How to Kill a Great Brand

Heavy Duty Vehicle Emissions - October 2005 Environment DEC
Mmmmm. Smell the clean.

Here’s an object lesson in how to kill off a great brand.

First off, you have to lie. Not just little lies. Nooo, those aren’t lethal enough. You have to make them big lies. Super-massive-black-hole-at-the-center-of-the-galaxy-sized lies.

Take the recent Volkswagen diesel scandal. From the land that brought us Joseph Goebbels comes one of the longest, biggest lies in marketing history; that of  cleanness of diesel powered cars.

Okay, at first, the idea that a diesel engine, already known for great mileage and power, can also operate below EPA limits seems too good to be true. Diesel has long been synonymous with dirty, carcinogenic, black smoke belching out of truck stacks. I mean, it’s burning oil, for crying out loud! But for a long time now, Volkswagen, that esteemed automaker that brought us the original Beetle and its ultra-honest advertising in the 60s, has been flogging the notion that they’ve come up with a diesel car that is not only fuel-efficient, but environmentally clean, all without giving up any performance. How do they do it? German Engineering.

And…oh, yeah…lying.

Class, how many times do we have to learn the lesson of “too good to be true”?  And what is that lesson, Munchkins? Let’s all say it again: It’s not true.

It seems, according to a long investigation by our own EPA, a number of consumer groups, and the investigative agencies of several European governments, that Volkswagen had not only blatantly lied about its environment-friendly claims about their diesel cars, they deliberately built in clever software to fool the emissions testers. It goes far beyond just exaggerated advertising; it involves deceptive engineering…German deceptive engineering, though.

Let’s say you take your 2009 VW Jetta in to the appropriate facility to get it certified for registration. They hook it up to their computer and, unbeknown to anybody but Volkswagen, a secret  little program inside the car’s computer turns on the filter so that you pass. Then, when you drive out with that “passed” stamp,  and that self-satisfied feeling of having done your part to fight global warming, that little program secretly turns the filter off again and you go back to spewing as much muck into the air as a Panzer tank–as much as 40 times more than legally allowed by the EPA, in fact. (Read all about how it works  in any number of stories this week. Here’s one in the New York Times.)

Of course, the CEO of VW, Martin Winterkorn, resigned today; shocked, shocked, he tells us, that there was Schwindeleien ( German for shenanigans) going on behind his back at Volkswagen. This is a little much considering that VW  has long been famous for its highly centralized, Teutonic control culture. Central control is the leitmotif of German engineering, after all. But what do you do when you’re caught in a big lie? Double down with a bigger lie: “I had no such knowledge!”

Okay, great that Winterkorn resigned (I’m sure he had a very big parachute). And let’s see if any government agencies seek to prosecute him and any other executives at VW, putting them in orange overalls. But what about the 11 million people who shelled out a significant portion of their salaries for diesel cars they thought were legally compliant with their countries’ emission standards? How is Volkswagen ever going to make it up to them? There have as yet been no recalls. But if they are coming, what can the factory fix? They can disable the filter-disabling software, but can they make a diesel engine emission compliant and keep its fuel efficiency? Let’s see what the Magic Eight Ball says:

Magic Eight Ball

 

Volkswagen says they’ve put aside $7.8 billion to handle recall expenses. Does this mean they’ll buy the bullshit cars back? Well, only if each of the 11 million bilked buyers are willing to accept $709 in trade-in. If the average price of one of those diesel cars was $30k (just estimating based on advertised MSRP) VW’s going to need to set aside closer to a third of a trillion dollars to make it good with all those pissed-off customers.

A Great Brand Commits Suicide

My prediction (using my own trusty  M8B technology) is that the German Engineers at VW  have taken their respected brand and locked it in the garage with the motor running. Of course, other automakers like Ford, GM, Hyundai, Toyota, and Chrysler have all survived scandals involving exploding gas tanks, faulty air bags, unintended acceleration, and odometer tampering.  But none of those companies’ scandals were anywhere near as cynical, deliberate, pervasive, or harmful to their brands as VW’s. That company has built its reputation on reliability. From the very first “Think small” ad in 1959 to now, they’ve cultivated a brand position of being reliable-to-a-fault. And now this new generation of cynical smart-asses has just killed it. Great job, Martin. Hope you sold your stocks before you left.

Two Rules Ignored

Here is yet another example of Unbreakable Rule #9: Everything is marketing. This may have been a bad engineering decision, or a manufacturing decision, or a business decision, or an ethical decision. But ultimately it was a bad marketing decision. Because now nobody will trust Volkswagen again. Not its customers. Not its shareholders (if any stick around). Not its majority of hardworking, dedicated, honest employees. Not its dealers struggling on the narrowest of margins. Not governments charged with seeing to public safety and health. Nobody.

