Think Small Yourself, Julian Koenig

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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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

In your face, Big Insurance

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Don’t you hate your health insurance company? Here you pay high premiums every month and when you get sick and need them to step up, they start welching on the bet. Or they won’t authorize a procedure or a test your doctor thinks you need. Or worse, they  just drop you. “Eeeeyew! Sick! Sick! Pre-existing cooties! Get away!” And good luck in those not-so-long-ago days trying to get new insurance once you’ve been ejected from the plane.

Then along comes the ACA (until the Supreme Court ejects it, that is) and not only are health insurance companies not allowed to reject you anymore, each state that wants it can set up a true-non-profit insurance company that’s focused on getting health care to people instead of placating grumpy shareholders with dividends. It’s a CO-OP, or Consumer Oriented and Operated Plan and their goals are to drive costs down without taking it out of the hides of the rest of us.

An Ad Agency’s Dream: A Social Good

It’s really rare when you have an opportunity to develop an ad campaign that is part of worthy social movement; something that might actually do some good and start to fix a broken system. We just had that opportunity with Oregon’s health insurance CO-OP, Health Republic. (Okay a blatant plug. But this is a marketing blog, for crying out loud! And I’m marketing…my agency and my client. So go read a more uplifting blog about kale or something.)

The idea of Health Republic (and all state CO-OPs  under the ACA) is to offer a true-non-profit health insurance alternative to the for-profit insurance giants who have been dominating the delivery of health care in our country since they figured out they could make much more money by denying care.

CO-OPs are run by their own members. They don’t have shareholders and the boards are elected by and sat on by members. They are also legally constrained from making profits, paying out executive bonuses and seven figure  compensation packages, shifting surplus revenues into offshore tax havens, or buying multi-million dollar sports arena sponsorships.

Which has made this campaign so gratifying to work on.

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This is what greets fans as they come out of a Blazer game at the “Moda Center” Click to enlarge

One of the first ads to run in it is this gigantic (125′ x 60′) outdoor board hanging on the massive grain elevator on the Willamette River, right opposite Portland’s sports arena, the Rose Center. Last year this was renamed in a controversial $40 million sponsorship, the “Moda Center.” Moda is Oregon’s largest for-profit health insurance company. And there was a lot of outrage over them spending so much to stick their logo on it (not to mention all the corporate boxes inside, and the simultaneously leaked story about the CEO’s  inflated compensation package), especially when health costs had been skyrocketing in the country.Health Republic pdx 104-1

But now, as Blazer fans emerge from the Moda Center after each game (or “Who at 50” fans from their concert), they’ll be greeted by this 60 foot tall message. This is particularly what I was thinking about from the last time I went to a Blazers game and heard all the cynical grumbling and editorial remarks from fans around me sneering about the “Moda Center.” To them, it had always been the “Rose Center” and will remain so, no matter how many millions some giant corporation dumps in smearing its logo all over it. Just like Ho Chi Minh City will remain Saigon. Damn it!

Health Republic pdx 114-3
East end of the Burnside Bridge, where tens of thousands struggle to get out of Portland each day.

So I was thinking about those cynical, angry fans when I was working on this campaign.

Earlier this year, at the end of the first ACA enrollment period, and soon after the brouhaha around Moda’s $40 million sports arena sponsorship, we ran the ad at lower left. It provoked an editorial hew-and-cry in the local press saying it was a direct slap at Moda, which had every right to use its profits anyway it saw fit. But Health Republic’s innocent attitude was, “What makes you think we’re talking about you, large, unnamed, for-profit insurance company? Don’t be so touchy.”

HR_Stadium_Oregonian
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But it served well to introduce the new concept in an atmosphere of public indignation over existing abuses in the traditional, for-profit, health insurance industry. Thousands signed up, even some who said they were doing it even though they hated the very idea of Obamacare (then call it Bushcare for all I care).

Rule #7: Emotions Rule

HR1410 HRI Ad 01 final Mercury
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Anyway, it is fun to run edgy advertising for a client that’s also the champion of a worthwhile social cause. And it’s so effective to tap into people’s gut emotions, especially when they’ve made them so clear. Our research showed that people resent their health insurance companies. Most people, do anyway. They think it’s unjust  that somebody seems to making a profit out of their misery and sickness. People have been yearning for a different system for decades.

