ad-laced information "programs" to passengers in thousands of elevators, in hundreds of urban centres, to reach the five hundred or so people who might ride an elevator in a given office tower. Research reveals that advertising in elevators generates a remarkable 84 percent of "unaided recall"—a fancy-pants marketing term meaning that people can remember the ads without being prompted. Advertisers love elevator ads because they know they can reach specific business professionals, most of whom are seeking a place to focus their attention during the ride.
As the door opens, you run to the street and hail a cab—the one with the "HotJobs" ad on top, the special ad-covered hubcaps that remain level as the wheels spin, and the TV screen on the back of the front seat. As you escape the ad-infested city, you pass billboards, shop signs, posters in bus shelters, murals covering the sides of five-storey buildings, and people wearing sandwich boards. "Where to?" asks the cabbie in the Reebok cap. A voice deep within your psyche, recalling summers of peace and bliss, whispers a suggestion, which you promptly relay to the driver: "Take me to the beach." It's perfect. There you can relax with only the sun, the surf, the sand . . .
And the advertising. It's right there—under your bum: a message pressed repetitively into the beach by a sand-grooming machine. Years ago a New Jersey company called Beach'n Billboard found a way to impress repeated ad messages in the sand, including pleas that beach-goers refrain from littering. According to testimonials, littering has decreased by more than 20 percent, while the sponsored messages—for Snapple or Skippy peanut butter, for instance—help the municipality offset the cost of beach maintenance. In beach advertising, as in life, nothing is forever: by noon beach traffic typically wears away most of the ad imprints. But they'll be back in the morning.
Suppose you seek sanctuary in, well, a sanctuary, as in a place of God. You've got to imagine that there's nothing like a house of worship to provide an escape from the daily volley of ads, right?
Wrong. At least it would be wrong if you chose to seek refuge at the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, Italy, an ancient church, which over the past few generations, had been showing its age. A few years ago, it became painfully evident that the building would require extensive, and expensive, restorations. Just imagine the elation when an Italian bank slipped ninety thousand euros into St. Anthony's collection plate. Wrapped, figuratively, around it was a caveat: in exchange for its contribution, the bank requested a favour. They wished to place a poster ad inside the basilica, effectively offering worshippers a rare opportunity to seek both eternal grace and a competitive rate on their next car loan. When viewed as a commodity, congregations put dollar signs in the eyes of cash-hungry churches, many of whom are seizing the opportunity. In thousands of places of worship across North America, the weekly bulletin—the program with the order of service in it—has become a popular vehicle for intracongregational sales pitches. A typical bulletin might include paid ads for local merchants and professionals, some from within the congregation, and for funeral homes, counselling services, mechanics, and home renovators. At least one church, in Munster, Indiana, has a Starbucks concession in the lobby, right beside the—I'm not making this up—"Heavenly Grounds" bookstore.
Many of North America's so-called "mega-churches" have little theological problem going forth and making disciples of all nations with the help of popular retail brands. Some have built compounds on large acreages, offering, in effect, Christian-themed shopping malls. Ironically, some of these monoliths have become so retail minded that they've opted to cancel services on Christmas Day.
ADS IN SPAAAAAAAACE
Suppose, in your quest to escape the clutter, you cut a cheque for a tidy $20 million, sign up as a space tourist, and lift off into the cold, dark, ad-free vacuum of space? Houston, you have a problem. Not only are there ads in space, but they've been there for some time. In 1993, when an American private-sector spacecraft lifted off, its side was emblazoned with a five-word ad: "Schwarzenegger: The Last Action Hero." It was one small step for a truly B-flat film and one giant leap for advertising. Yet even that wasn't the first ad in space: since 1990 the cash-strapped Russian space program has sold ad space on their Soyuz craft for everything from Sony electronics to—no kidding—Unicharm feminine hygiene products. Tnuva, an Israeli milk company, once filmed a TV spot aboard the Mir space station. On another occasion, crew aboard the Mir deployed an oversized Pepsi can into space.