The other thing offensive about this story is that, once again, it feeds the belief (see Rule #2: Perception is reality) that marketing is a lie. I hate that. Marketing is not a lie. Marketing that lies is a lie. But marketing itself should always seek to tell the truth. It should find the best true thing to say about a product and portray that in as compelling a way as possible. But if you’re an marketer and you feel like you have to lie, get out of the business. Or resign the account, at the very least. And blow the whistle on the liars.

Solving Problems We Don’t Have

Shaved catThere’s been, in case you’ve been in hypersleep for the past five decades, a revolution in shaving technology. When I started shaving, all we had was a chipped shard of flint we shared within the Clan of the Cave Hamster. Worked fine. Then came the safety-razor. Then twin blades. Then three. Then four. But they didn’t stop there:  Then five with advanced sensitivity strips. Then vibrating, triaxially-rotating, self-lubricating heads. And now there’s Dollar Shave Club.

What I find unintentionally hilarious about the Dollar Shave Club’s advertising is that they solve problems I don’t have (which, to be fair, is something all razor marketing has ever done for years). Some of their commercials revolve around men having to get around the Mission Impossible security evidently guarding razor blades in stores, with the poor shopper being Tasered or beaten up when he tries to buy them–something we’ve all experienced, I’m sure.  Other spots  focus on how expensive traditional razor blades are, cleverly depicting hapless customers forced to trade in their grandpa’s wristwatches and all their clothes to afford to buy blades. Now there’s a new series of ads featuring gross, talking, “Brand X” razors that need replacing, which the owners are loathe to part with because the cost of replacement is somehow prohibitive. Also the Brand-X razors talk and have googly eyes, which is a little off-putting when you’re shaving.

Solving problems that don’t exist is an old trope in bad marketing: We’ve got nothing anybody wants, so invent some problem and solve it.

The trouble with the Dollar Shave concept, and with other mail-order razor subscription services, is that even if you understand the problems they make up, their solutions are weak. The misnamed Dollar claims they are cheaper than the Gillettes or Schicks you’ve been using. But they aren’t. Dollar’s run about $2.25 a pop for a comparable six-bladed cartridge, which is, depending on where you shop, about the same as the Gillettes and Schicks you toss in your basket (and, if you buy in bulk at Costco, a lot more expensive). So even the name Dollar Shave is misleading.

Also, do you know any store that locks their razor blades up? It isn’t exactly a controlled substance.  Maybe where I live, out here in the Wild Wild West, we can sashay into any old feed store and openly buy blades, condoms, weed, ammo, and weaponized anthrax right off the open shelves. But I’ve never seen razor blades locked up. Cigarettes maybe. But not razors. Is this an East Coast thing?

And then there’s the curious marketing concept of buying your razor blades by subscription–mail order.  What you get with both Dollar Shave and their competitor, Harry’s, is a package of four or more razor cartridges per month (depending on the subscription level) for about the same price you’d pay if you picked up a pack of Gillettes every six months at your local supermarket. The advantage, I guess, is that you don’t have to remember to put razor blades in your cart as you pass down aisle 14; you can wait for them to be mailed to you. Why this is an advantage, I don’t know. Unless you are housebound and can’t leave your front door because you are an invalid or under surveillance by spy satellites or are in the midst of a Call of Duty marathon. Again, another problem that just doesn’t exist.

How often, in fact, do any of us (males, at least) have to buy razors? It’s not like most of us are shaving our cats and run through a blade a week. A normal razor blade (with four parallel blades and all the latest gel strips) lasts me a month. Runs about $2.50 a cartridge. Admittedly, I’m not the most hirsute of people, but I can’t imagine even somebody as brillo-paddy as Ted Cruz going through more than one a week.

How about mail order toothpaste next? Or dental floss? Tired of having to defeat ninjas at the store just to buy dental floss? Get on our automatic plan and we’ll send you 30 yards of industrial-grade waxed floss every month.

Me, I still love the feel of a freshly chipped shard of flint.

Was Herman Cain Right?

SimCity1One of my many vices is an addiction to the old Maxis game, SimCity. I play SimCity 4, which I think is about twelve years old, but I love it for its elegant game engine

As games can be instructive, SimCity is very much so. I think it should be used in high school curricula to teach civics, and economics, and tax policy. And would that more candidates for public office played it. They might not blurt out so many inane sound bytes at state fairs.

Also the music is so cool. I often just let it run in the background and not play the game.