So now along comes a different system, one that treats health insurance like a publicly regulated utility, one that can’t make a profit on your premiums. One that’s governed by its very members. And people have been snapping it up.

Nothing new in the advertising; just straightforward, old-fashioned, raw emotion. Unbreakable Rule #7.

HR1410 HRI Ad 02 final Mercury
Click to enlarge

And you’ll be okay, Big Insurance. This is for the best.

 

 

 

Ha! Ha! Old people are so stoopid.

esurance candy crush
She’s so dumb because, see, she thinks Candy Crush is a game you play with a hammer, and it isn’t.

Don’t you love those Esurance spots that show how dumb old folks are when it comes to modern inventions like social media and mobile gaming? Isn’t it adorable how that one old lady is crushing hard candies on her table with a literal hammer and thinking she’s playing Candy Crush?  Or the other old lady has taped pictures to her literal wall and thinks she’s sharing them on Facebook? They’re so funny because they’re so true; old people are dumb as walnuts.

Okay, now let’s do a mind experiment and recast those old ladies with black or latino people. Same script. Is it still as funny?

Actually, you don’t have to imagine because they did one with an old African-American guy who is so dumb he actually thinks you’re supposed to rewind rental DVDs. Ha!Esurance Larry Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!…Wait, what are “rental DVDs”?

The point Esurance is trying to make (I mean esurance, because the lower case “e” makes them seem so much more accessible) is that young, smart people know that if Geico claims you can save 15% in 15 minutes online, you can save even more in half the time with Esurance. What a brilliant strategy: First remind me of the competitor’s brand position (which is itself utterly weak to begin with) and then vaguely say we’re twice as fast. Yes, twice as fast. What’s that? Let’s see, fifteen, divided by two,  carry the one… SEVEN-AND-A-HALF! Ooo…that’s fast!

If you don’t believe how fast that is, call them up and wait on hold for seven-and-a-half minutes. You won’t believe how time flies. Unless, of course, you’re a Baby Boomer and those are seven-and-a-half minutes docked from your already dwindling time on the planet.

Rule: Don’t insult the people writing the checks.

Of course, we get it:  The intended audience isn’t composed of old people or aging Baby Boomers. The campaign is for very young (usually male) drivers who just want the minimum, catastrophic insurance required by state law to register their pickup truck. They don’t care how fast or well their insurance company takes care of them when they do have an accident; they just want to be able to show that they have minimum coverage when asked for their license and registration by Officer Muzzy. And besides, they don’t plan on having an accident. Duh!

The old people in this campaign, on the other hand, who would have had some experience with how the world actually works (and in particular, insurance companies) would know that it isn’t how fast it takes to get a quote, it’s how fast it takes the insurance company to come through with a claim, a tow, repairs, a rental car, and all that boring service part of the business.

The Baby Boomers would also be of an age where their own parents, or they themselves, are terrified of getting older, of senile dementia, physical infirmities, and the horror of Alzheimer’s. So they probably don’t see the humor in the jokes.

I’m surprised at Allstate (who owns Esurance), whose main commercials are otherwise so smart. Their agency since 2011, Leo Burnett, who did the terrific “Mayhem” campaign and the intelligent spots with Dennis Haysbert, also did this utterly witless and offensive campaign for Esurance.  Great idea. Baby Boomers are still the biggest market demographic in this country, and are the ones most likely still paying the insurance premiums for their kids and grandkids.

So, by all means, let’s insult them.

Rule: Don’t pick a weak position.

The other strategic boo-boo this campaign makes is thinking that the battle is over how fast it takes to get a quote. Did they run some focus groups on this? I always thought Geico’s own purchase proposition (15 minutes can save you 15%) was itself one of the weakest brand positions on the planet. They may be crappy in every other aspect of service, but…”oh, let’s see, what else have we got, Murray? Fifteen minutes? Fifteen percent? Okay…well…if that’s all, let’s run with that. At least it’s not as dumb as ‘so easy a caveman can do it.'” (A geriatric caveman.)