Persuasion abhors a vacuum. Such is the proliferation of ad clutter that for years I've heard it said in jest that it's a matter of time before people start selling ad space on the insides of their eyelids. People don't laugh at that one quite the way they used to.
THE RISE OF AD AVOIDANCE
In 1956 Eugene McDonald, then president of Zenith, challenged two of his engineers, Robert Adler and Eugene Polley, to create a remote control that would operate a television from across a room. When the product was launched, the ad copy (in what can be called a suicide note of sorts) crowed: "Turns set on or off . . . turns sound on or off . . . changes channels . . . foolproof." It was remote TV tuning, according to McDonald, that fuelled Zenith's success the following year.
Almost unnoticed was a feature which few seem to have observed but which must have sent shock waves through the marketing world. It was the mute button. Finally, there was a way to eliminate the daily clutter of those "long, annoying commercials," and the age of "ad avoidance" was born—along with a substantial cottage industry to accommodate the new trend.
Nowadays, PVRs are programmed to skip TV commercials, "do not call" and "do not mail" lists promise—with limited success—to unsolicited marketing pitches. Peer-to-peer social networking, such as instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, allows us to bypass commercial radio stations and share music, information, and opinions directly. On-demand digital programming, gaming, Blu-ray and DVD technology, and music downloading are deposing commercially driven media from their traditional positions as entertainment gatekeepers. At the same time, software designers make a tidy living designing pop-up blockers and programs that detect and delete adware—and privacy legislators are scrambling, often in vain, to keep up with developments that are fundamentally altering the gathering, buying, and selling of consumer information. A kind of siege mentality has set in as those targeted by marketers try to build defences against the bullets. But as one section of wall is constructed to fend off new sales volleys, another is breached.
Humorist Colin McEnroe, speaking for today's ad-fatigued civilization, once wrote that he had a disturbing dream "in which I break through a cave wall near Nag Hammadi and discover urns full of ancient Coptic scrolls. As I unfurl the first scroll, a subscription card to some Gnostic exercise magazine flutters out."
THE DAWN OF CLUTTER
The first grumbling about ad clutter can be traced back to nineteenthcentury London, the granddaddy of "big" cities to emerge from the industrial revolution. At the beginning of the 1800s, fewer than a million people lived in the British capital, but by the end of that century, the population had grown sixfold, and during those years, sales messages began to dominate the urban landscape.
"Of all human powers operating on the affairs of mankind," observed American statesman Henry Clay, "none is greater than that of competition." Easy to say, for a guy who didn't have to spend hot July mornings hawking mullet in London's Old Billingsgate fish market. Competition for the attention of London's growing population required—and still requires—stifling and often backbreaking work. In the Victorian age, merchants, tradespeople, and entrepreneurs swarmed the city, shouting to be heard over one another, and devising ingenious, if irritating, ways to make their presence felt. Trade cards grew in popularity. Bearing a tradesperson's name, and perhaps a map to his place of business, these precursors of modern junk mail were handed out and slipped under front doors. Other ads were pressed onto coins and tokens, printed on ship's sails, and posted inside "bathing machines"—the portable "privacy huts" women dragged around them when they sauntered into the ocean, lest any man should actually see their swimming attire. Posters were everywhere. Streets resounded to the noise of hawkers and the declamations of actors performing "tableau" ads as they were carted about on portable wagons.
Deep within the swirls of this commercial maelstrom, the Times felt duty bound to warn its readers about "the incessant witless repetition of advertisers' moron-fodder." That itself was bold talk for a great broadsheet that tucked world events neatly in beside box ads for "Gerolstein: a perfect table water. Recommended by the most eminent physicians" and A.S. Lloyd's Euxesis, "for shaving without soap, water, or brush, and in half the usual time." Ad-driven media have wrestled with the ethics of criticizing ads ever since, prompting David Ogilvy to write: "It strikes me as bad manners for a magazine to accept one of my advertisements and then attack it editorially—like inviting a man to dinner then spitting in his eye." I agree: while the editorial department should be separated from the ad department, I do bristle when radio announcers offer up a snide remark about a product, right on the heels of an ad for that very product. It's bad form, and a call to the sales department to complain usually results in an instant make-good (ad speak for a free ad to make up for the transgression). Advertising and programming have to live in peaceful co-existence, since after all, one can't survive without the other. But when the programming people do criticize the advertising, it is usually induced by the overabundance of ads crowding the content.