Now this probably brands me as a policy wonk–let me amend that; it definitely brands me as a policy wonk–but I have fun noodling with all the various tax rates the game lets you play with. They have rates for high income residents, middle income residents, low income deadbeats. Also rates for commercial activities, farming, heavy (high polluting) industries, light manufacturing, and high tech (low polluting). This is fun to jiggle with to see how it affects growth and the environment.  For instance, if you give a tax holiday to high tech industries and tax high polluters back to the swamps from which they crawled, you can raise jobs and revenue and keep the air and water quality clean (and the Sims happy and healthy and approving of your job as a Mayor). But you also need a lot of schools in your city to attract those high-tech industries.

The game comes with all of these rates defaulted at 9%, which is where Herman Cain got his “9-9-9″ tax plan when he was trying to win the Republican primary back in 2011. I’m sure he just played the game without changing any of those rates, and also probably grooved to the cool music as I do. But the fun is applying your own economic theories to the game as an experiment to see what happens to your balance of payments and economic growth. Of course, the game algorithm was originally conceived by Will Wright, who must be a Keynesian, because the outcomes definitely favor a more actively managed fiscal policy. If you cut all the taxes to zero and let the Free Market frolic, your city soon comesto resemble the scene of a post apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel. And cannibalism will reign.

The other thing I like to do is lay out my city with all the dream services you’d expect in a socialist paradise: a rich infrastructure, lavishly funded schools, universities, sanitation, big hospitals, public transportation, police and fire services, recycling centers, clean power (wind turbines mostly), parks , public pools, playgrounds, cool beaches (a shoreline is helpful), museums, libraries, seaports, airports, and theaters. I put all these in place before I start the city. (No stadiums, they’re just a money drain. Put them down. I don’t care what “The Citizens demand.”) All this cost a fortune in Simoleons and will probably drain your starting budget to zero, but wait…

Enter the Cheat

Then, before you turn your city on to let it grow, you do one more important thing; you activate a cheat.

The cheat for Windows is Alt-X “weaknesspays” Enter (I don’t know what it is on a Mac, look it up). Applying it repeatedly magically floods your budget with money from nowhere. Frankly, I don’t know why this is a “cheat” and not a tool in the game because, when you think about it, this is exactly what the Fed does in real life. It’s what the IMF and the European Central Bank does for countries in default like Greece; making capital out of nothing, allowing for sovereign default, bailing out. It’s also the same as when a country or a municipality issues bonds, or, hell,  just runs deficit spending.  Nothing bad ever happens except more growth, on and on, just like in SimCity. The only time anything bad ever happens is when somebody decides, based on the Bible or something, that deficits are bad and a country can’t just print money whenever it needs more. Can it? The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says it can (look it up).

A popular sophistry is that a country like the United States should balance its budget like a family does; not spending more than it takes in. But doing that would never allow for growth, or jobs, or prosperity. And if your tax rate is zero (as is also popular with the same people who like the country-as-a-family-budget analogy) you get nuthin’. No roads, no Internet, no airports, no power grid, no jobs, no hospitals, no public transportation, no police and fire, no schools, no water filtration plants. Just desolation, with zombies roaming the streets moaning for “Brains!”

Also, families don’t get to print their own money like countries can. They can’t use an Alt-X cheat. But the government can.

What’s this got to do with the Unbreakable Rules? Nothing. (Unless I can invoke the catch-all Rule #9: Everything is Marketing.) I just wanted to write about it. I am addicted to SimCity, as I’ve said. And tax policy.

 

Moderate to Severe Pharma Advertising

Woman, walking in the park and talking: “I’m a moderate to severe brain cloud sufferer. I’ve been living with the heartbreak of brain cloud symptoms for years. If you’re like me, you know that heartbreak.

“But now there’s Enteraxol, a new medical breakthrough in managing the symptoms of moderate to severe brain cloudism. And it’s made all the difference in my life.

Montage of patient enjoying an afternoon of tiger petting at the zoo with her grandchildren, jitterbugging with her second husband, laughing at nothing with friends, and other non-sequitur lifestyle shots…we don’t care…you don’t care…you’ve already gone to the bathroom to manage your moderate to severe whatever.

Announcer VO: “Enteraxol has been shown to cause massive organ failure in some patients.

“Do not take Enteraxol if you are taking any medications for anything else, have heart disease, occasional indigestion, constipation, are menstruating, are in a committed relationship, live alone, live with anyone else, are sexually active, are sexually inactive, have diabetes or glaucoma.

“Do not use Enteraxol near pets or children.

“Do not expose Enteraxol to an open flame.

“In rare cases, Enteraxol may increase the likelihood of some epidermal liquefaction.

“If blindness or unprovoked murderous rages continue after taking Enteraxol for more than four hours, consult a doctor.