“But be sure to say ‘could save you’ and not ‘will save you.’ Don’t want to over-promise.”

Yet having to spend fifteen minutes, or even seven-and-a-half minutes, on a website getting a quote (much less fifteen) is itself interminable. Do nothing for seven-and-a-half minutes and tell me how quick that feels.  This week I had to contact my own car insurance company (USAA) and they took my claim (none of your business for what), set me up for repairs, and upgraded my policy. And the entire transaction took less than five minutes with a live human being. So I’m thinking, I have to wait seven-and-a-half minutes to get  just a quote from Esurance? And that’s supposed to be good because at least it isn’t fifteen minutes? And fifteen minutes was supposed to be fast? (I’m talkin’ to you, Geico.)

Rule: Don’t pick an unsupportable position

Here’s the other weakness of this “cheaper “position; make sure you actually are cheaper. I went through the exercise of going onto Esurance’s site in researching this post only to find out that getting the exact same coverage as I was getting from USAA was, in fact, about 36% more. So, in spite of the daily robo-calls, hourly e-mails, and irritating pop-up banners I get from Esurance now, they’ve completely lost me forever. They hung their hat on cheaper, and weren’t. End of pitch. (It did, I’ll admit, take under seven-and-a-half minutes; just six minutes ten seconds.)

Rule: Don’t remind me of your competition.

But wait! There’s more! Esurance compounds this marketing error by actually reminding us of their competitor, Geico. In fact, the first few times I saw their spots, they seemed so similar in message, lame humor, and production quality that I thought they were Geico spots. But that must be because I’m a dumb senior citizen.

Rule: Don’t set up non-existent problems to solve.

Really, Esurance, nobody thinks taping her photos up on her living room wall is the same as posting them on her Facebook “wall.” Nobody thinks you have to rewind DVDs, or that smashing candy on a table is a game, or that standing on your roof using a megaphone is a good way to search for roof repair. And nobody thinks that the problem with shopping for car insurance is that it takes fifteen minutes online (It doesn’t. Not unless they have weak-ass servers in Pakistan.) That isn’t a problem. And it doesn’t need a solution.

And no it doesn’t humorously highlight how modern Esurance is. Especially if they think you can still rent DVDs.

Dr. Jeff, Professional Neurosurgeon

pumpkin-carving-dremel-tool
The Dremel is the perfect tool for DIY neurosurgery.

I love living in this new golden age of possibility; where anybody can–poof!–proclaim themselves an ad professional or an ad agency without any experience, training, credentials, or a resume in actual advertising.

So, I’ve decided, even though I do have experience, training, credentials, awards, and a resume in actual advertising since sabertooth squirrels scampered in the treetops, I’m going to change my profession, too.

Poof! I’m now a neurosurgeon.

That was so easy!

Easier than advertising, in fact. And pays more.

What qualifications have I to be a brain surgeon? Good question. That shows you’re a smart shopper when it comes to researching neurosurgical services. You don’t let just any plumber poke his latexed fingers around in your septum pellucidum.

First off, I have an unbridled passion for excellence…in brain cutty stuff. And a relentless drive for innovation. With Dr. Jeff, Professional Neurosurgeon, the patient comes first. And that’s a promise you can bank on. Also, I have a Dremel Tool with a whole case full of attachments, handy for removing the tops of skulls, but also perfect for all those delicate jobs within.

We’re a Comprehensive Neurosurgery Center

Got a nagging tumor pressing on your optic chiasm? A hard-to-reach itch in your cingulus gyrus? An unsightly lump on your temporal lobe? Call Dr. Jeff, Beloved Neurosurgeon to the Stars. We’ll even manicure your pet rat’s claws while you wait to emerge from your coma.

Rat manicure
This Dremel Tool is handy for so many career choices

Tired of paying through the nose for pre-frontal trans-orbital lobotomies? You’ll love all the money you save with Dr. Jeff’s competitive rates. And this month, buy one, get one free! In fact, bring in the whole family, and Dr. Jeff will do all of you together. We’ll make it a lobotomy party.