DAVID OGILVY: AD GIANT
David Ogilvy will appear many times in this book. He was one of the great, wise admen, founding one of the world's mightiest advertising agencies, Ogilvy & Mather. Remarkably, however, he didn't start his agency until he was thirty-eight. Born in England, he had been a door-to-door salesman, a chef, a researcher, and a tobacco farmer, but in 1949 he started an advertising agency in New York, backed by his elder brother's British agency, Mather & Crowther. Originally called Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, and later Ogilvy, Benson & Mather, then finally Ogilvy & Mather, the "Mather" part didn't really exist in New York. David was the sole turbine there. Ogilvy's agency enjoyed a meteoric rise on Madison Avenue, eventually becoming one of the biggest in America, and was sold for $864 million in 1989. Ogilvy died in 1999 at the age of eighty-eight. He held firm and articulate opinions on what it took to create effective advertising, and he knew he was gifted in the ways of persuasion. A magazine once wrote an article about him with the headline "David Ogilvy: Genius?" and Ogilvy later said he almost sued them for the question mark. He wrote extensively on the subject of advertising, and his words are quoted in every corner of the advertising world to this day.
NEW TECHNOLOGIES: NEW KINDS OF CLUTTER
Newspapers themselves would soon become leading purveyors of clutter. By the late nineteenth century, new-fangled typecasting machines made it easier to print more pages—and squeeze in more ads. Newspapers that had once published editions of four, eight, or twelve pages rapidly expanded to twenty-four, thirty-six, and even forty-eight pages. Today there's even more ad space available in most major newspapers, to the point where you need a forklift to pick up their weekend editions. Advertising is a great money maker for the owners of newspapers and magazines, whose rates can remain high no matter what the sizes of their publications, on the promise that advertisers will reach a given number of readers. But running an ad in a bulky paper is a raw deal for advertisers, who pay the same but find themselves crowded by a large number of rivals, each competing for the reader's attention. For advertisers, printing more ads is like a government printing more money: the more of it there is "out there," the less value each one has.
During the early twentieth century, it wasn't just the volume of advertising but also the intrusive nature of new ad media that escalated the ad-clutter crisis. When it became technologically possible for "telephones" to be installed in millions of homes, the devices were met with a growing unease about the "outside world" flooding in. Satirist Ambrose Bierce summed it up in this entry in his 1911 devil's dictionary:
An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.
It's the world's loss that Mr. Bierce wasn't around long enough to define "telemarketer."
Ad clutter is a nuisance that became an annoyance, that blossomed into a full-blown media pandemic. While this is a problem for consumers, it's a catastrophe for the marketing industry, whose messages are muddled and lost within the growing din. The very onslaught of clutter is making the public immune to messages, as they have increasingly tuned them out to the point that it's now second nature for them to do so. Consumers' ad fatigue leads to an easy dismissal of most advertising and an appetite for ad-avoiding technology, such as PVRs. As their public tunes out, advertisers then heavy-up on media buys in heroic attempts to make sure their messages are heard. This, of course, has a negative effect, as their ads are buried under the very clutter they were hoping to avoid. They then resort to non-traditional methods of reaching the public, such as clever ambient marketing, but that only creates more clutter. Ad sellers, on the other hand, love ad clutter. With the increase of ad minutes per hour and the growing number of ad media, they rub their hands with glee as visions of sugarplum profits dance in their heads. In the end, the better you understand clutter from a marketer's perspective, the more clearly you'll see why, and how, the craft of persuasion is rapidly changing.
WHY ADVERTISERS REALLY, REALLY HATE CLUTTER
They may actually hate it more than you do. I'll show you what I mean. Imagine you're sitting alone in the sixth row of a large, empty sports stadium. Empty, that is, except for one other soul sitting directly across the field from you, who is also in the sixth row—just the two of you in this cavernous space. You cup your hands to your mouth and yell your name to that person as loudly as you can. After a moment the other person cups her hands to her mouth and yells her name back. Though your voices fade a bit during their journey, each is audible—and distinct.