“If slight eyeball melting occurs, such as illustrated in the climatic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark when all the Nazis had their eyeballs melted by looking into the open Ark of the Covenant, discontinue taking Enteraxol.

“If pterodactylism occurs, such as the sudden growth of webbing between the fingers and extremities, discontinue use of Enteraxol.

“Enteraxol may interact negatively with certain foods, like animal protein, carbohydrates, some nuts, fruits, vegetables and most pudding. Do not take Enterax with alcohol or hot chocolate.

“Do not attempt to operate any machinery more complex than a pencil while taking Enteraxol.

“It is inadvisable to write a blog or interact on social media while taking Enteraxol.

“If a head of state, do not sign any nuclear non-proliferation treaties if you have taken Enteraxol within 24 hours.

“Store Enteraxol in a cool place out of the reach of children, animals and ants.

“Some zombieism as well as seeing the world overrun by zombies has been associated with prolonged use of Enteraxol.

“Enteraxol can lead to cessation of all life functions. And in rare cases, death.

“The effectiveness of Enteraxol in the treatment of brain cloudism has yet to be proven.

“Enteraxol may be illegal in some states and the rest of the civilized world.

Back to Woman walking in the park: “Enteraxol has made it possible for me to enjoy my life again. Ask your doctor about Enteraxol. If he or she does not immediately prescribe it, look for a doctor who will listen to you. It’s time someone did.”

Announcer VO: “Take back your right to a brain-cloud-free life. With Enteraxol.”

Out.

Why do drug companies even bother to advertise at all?

 

 

 

Think Small Yourself, Julian Koenig

volkswagen_think_small
The greatest ad of the last century. A dirty lie?

In his waning years, advertising legend Julian Koenig, whose claims to fame included what has been ranked by Ad Age as the greatest ad of the last century, the 1959 “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen, gave an interview in which he discounted his enviable career in advertising by saying he was ashamed of having devoted his god-given talent to spreading lies. He concluded that all advertising is a lie. Then he died.

Okay. Maybe the disillusioned rantings of a cranky nonagenarian. But I say, speak for yourself, Julian.

At this stage of my own career, which has been now as long as Koenig’s was when he was active, I can categorically state that I have never lied in an ad I’ve written, art directed, creative directed or had any part of. I may not be the legend that he was. But I’ve been pretty proud of my campaigns, some of which have won international awards, some of which have hung in the Smithsonian, some of which have even been phenomenally successful in terms of increasing sales, many of which have been just as funny. But all of them the truth.

Koenig, too, spent way too much of his later life in a personal feud over who really came up with the Volkswagen campaign, he and art-director Helmut Krone, or notorious self-aggrandizer, George Lois. These names would only mean something to deep advertising geeks. Old advertising geeks. But Koenig wouldn’t let it drop. His own daughter, This American Life producer Sarah Koenig, did a show on how obsessed her father became with his vendetta about credit, long after the world acknowledged that he was right and George Lois was a poseur. But who cares?

Get over it.

I myself (in fact, probably most people who’ve made a living as a creative professional) have known people claiming credit for my work.  It happens. The world is full of pilot fish pretending to be sharks. But it’s just advertising. It isn’t like James Watson getting the Nobel Prize for “discovering” the double-helix structure of DNA when he caught a lecture on the subject by the real discoverer, Rosalind Franklin. (Don’t get me started.)

But getting back to the claim that all advertising is a lie. That’s a lie itself. It has long been a meme circulated by smug cynics. And when one of the greatest practitioners of the craft, like Koenig, sputters it in an interview at the end of his life, those cynics loved to jump on it and say, “See? We told you!”

But saying that is like saying that all music is the same crap. Or all surgery is butchery. Or all plumbers are crooks. Or all politicians are corrupt. Or that everything the government does turns bad. It’s too easy. And it’s especially easy for people who aren’t copywriters or composers or surgeons or plumbers or politicians or government employees. I want to ask those critics, “What is it you do for a living? You know, to rip people off?”

I myself felt that Koenig was full of crap in “admitting” that advertising is based on a lie. He may have felt guilty himself about knowingly writing a lie at some incident in his career. But that’s his problem. It’s not something I’ve ever been tempted to do. Telling lies is not only not required of good advertising, it’s actively policed by the industry. Good advertising–great advertising–not only tells the truth, it tells it elegantly, a truth that touches at the core of people’s lives. People are really good at smelling bullshit. But they’re also really good at knowing what’s true.

Most people anyway. The ones I party with.

All advertising is an interruption

Clockwork'71
“HOW CAN WE MAKE PEOPLE WATCH OUR ADS?”