But wait, there’s more!

And to celebrate our Nation’s Independence from oppressive British medical licensing laws, we’re also having a special on trepanning all through July. Release those noisome demons causing you so many disturbing urges. Don’t delay, call today!

If you’re thinking,  “Hold on there! How can I be sure Dr. Jeff, Professional Neurosurgeon, will observe the highest standards of professional care with my valuable cranial assets?” Rest assured. I always wash my hands before every surgery. Dremel attachments, too! No extra charge!

Surgical Center
A State-of-the-Art Neurosurgery Facility

 

 

I know. It sounds too good to be true. Don’t worry about that. Just concentrate on the “too good” part. After one of my surgeries, you won’t worry about whether anything is true ever again.

 

That’s Dr. Jeff, Professional Licensed* Neurosurgeon.

Call today.

*Oregon driver’s license valid until 2019.

 

Giving Bad News

inkjet-hypodermic-needle-2Be honest. Do any of you ever read those agonizingly composed letters from marketers that begin with the deadly phrase, “Your business is important to us…” (YBIITU)? In the first place, even if you open the envelope or the e-mail, you know what this means. It means bad news coming. They’re raising their rates; they’re closing your local branch; they’re discontinuing a service you’ve enjoyed; your frequent shopper points have expired…something bad. In other words, YBIITU means the opposite; that “your business isn’t important to us,” at least important enough to be honest upfront. And if it were that important, why would you do this bad thing to me?

YBIITU letters are examples of marketing that shoots itself in the foot. We have all, as good little Pavlovian dogs, become conditioned to regard this phrase as the buzzer before the electric shock. It’s the commercial equivalent of the equally deadly phrase in a romantic relationship, “We need to talk.” Somehow, you know that the “talk” isn’t going to be about something positive, like whether the Kings have a shot at the Stanley Cup this year. “We need to talk,” is the bell that announces the bad news coming; “I’m seeing somebody else,” “This isn’t working,” “I’m moving out,” “You’re moving out,” or “I’m going to have to raise my rates for you sleeping with me.” YBIITU is the same. It’s the wrong way to deliver bad news.

Yet the writers of these communications, while they may stay up all night carefully composing their obsequious prose, don’t seem to get what starting off with these shallow clichés does to their audience. It immediately causes the defenses to go up. The same happens when they leaven the first few paragraphs with self-aggrandizing language that extols how much the company thinks of itself, of how many customer-service awards it’s won, of its commitment to excellence. Nobody gives a damn about your customer service ratings (those are rigged anyway, we all know). We’re only scanning for the bad news you’re about to hit us with; the broken glass in the sandwich.

Well, how do you give bad news to your customers?

Be honest. Be upfront. Since your customers are already going to be wary of the contents of this letter, just cut to the chase and say right out, “It pains us, but we’re going to have to raise your rates 1.5%” Then you can explain why. But the bad news is already over, and, usually, it probably isn’t as bad as you think. It’s like when the nurse gives you a shot. The good ones just do it quick and painlessly, before you can even tense up. The bad ones talk about how it’s not going to hurt, but may “sting a bit,” and then slowly push in the needle.

Relate to your own experience as you write these letters, too. When you hear someone yammering on about all the good things you should be grateful for in doing business with them, don’t you start thinking, “This is going to be bad.”? You brace for the pain. And that amplifies it when it eventually comes, way down in paragraph #4.

Likewise, make it short. Don’t fill up the page with cant about how great you think you are. We don’t care. In fact, it makes you look like an egotistical jerk. Bad news is worse when it’s verbose. Just opening a letter with bad news sets an “off” tone for the recipient. We can smell it. And if we see hundreds of words in 10 point type, you’ve added insult to injury by requiring us to sit down to do a lot of reading. Most of us won’t anyway. We see “YBIITU” and immediately start scanning below for the sting.

So if you have a rate increase to announce, or you’re closing a store, or you’re no longer supporting some popular software, don’t take more than 50 words at most to say that. Be deferential, of course, even apologetic. But be brief and honest.

And never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever say that my business is important to you. That just makes me think the opposite.