Now imagine that you're in the same stadium, in the same seat, but this time it's filled to capacity. You and your friend are immersed in a sea of, say, 61,371 people. The stadium is alive with distractions: couples are squabbling, babies are crying, drunks in the cheap seats are singing, hundreds of people are on the phone, and a few are snoring. The public address system is blaring out anachronistic eighties pop ballads with a subatomically tiny lyrical connection to what's happening on the playing field. The true visual focal point is the giant TV scoreboard, restlessly cycling through replays, stats, and out-of-town scores. Up and down the aisles, an army of uniformed men and women hawk the virtues of cold beer and four-dollar pretzels. There's a palpable buzz. The air is thick and alive with sensory information; Las Vegas would be proud.
Again, you cup your hands to your mouth and yell your name to the person who is still sitting across from you. But first you have to work, methodically, just to find her. Once you do spot her, you begin to wonder how to get her attention through all the noises and distractions. Your monopoly on her attention has vanished: she's been swallowed in a sea of sound and imagery. And your real troubles are just beginning. As it happens, everyone else in the stadium—61,369 others—are also cupping their hands to their mouths and screaming their names as loudly as they can, all of them intent on diverting your friend's attention to them. Thousands of voices meld together in one large, chaotic roar.
Does it matter who wins? Absolutely. The jobs, perhaps the careers, of every single person in that crowd, including yours, hinge on your ability to win the attention of that one person across from you. Feel that? It's a drop of sweat dripping down against your coccyx. You begin to brainstorm ways that your voice could cut through all the noise and distractions. You could shout louder than anyone else: perhaps the distinct timbre of your voice would cut through the din. Perhaps an appealing visual would attract your friend's attention: you might don a chicken suit or your birthday suit or a bright red, strapless cocktail dress. Here's an idea: you could pay the stadium to silence everyone but you for ten seconds while you holler out your name. All are viable tactics, but the trouble is this: anything you can do, your 61,369 rivals can also do.
Before long you'll notice yourself cycling through a profound series of emotions. The initial panic becomes denial, which gives way to a sense of futility. Then you become philosophical and resolved as you roll up your sleeves and begin scheming ways of conveying your message through enemy lines. When your message does get through, you feel exhilarated and untouchable—that is, until you try again, and fail. On goes the roller-coaster ride as you alternate between born-on-Krypton invincibility and snake-bit, pack-your-things-and-turn-in-your-playbook, move-to-Brazil melancholy.
Meanwhile, the person you're trying to reach feels like the lone debutante at the Cowhands Ball: overwhelmed by the number of suitors who've come a-courtin'. Some she finds attractive, some offensive, some charming, some articulate; all are struggling for a place in her heart. She can be forgiven for wanting to hide, even if it means avoiding the few she favours in order to block out the many others she doesn't.
Seen this way, you can begin to understand the sense of desperation that drives marketers to extreme cynicism, and on the other side, extreme artistry. The less talented know that they can drop their pants—sometimes literally—to get noticed. They're advertising's answer to cotton candy: it's irresistible for a moment but has no lasting value.
In the upper floors of marketing are great minds who base extensive campaigns on great ideas. In England, for instance, a remarkable, decades-old campaign has been built on just one line: "Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach." Twenty years of award-winning ads, all made possible by the fertile ground of that stellar concept. Another enduring campaign idea was created for Michelin, who hit the motherlode when they put a cute baby together with the line "Because so much is riding on your tires." "Unless your advertising is based on a BIG IDEA," wrote David Ogilvy, "it will pass like a ship in the night." Ogilvy proved it with resonant campaigns for Pepperidge Farms, Rolls-Royce and Hathaway shirts.
Yet even for the best in the business, great ideas are elusive. As Ogilvy confessed: "I am supposed to be one of the more fertile inventors of big ideas, but in my long career as a copywriter, I have not had more than 20, if that." So very true. In a business where one person may create thousands of ads over a career, a top creative mind may generate fewer than twenty big ideas. That is not at all a criticism of ad people but rather a stark reminder of how incredibly difficult it is to create magnificent advertising.