One of the most unintentionally hilarious questions in this Age of Data Mining must be, “Would you like to see more ads about this product?”

I wonder, does anybody actually click “Yes”?

Ironically, the thing that initially got me interested in a career in advertising was the very first thing out of the mouth of my mentor at Art Center, Ray Engle, “All advertising is an interruption.”

Nobody likes to be interrupted:

Nobody likes to have a TV show broken into with some non-sequitur thought about reverse mortgages.

Nobody likes to be called out of the blue by somebody trying to sell them something (especially the phone calls that begin with the blatant lie, “This is not a solicitation.”)

Nobody likes clicking on a YouTube video only to have to wait for 30 seconds through a commercial.

Nobody likes having pop-up windows get between them and the article they’re trying to read.

Nobody likes having to clean out their mailbox (literal or digital) of the 99% of the crap that’s cluttering it up.

And nobody likes to have their smartphone constantly vibrating with ad-mails and ad-texts (well…depending on where they carry their phones…almost nobody).

When you interrupt somebody, especially with an ad, you’ve already put them in a foul mood. Not the greatest state in which to sell them something.

And that’s why everybody hates ads. The only people who seem to like them are those that make them. And they only like the ones they make. Or the funny ones.

That’s also why there are spam filters. And that’s why there are DVRs, so you can FF through all the ads. And there have been “MUTE” buttons on TV remote controls ever the advent of the first Zenith Space Commander sixty years ago, which predated the creative revolution in advertising by six years.

Zenith_Space_Commander_600
THAT THIRD BUTTON WAS MY GRANDFATHER’S FAVORITE.

It used to be, back in the Mad Men Golden Age of advertising, that advertisers recognized this timeless fact about human nature;  people don’t like ads. This recognition was first uttered (supposedly) by David Ogilvy, “Nobody ever bored their customers into buying their product.” But for some reason, the majority of people making ads today seem to think that human nature has changed in recent generations and that people nowadays seem to love to be interrupted by ads. And bored into buying products.

I’m not a scientist, but…

Now, I’m not a behavioral scientist (even with my degree in it) and I haven’t actually read any studies to the contrary, but it seems to me that people still don’t like being interrupted. That hasn’t changed. That app is still working in Human Brain OS 1.0.

So, what’s an advertiser to do? What’s the anti-anti-spam technology? According to my first ad mentors, Ray Engle and Lee Clow, and to countless other genii of the Golden Age, the answer was simple: Make it good. You just pissed somebody off by interrupting them–you can’t get around that–so you’d better make it worth it. And “worth it” doesn’t mean telling us about all of your J.D. Power Awards.

The “worth it” is where creativity in marketing comes in. Make it entertaining. That was the giant, forehead-slapping discovery made by Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach and all the ad people who weren’t working at that hack-factory, the Sterling Cooper Agency, in 1962. Why are funny ads ten times more successful than information-only ads? (There actually have been studies to measure this.) Because they reward us for listening. They respect us as intelligent people. They know they just interrupted us. So they give us a peace offering.

And then we are not so inclined to hit mute, or change the channel,  turn off the TV, or click “skip” on the pop-up window.

Want to make somebody watch your ad? Then make them laugh. Or cry. Or scared. Or at least feel entertained. Other than kidnapping them, duct taping them to a chair, and clamping their eyelids open, there’s no other way to do it. Legally anyway.

IT’S OKAY, HE’S VERY FRIENDLY.

pit bull
HE JUST WANTS TO SAY “HI!”

So here’s a little known rule in marketing: Leash your dog.

And I don’t mean this metaphorically, as if a dog had anything symbolic to do with customer service, or branding, or best practices in advertising. No, I mean it literally. Keep Cujo on a leash. And make sure you’re strong enough to keep it from getting away from you.

What’s provoking this diatribe?  I was walking our dog, Bob, (a Westie, and, yes, on a leash) at Cook Park a little while ago and met a man who asked me if I’d seen someone walking a black Labrador–off leash. He gave a description; white, middle aged, probably a Christian (the owner not the dog). It seems that a couple days before, while he was walking his own dog, a Dalmatian (on leash, thank you), the off-leash Lab had attacked and severely mauled her. While pulling them apart, the Lab owner told him, “I don’t understand it; he’s usually so friendly. It must have been something about your dog that set him off.”  I’m sure. Probably the way she was dressed–or the fact that she wasn’t dressed–what can you expect? She was clearly asking for it.

The Dalmatian owner told me his own dog was still in the vet hospital, recovering from surgery, and he didn’t know if she was going to make it. He was combing the park now to see if he could find the Lab owner again, to at least get him to pay for the vet bills–something he understandably didn’t have the presence of mind to ask as he was rushing his wounded dog back to his car.

