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Why I Love Advertising
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Four Examples of Our Brilliant and Nutty Pursuit

Advertising is a brilliant and nutty pursuit, and I have to admit that I love it. In fact, I keep a folder (electronically on Evernote, and a I carry a beat-up old manila one in my backpack) just to collect stuff that makes me wince or smile. Here are four recent tidbits from the Dim Bulb archive:

OnStar

Its latest spot features all the cool things you can do with its live support service, focusing mostly on some happy-go-lucky twentysomethings trying to find their way. The young adults swoon over the fuel and directional apps they can check on their smartphones and they bounce around and laugh distractedly when they’re in their car. Then the commercial cuts to a middle-aged guy sitting behind rising radiator steam and his deployed airbag; he tells his OnStar operator "some guy just cut me off."

Who cut him off? Those preoccupied folks from earlier in the spot, of course. OnStar is marketing a total accident-causing/accident-reporting system, or at least this is one way of interpreting the commercial's narrative. Do you ever impose your own order on spots? Try it. It's fun.

Ford

Advertising Age recently named Ford "marketer of the year" without really being able to cite a compelling reason other than the company was smart enough not to take bailout money (finding itself the only American car company left standing in the economic crisis) and lucky enough to have more marketable new vehicles ready to rollout. In this context their business did really well, and it's from this context that it's nearly impossible to discern the relative impact of its marketing. Who's to say its marketing didn't kill sales that might have occurred (I loved the F-150 spots, though, which were heavy on functional benefits).

The real test of its marketing would be whether it exploited Ford's unique authority during the crisis to build a systemic reputation and brand value "leg up" on its competition. Only it did nothing of the sort. Now its competitors are recovering and rolling out their own great new vehicles, so it's back to square one for Ford. I know, I know, it did really cool social media campaigns for Fiesta and now Focus. Stay tuned for its competitors to do the same things. I'd rename the award the "missing opportunity" trophy.

Travelers

The spot is supposed to make the case for authentic repairs, not substitutes, and it's a simple setup: rabbits hear the rattle of a snake, only to discover that the snake has literally taped a baby's rattle to the end of its tail (i.e. they're not threatened). The rabbits break out into explosive, uncontrolled laughter, while the snake looks sad and sulks back into its coil. Don't you see? Travelers supports getting repairs done right.

The problem is that when they crack up, the rabbits are less Peter Rabbit and more like the menacing one from Donnie Darko. They're ugly and their laughter is spooky and mean. Making viewers feel empathy for a rattlesnake is quite an accomplishment, but Travelers does it. You see this thing and hate the rabbits. Oh, and the spot is about what again?

Truth

I wrote my Advertising Age column last week about the competitive advantage of telling the truth; that not only was it impossible for brands to avoid, but that the ongoing perception and understanding of truth(s) -- between companies and consumers -- would be the true test of brand strength. I also wrote that doing this was much harder than it might seem. Even when you tell the truth these days, people have been conditioned to question your intentions and doubt your veracity.

So a good number of the reader comments questioned my intentions and doubted my veracity. Q.E.D. I maintain that deciding to tell the truth (not just some sliver of it, which is what most brands do) and figuring out how to make it truly believable in a variety of contexts is the marketing challenge for the next decade or more.

Isn't this marvelous stuff? I know you come across examples of bright or dim bulb campaigns, spots, announcements, or whatever. Keep throwing them my way. I could imagine doing a weekly summary of bests & worsts, or maybe something monthly. Or maybe that's the dimmest idea in this post?

Added: 4th November 2010

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