OGILVY AND THE ROLLS
I have always loved Ogilvy's classic Rolls-Royce print ad with the headline "At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock." In a time when trite, glossy automotive ads ruled, it stood out as one of the few to assume intelligence on the part of the reader. The headline was completely intriguing, offering an enormous promise of upscale motoring without ever having to say it, and the copy that followed was charming, graceful, and informative—in short, a superb lesson in print advertising. Not long after that ad appeared, the Copywriters Hall of Fame made Ogilvy one of its first inductees, in 1961.
WHO KNEW? NOT EVERYBODY HATES AD CLUTTER
While consumers loathe ad clutter, and advertisers detest it even more, one group hopes it won't go away anytime soon: " ad-driven media." Broadcasters, publishers, out-of-home media companies, and Internet ad firms are the stadium owners in our metaphor. They are the ones who are profiting from today's ad explosion, and they are only too happy to increase the number of seats in order to accommodate growing demand—even if this means cramming their existing customers into smaller spaces. They reap financial gain from the consumers who are frustrated at having their attention parcelled and sold, and they make money from advertisers whose messages are devalued each time the clutter is allowed to grow. Ad-driven media are the arms dealers of marketing warfare, cheerfully selling time and space to all combatants: Reebok, Nike, and Adidas; Coors and Budweiser; Apple and Microsoft. An escalation in each war can only be good for business.
Of all the media, radio and television suffer most from ad clutter as programming is shrunk, subdivided, and busied by messages within messages. CP24, a news and information TV station in Toronto, is the poster child for an information-cluttered world. Where other news channels might scroll a steady stream of headlines or sports scores beneath their visuals, CP24 reserves a corner of the screen for an anchor reading the news, while the rest of the screen is filled with the date, time, current temperature, a graphic showing a four-day weather forecast, a traffic camera, another graphic showing major financial indices, two station logos (one at the top with the weather, another at the bottom), two—count 'em, two—stock tickers scrawling across the bottom, and yet another graphic rotating through the major headlines of the day. The screen might contain twenty pieces of detailed information at any one time, and that's before you count the audio. The screens of mainstream broadcasters are not as cluttered as this, but they do plant their ever-present transparent logos in one corner of the screen and shove program credits to one side so they can jam in station promos, a technique known in the industry as a "squeeze-back."
MAMA'S GOT A SQUEEZE-BACK
A squeeze-back is the practice of literally squeezing the end credits of a program to one side of the screen in order to use the other side to promote an upcoming show. Squeeze-backs were invented by NBC in the early nineties as a way to keep people from channel hopping. By squeezing the credits over and using the remaining space to tease viewers with what was coming up next, they found they could retain them and prevent the habitual end-of-show channel hopping. In Canada squeeze-backs were used for very different reasons. Networks were limited to twelve minutes of commercial time per hour, and any promo of an upcoming American program would count against the twelve minutes. But since a promo wasn't a "commercial," it didn't generate any revenue. For every American promo, Canadian networks therefore lost money. By moving the credits over, Canadian stations could promote an upcoming American show while the credits were running. And the promo wasn't counted against their allotted commercial time because the squeezed promo was inside the program time, not outside it.
Already there are signs that this message layering is rewiring young brains. Take stacking, for instance. Kids, including mine, are becoming expert at this process: they might have a TV on while listening to music on their iPod at the same time as texting on their phones, instant-messaging on a computer, and surfing the Internet. Advertisers have caught on to this phenomenon and employ what is known as "fully integrated" marketing. This means that a product promoted on TV will also be publicized through mobile phones, Internet ads, and websites, all in the hope that every touch point will converge in one single, sit-down, "stacking" experience.
In this spirit commercial broadcasters are doing some stacking of their own: "busying" their programming and, in doing so, stuffing more commercial messages into each hour. Radio stations are phasing out sixty-second commercials, making way for shorter, more lucrative ads. Similarly, TV broadcasters have shrunk programming to accommodate more ad messages per hour: an episode of Bonanza in the early 1960s typically ran fifty-two minutes, allowing eight minutes for ads, promos, and station identification. Forty years later, an episode of Desperate Housewives might run forty-four minutes.