After expressing mutual indignation at “some people” with him, I went on with Bob’s walk.  But I’ve started noticing people walking their dogs off leash more and more, even in parks like this that have clearly posted leash laws. Most people respect the law, but  some don’t. And it’s usually with a big dog. Who’s very friendly.

Yesterday, Bob and I were at another park, Summerlake, and I saw coming the other way a guy (white, middle-aged, probably a Christian) with his pit bull–off leash. Now while I love dogs, I’m not a fan of pit bulls. With apologies to pit bull lovers, to me they’re ugly, brutish animals, bred for killing other dogs.  I’m sure most of them are very gentle and great with kids. As the man neared us, his dog trotting at his side, I locked Bob’s retractable leash short, stepped to the side of the walk, and kept him behind me. I glared at the guy as he came up and he said, “It’s okay. She very friendly.”

“I don’t know that,” I said coldly. “You know there’s a leash law in this park?”

He didn’t respond except to say to his dog, “Heel, Ginger”–or something; I can’t be expected to remember the dog’s actual name–but kept going (and fortunately, so did Ginger, who didn’t stop to investigate Bob’s butt, as is the dog custom). But the man said again over his shoulder, sort of churlishly, “She’s very friendly.”

I’m sure he’s had to repeat that mantra “It’s okay, she’s very friendly” to everybody he meets, when if he’d just kept her on a leash (as the law required) he wouldn’t have to. He was just a narcissistic Assburgie.

The FU Brand

People like this are advertising their hostile intent (even if they are not fully conscious of it). They are broadcasting their brand, which is “I’m a baddass mofu with a big dog, and nobody’s going to get hurt as long as they respect my libertarian rights…and, of course, don’t make any sudden moves.” It’s the same as those libertarian white guys who tote assault rifles into Walmarts and Appleby’s in “open carry” states.  It’s not that they don’t care if they scare people. To the contrary; they do care. They like scaring people. That’s the whole point. It’s vital to them to keep reaffirming in public that they have rights, even it means dismissing the rights of the rest of us to not feel just a little unsure about some sketchy-looking, shaved-headed white guy with a gun… or an unleashed pit bull…while he verbally reassures us he means us no harm.

Bob 20140606 cropped
Bob. Oh, sure, he looks friendly enough. But this guy could take your leg off without warning. Might take a little gnawing but he’ll do it.

Now our dog, Bob, is indeed very friendly. He’s a Westie, after all (though I’m sure there are psycho Westies, too). And, unless you’re a squirrel, he’s always calm and well-behaved. He has never jumped up on people and is patient when strange children want to pet him (but I always caution them to ask first). He doesn’t like big dogs. But then he’s over 15 , which makes him about 110 in dog years, and is not too sure of himself. But I always walk him on a leash. He feels safer that way because he can physically feel the connection to me.

But I personally know people who are scared of strange dogs, even small ones. Some of them were attacked by a dog as children, or just have irrational fear of them–doesn’t matter (Some people even have an irrational fear of tarantulas. I know, right? Those innocuous, furry little things?  Go figure. ) So out of respect for people, I always walk Bob leashed, even though he weighs 18 lbs and has teeth with the consistency of Gummi Bears. Because they don’t know how friendly he is. Most of the time.

The Personal Marketing Rule

And here’s where the marketing lesson comes in. When you walk your dog, you’re projecting something about yourself; your brand.  It’s not just what kind of dog you have. It’s how you respect other people when you come up to them. And if your Yorkie or Newfie or Westie or pit bull is unleashed in public, the thing that it says loudly about you is that you don’t care about other people. That’s what you’re marketing about yourself. And you’ll find you probably have more trouble making friends. Because you’re an asshole.

Think of it like an ad campaign for a company known for…oh, I don’t know…raping the environment, for instance, or maybe food contamination, or employee abuse. They can have a headline that says, “We care about people!” but if their brand belies that through their actions, it’s like the guy with the unleashed pit bull saying, “It’s okay, she’s friendly.” That’s just a bullshit headline. That dog, or that oil platform, or that pipe line,or that chicken processing plant is liable to go kablooie at any second.

So just don’t tell me how friendly you think your personal brand is. Prove it. Leash your dog. And if you want to take that as a metaphor for marketing, well, that’s okay, too.

Introducing: the Death Word

Introducing

Don’t use this word. Ever.

When “introducing” is used in a headline,  it takes the average reader less than 14.2 nanoseconds to recognize that you’ve got nothing interesting to say. (I made that datum up to impress the engineers among you. Let’s just say it doesn’t take much time.) And since, in every reader’s mind,  all ads are perceived with disdain and irritation to begin with, to flag one with the death word, “Introducing,” is to insure that it will never be read…not unless it’s part of the sentence, “Introducing the best way to stick your elbow in your ear.”

(Admit it, you just tried to do that. Didn’t you?)

“Introducing” is also a gerund. Which means it’s passive. Of course, this is covered in the first hour of any community college copywriting class. But it doesn’t seem to have sunk in lately, at least judging by all this year’s crop of $4.5-million-per-30-second Super Bowl spots. If you want your ads to be read or listened to, don’t use the passive voice. Don’t use other gerunds like “celebrating” (as in  “Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence”), “innovating,” or “leveraging.” The passive voice sucks all the life out of your ads. It makes them dull. It makes them ignored. It makes you waste the $4.5 million you just spent on your Super Bowl spot.

“Introducing” betrays an amateur copywriter, without even a hint craft or talent. No professional copywriter would ever use such a lazy, lifeless verb like “Introducing.” Not in the headline. Not in the copy. Not in the script. Not in the content of a website. It’s a dead word. And it screams, “I’m a hack!” Such a hack would also not hesitate to use a phrase like “passion for excellence,” “formula for your success,” or “the difference is in our people,” in their copy.

But there seems to be much more hackitosis in advertising these days.

“Introducing” also embarrasses the client who would tolerate such a passive, lazy word in their marketing. It tells all of us, unconsciously (in 8.9 nanoseconds), that the advertiser isn’t all that enthusiastic about their product. So why should we be?

Do you ever, in normal conversation, use the word “introducing” as a predicate? When you are introducing two friends, do you say, “Liam, introducing Miyako. Miyako, introducing Liam.”? Do your e-mails and texts use that word? Then don’t write your ads using it.

Ever.

Unless, of course, you have a very good reason. And a note from your editor.

When “Awesome” is.

Pillars of Creation 2014
WORDS FAIL.

I’m certainly not the first to complain about hyperbolic marketing language. The word “awesome”, for instance, which has come to be almost a place-holder adjective for everything from a new shade of nail polish to the Big Bang. To me, it’s like fingernails raking across my eyeball (you thought I was going to say “blackboard” didn’t you?). I hate it that much.  And while I’ve already ranted on lazy writing in this vein, that was almost two years ago, the earth has traveled some 2.8 billion miles in its orbit around the galaxy since then. I need to reiterate:

Put. The. Awesome. Down.

What happens with this relentless and unimaginative hypersuperlativation of language is that when we look at an image like the one above, the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula M16 (taken this week by the Hubble Space Telescope’s new hi-res camera), we are at a loss for words. “Awesome” is already dialed to 10 and we have nowhere else to go.

Let me give you some perspective. See that left hand cloud in the picture above? It’s approximately 4 light years long. That’s the same distance out to Alpha Centauri, our nearest star. In the hi-res version of this image (which I highly recommend you download) our entire solar system, five billion miles wide,  would fit into a single pixel, comfortably. This nebula is 6,500 light years away, which means we’re looking at something as it existed in 4,500 BCE, before Stonehenge, before the Pyramids, 1,200 years before the first writing.  Because it took light that long to reach us. And you know what else? This truly awesome nebula doesn’t exist any more. Astronomers calculate that this entire, incomprehensively gigantic structure will have been blown away by a supernova about 5,500 years ago. We just won’t see it for another 1,000 years.

Now don’t you feel puny?

But wait, there’s more: As awesomely awesome as the Pillars are, when compared to our Milky Way galaxy in which it used to exist (diameter 100,000 LY)  the entire nebula wouldn’t even be a pixel on an image of that. And the Milky Way is itself half the size of the Andromeda galaxy (M31) which is heading right for us. Might want to hang on to something in 3.25 billion years or so when the two collide. I could go on, but then I’d have to invoke the Monty Python Galaxy Song.

I have a personal, nostalgic stake in this, though. Twenty-six years ago I did an advocacy ad for Lockheed (see  below) urging Congress to keep funding the Hubble, which hadn’t been launched yet. Congress did. I like to think it was thanks to the awesome power of my persuasiveness. And Hubble went into orbit the following year. But just weeks before it went up, I got to go up to Sunnyvale in the Bay Area to actually see it in person. And looking down on that thermos-shaped school bus from the visitors’ gallery, a thrill went up my spine. We were about to see things we had never seen, at scales we couldn’t even comprehend.

That. Was. Awesome.