Broadcasters have become wary of audience backlash as their programs shrink and their commercial offerings grow—though not wary enough to actually reverse the trend. Instead, some have introduced tricks to hold audiences in spite of extended program interruptions. Some networks have taken to breaking the conventions of time, running shows past the top or bottom of the hour, starting the next one at, say, 8:05, instead of 8:00 on the nose. The theory is that viewers sticking with a program to the end will find that shows on other networks have already begun. So rather than miss the beginning of those, they might as well come back to the network they were just on and pick up the show that starts at 8:05.
Desperate Housewives experimented with some ingenious parcelling of their story "acts"—the segments that appear between commercial breaks. In some episodes, their opening segment could run as long as twelve minutes before the titles rolled: four times the length of traditional TV "teaser" segments of the sixties and seventies. The idea was to pull viewers deep enough into the story that they would stay with it—especially since it would be too late to pick up the thread of shows on rival networks. Of course, what you don't pay now, you have to pay later, which is why Desperate Housewives offers six shorter acts between breaks rather than follow the convention of four longer ones. In fact, some acts ran as short as four and a quarter minutes—not much longer than the three-and-a-half-minute breaks that surrounded them.
It's a far cry from 1922, when Herbert Hoover, secretary of commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, oversaw the birth and early growth of the radio industry and warned "that so great a possibility as radio should not be . . . drowned in advertising chatter." And when television arrived in 1939, the government remained leery of commercials. For the first two years of TV in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) did not allow stations to make profits from commercials and in 1945, it issued guidelines in the form of a document called Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees (known as the Blue Book), which limited the amount of commercial airtime each station could have.
THE GREAT "WHO LISTENS TO RADIO" EXPERIMENT
At my own company, we try to tackle ad clutter with creativity. Once, for example, we were approached by a consortium of radio stations in Toronto to create a radio campaign to advertise . . . radio. They told us their salespeople were constantly hitting a wall with retailers when they tried to sell them ad time. Why the pushback? Apparently, retailers believed that nobody "really listens to radio." Yes, radios were on but only for background noise or music. So the consortium asked us to create a radio campaign that proved people do listen to radio and that creative radio spots could break through the clutter. It was a tall order, and failure would do more damage to radio than if we had left the matter alone. However, we came up with a novel idea. We created two fictional companies and advertised them. One was called Basil's Pre-Owned Warehouse. In this campaign, a slightly stiff store owner named Basil told listeners he could save them money by selling pre-owned items, such as pre-owned business cards and pre-owned monogram shirts. The other company, Cliffhanger Publishing, advertised whodunnit books, but we gave away the surprise ending of each book in every ad.
Here's the best part: hundreds of listeners started calling the radio stations that had broadcast these ads, complaining they couldn't find Basil's store anywhere. Still others called in to say they couldn't find the Cliffhanger books in bookstores. When we finally revealed that the two companies didn't exist, a local radio talk show dedicated its evening proceedings to a discussion of the events and had to extend the two-hour show to three hours to accommodate all the calls. And the next day, the Toronto Star ran a front-page article on our campaign. When all was said and done, we had accomplished two things: we'd proven that people do listen to radio and we'd truly broken through the clutter. A big idea, executed with skill, has a superb chance of prevailing.
In the U.S. and Canada, regulators have begun to remove the cap on the number of minutes per hour available for advertising. "You don't regulate what you don't have to," said Konrad von Finckenstein, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). "I don't see why we should regulate advertising. It's up to the Canadian consumer to decide with his remote how much advertising he wants to see."
The program interruptions don't end at commercials either. Closed caption "sponsorships" ("Closed captioning is made possible in part by . . .") aren't counted as advertising. Many TV stations crawl brand-related messages across the screen during a program to skirt around limits on hourly commercial content, and these are considered to be outside the traditional twelve to fourteen minutes of ad time per hour currently allowed.
Contrast that with an episode of Lux Radio Theatre in the 1940s. Lux would be mentioned in the introduction. Then Cecil B. DeMille would introduce that evening's radio play: very often an adaptation of a popular motion picture, with the screen actors reprising their roles. Thirty minutes later, the play would break for a pitch—a minute or two long—for Lux Toilet Soap. The play would then conclude, leaving room for one more pitch for Lux. In all, perhaps five minutes of the hour-long broadcast were dedicated to the sponsor—most notably, the single sponsor—which no fan of the show was likely to forget. Today an hour of TV might include messages from a dozen sponsors, any of whom might be ignored or forgotten.
Recently I heard an hour-long program on a local radio station: a mortgage broker had purchased the entire hour and was fielding phone calls from listeners about buying and financing real estate. It was like a live infomercial, except that the broadcast was punctuated with commercials from unrelated sponsors. Similarly, some TV commercials have ads within ads. A commercial for a restaurant chain, for instance, might show a customer with a Molson logo on his beer glass. This kind of incremental product placement only works over time, and needs the tonnage of repeated exposures to break through..
Too many ads are, themselves, cluttered internally with information. Automotive ads are among the worst culprits, jamming the screen with graphics, prices, features, and too often, lines of tiny, completely unreadable legal jargon. In print ads, this is known as "mouse type."
SQUEAKY LITTLE DETAILS: MOUSE TYPE
Mouse type is an industry term for the tiny, legal disclaimer lines found in many TV and print ads. These disclaimers are required by law if an offer has strings attached, but ironically, most TV ad disclaimers end up being much too small to actually read. In print ads the type size for such disclaimers is also incredibly small, but it's generally readable. In radio the equivalent would be the super-fast "Void where prohibited; must be eighteen years of age to participate" line, read in under two seconds. In the United States most legal disclaimers have to be fully spelled out in the ad, leaving a lot of American radio ads heaving under more than fifteen seconds of "asterisk-speak." In Canada a "See store for details" usually suffices and makes Canadian ads much more bearable for the listener.
Local radio sponsors often mistakenly treat their thirty-second commercial as an elevator pitch, to be stuffed with their name (three times, please), street address, Internet address, telephone number, and if time allows, what it is they're selling. When talking to clients and writers of such ads, I used the analogy of apples. If I have five apples in my hand and I throw them at you, chances are you're going to drop them. But if I have just one apple and I lob it to you, you'll likely catch it. So it is with information in today's overly cluttered media.
According to one media consultant, TV advertising will have lost one-third of its effectiveness between 1990 and 2010 because of rising costs, falling viewership, growing ad clutter, and commercial-avoidance technologies. But in recent years, some big-money sponsors have launched bold experiments in clutter busting. In October 2003, the Season 3 debut of 24 was sponsored solely by Ford, and it was "commercial free" if you chose not to count the lengthy ads before and after the show. You'd also have to ignore Ford's product-placement relationship with the series. Just as the bad guys in Ben Hur and Star Wars had British accents, in 24 the good guys drive Fords, while the bad guys drive GM vehicles. All the same, it was a rare moment in modern TV history for a single sponsor to provide an hour of programming. Even on America's "commercial-free" PBS, some programs include several fifteen-second plugs for retail brands, packaged as "funding for this program is made possible by" announcements.
For six weeks in the spring of 2006, a single sponsor—Snapple—underwrote all the programming on FNX FM in Boston. Traditional commercials were halted, in place of announcements that Snapple was sponsoring the broadcast, some Snapple-based banter from the announcers, and a few Snapple-centric station contests. One industry executive dubbed it "brandcasting"—a broadcast double whammy where clutter was tossed out to make way for messages aimed at young listeners. In spite of this new development, I wouldn't bet the farm that the "sole sponsor" trend will rescue our culture from ad clutter anytime soon: broadcasters are wary of giving so much control to a single advertiser, especially when there's more money to be made by selling the time piecemeal.
Credit the ad industry for this much: we adapt quickly. When we can't find a path to your imagination through conventional media, we start looking for another route.