08 Stonehenge
The advocacy ad I did for Lockheed to persuade Congress to keep funding the Hubble Space Telescope.

 

We’ve been doing it wrong all along

Just when you think mankind couldn’t achieve any higher heights of accomplishment, we’ve outdone ourselves again. Turns out, in going to the bathroom, we’ve been doing it wrong for thousands of years. But now, thanks to science and good-old-fashioned German engineering, they’ve invented a technology to facilitate elimination of Number Two, promote better colon health, reduce the heartbreak of hemorrhoids, and fight global climate change.

lady-on-toilet
SEE HOW HAPPIER SHE LOOKS!  THAT IS, UNTIL SHE REMEMBERS TIP 0: PULL DOWN YOUR PANTS.”

They found out you’re supposed to raise your knees when you…well…you know. Hence this amazing invention. easygopro stool

I know it just looks like a stool (ahem) , but it’s so much more;  it’s Euro-Ergo Design and made of high-tech, digital polymer (not mere plastic). It’s based on decades of intense concentration and colorectal research by real doctors. An arbitrarily assigned $34 value, but yours for only $25 (plus $8.95 shipping and…uh…handling… which brings it back up to $34). So don’t think you can just accomplish the same life-changing benefits by putting a $5 stool from Target in front of your toilet–one that hasn’t been euro-ergo designed.

Of course, there are several other companies marketing this paradigm-disrupting technology. But having seen the DRTV commercial for the easyGopro (which tells you what channels I’m demographically watching), I’m convinced that there’s only one choice: easyGopro. (Not to be confused with the GoPro helmet camera, which goes on your head, or the EasyGo PRO protein dispenser on KickStarter, which goes in your mouth,  this is the easyGopro, which goes somewhere else. This did cause some keyword search confusion.)

If you don’t believe me, just read the copy that easyGopro has to say about the company’s far-reaching goals.

  • “We set out to create the best toilet footrest possible! That’s why we hired Henner Jahns of Gecco-Vision located in the epicenter of Los Angeles’ Historic Art District. Henner’s passion and commitment is what makes easyGopro unique. Jahns’ award winning style and international flair, combined with a remarkable eye for great consumer products, sets easyGopro on a trajectory to fast becoming a household name.”

Look how they’ve taken this on as a mission. They even used a bang (!) to emphasize their earnestness as they set out on this quest. I mean, they trekked all the way into the bowels of “the epicenter of Los Angeles’ Historic Art District” to find award-winning euro-designer Henner Jahns of Gecco-Vision, with his “passion and commitment” to improving the way we poop. Don’t trust those other stool stool manufacturers with their feeble, non-euro designs, like the family-owned Squatty Potty  or The Original Step-n-Go (who have no cute euro-designers). Even though they say so, they’re not nearly as passionate , or committed, about the best alimentary elimination possible(!).

To add to the marketing punch, all of these companies feature state-of-the-art animations and graphics showing what your inner plumbing looks like when you sit on a toilet versus when you squat the correct way…the way God intended. If that isn’t inspiring to you, then you must be dead down there already.

EasyGopro‘s website also features a highly informative video with Henner talking in his charming, German-Engineering accent about BMs…for four-and-a-half intense minutes. You wouldn’t think there was that much to say about it. But you’d be wrong. His passion, his commitment (and his great hair) are infectious.  I know it looks like a satirical commercial on SNL, but it’s actual marketing! They’re serious.

Then, on the Squatty Potty site, they have these professionally produced and serious graphics to demonstrate how to “poop like a pro”, underscored with the professional typeface and industrial grade emoticons scientifically illustrating the transition of your emotional state:

I HONESTLY HAD NO IDEA I WAS SUCH AN AMATEUR.

 

I HONESTLY HAD NO IDEA I WAS SUCH AN AMATEUR.

And speaking of great marketing, I also love coy exhortations (as on the Squatty Potty site) to “Poop like a Pro” or “Go time just got easier” (on the easyGopro site). Those bring up so many doubts about how unprofessionally I’ve been getting through my life and how hard it’s been; these are truly existential questions about self-worth.  And, as we all know, creating self-doubt is one of the core rules of marketing: Do I smell bad? Am I not living up to my potential? Am I a terrible parent? How long has that thing been there? Am I in a dead-end job? Are my teeth not white enough? Will I not be able to perform when my wife gives me that “look”? Am I losing valuable nutrients by not juicing properly?

And now, am I not going to the bathroom like a pro?

Finally, I want to know how I can get a hold of some of easyGopro’s kickin’ T-shirts so I can be part of the easyGopro marketing mission. I especially like the “Go Big” message, and the “I [heart] 2 Go”. Who wouldn’t want to proudly wear those in public? You just want to walk up to an attractive stranger wearing one of these and say, “So tell me about your bowel movements.”

easyGopro t-shirts