Minstrel marketing and the Hegarty trade-off

HegartyJohn Hegarty of Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty says his agency one day made a fateful decision:

[We decided] to say to people, “this is what we believe in, if you don’t like, it’s fine.”

Hegarty was embracing a trade off: Offending some people was ok, because

“other people will find [us] fantastic and will want to buy into [our] brand.” 

This is a great and unheralded event in a society largely formed by the mass media and the meaning makers of the commercial world (advertising, media, branding.)

At some point, almost all the important players in the world of marketing embraced the Hegarty trade off.*  They stopped trying to appeal to everyone all the time. They gave up climbing to ever cheerier, cheesier heights of good humor. They surrendered the “fun in the sun” creative that made advertising the laughing stock of the educated world. Most important, they released marketing from its minstrel pursuit of the maximally agreeable.

The Hegarty trade-off understood that mass appeal was not just clueless, but wrong. It was extensive when it should have been intensive. Minstrel marketing prevents the power and acuity of a particular pitch to a particular segment. As the world segments ever more finely, the Hegarty trade-off becomes ever more important. No longer a “creative opportunity,” it is now the only sensible way of doing business.

Naturally, minstrel marketing lives on. Clients, especially, are nervous of giving offense.  (“My mother watches these ads, you know.”) Much of the bad advertising out there exists because the client cannot work up the courage to embrace the Hegarty trade-off, or the marketer has failed to advise them of its urgency.  But all and all, the deal is done. Those Mentos parodies (sluggish and dim though they may be) are predicated on the received understanding that just about everyone gets that minstrel marketing is over. 

I don’t know that we have thought systematically about the Hegarty trade-off, but here are a couple of reflections Once a marketing team embraces the HTO, there are two places they can go: mystery or antagonism.


Take the Volkswagen Jetta ad called “synchronicity.” This spot was maximally HTO. It said, “Let’s create a spot that will speak with real acuity to our segment, even it means leaving the rest of the world out in the cold.” Is there a down-side here? No, the people who can’t “get” the ad are never going to buy a Jetta is any case.  (They might buy a VW of another kind, and this would require of us a marketing calculation of the possibility of brand “halos” and a “bleed” across brands.) 


The other outcome of an HTO strategy is antagonism.  The Synchronicity spot merely mystified.  Some spots are more readable, and we are pretty sure we don’t like what we see.  I am striking out on examples here (I would be grateful for comments), but it is not hard to imagine what these might be.  Vann’s had used graffiti and the Warped tour, both of them the kind of thing likely to strike irritation, if not terror, in the hearts of the bourgeoisie.  (And this has its own very useful brand building effect, to the extent that skaters often  feel themselves outlaws in the eyes of their parents and the owner of every mall in America.)

Hummer ads actually have this effect on me. By celebrating Hummer values with passion and precision, the agency leave this consumer thinking, “you brainless nitwits, what’s wrong with the brand that you must protest its masculinity so.”  This antagonism is perhaps a little less useful than the one created by Vanns. Some Hummer consumers will care that some extra-Hummer consumers think them ridiculous.  (Or not. It is an open question, and a necessary one that obliges the marketer to decide.)   

There are plenty of larger implications here. And you will forgive me if it looks like I am labeling the obvious.  Do we really, you might ask, need terms like Minstrel marketing and HTO strategy?  Bernard Sahlins used to say there is a difference between seeing something and having a concept of it.  Only with the latter are we mobilized to begin the search for a more systematic view, treatment and application. 

But I have in mind a more practical outcome.  I hope that the account team will now pause the next time the client makes so particularly stupid “fun in the sun” suggestion and say, gravely, “well, of course, that would be off target from an HTO point of view.” I am hoping the client will go “oh, there something more than agency creativity at stake here” and defer to agency genius.  There is, finally, virtuous cycle already in play.  The better ads get, the greater our sophistication, client and otherwise, and the better ads get.  As British advertising generally demonstrates, everyone gets well.  If This Blogs Sits At can help with a few new terms, we are most pleased to help.

References and acknowledgments

With many thanks to “I have an idea” blog, and the interview with Hegarty from which the quote comes.  Find the interview here. 

With a hat tip to The Hidden Persuader for the link to the interview.  Find The Hidden Persuader blog  here.

* Notice please the "Hegarty trade-off"  is a label of convenience.  I do not know that Hegarty is the first or the best author of this trade-off.  My guess is that many people embraced it, and that indeed this is one of those decision made in a collective manner, and not because there was a single hero of the piece.  But we have to call it something, if only to give the client pause.  (This caveat may be unfair to Hegarty if he was the hero of the piece, and if this is true, I apologize!)

6 thoughts on “Minstrel marketing and the Hegarty trade-off

  1. Tom Asacker

    Great post Grant. I love the line, “It was extensive when it should have been intensive.” Mind if I coopt it?

    I read something a while back (can’t seem to recall where at the moment), where the author(s) analyzed book sales/reviews on Amazon.com. They found that the books that had both (and many) 1 and 5 star reviews (love it or hate it), were the bestselling ones.

    It appears that the antagonsim approach not only tunes-in talk show radio listeners, but also sells books. And shoes, beer, bling, et. al.

    For the record, I prefer mystery

  2. Grant

    Tom, thanks for that very interesting finding about book reviews, that very bad is better than bland. Yes, and I like mystery too. It expands the cultural universe whereas antagonism merely confirms its boundaries (and its littleness), kinda of like the present contest between Republicans and Democrats! Anyhow, thanks! Grant

  3. steve

    This principle applies to prodcut design as well. The car people are finding that it is better to polarize the market than leave everyone indifferent.

    The general principle here is slightly tricky to model–it is that almost no one actually lives at the lowest common denominator point in conceptual space. Thus, every product that has strong appeal for someone will turn others off, and a product that offends no one will appeal to no one. Traditional spatial models don’t capture this idea, which can be summarized as “variety is the life of spice.”

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  5. Irene

    I thought of your HTO post again yesterday when I saw an ESPN spot for the X Games. It was a blatant send-up of Christian broadcaster TBN, complete with a Southern evangelist and look-alike logo. Antagonistic? Maybe, on a small scale. But it made me wonder: is the HTO strategy suited best for brands aimed at a somewhat younger consumer? Or for brands that are necessarily status-related, like cars or shoes? Just wondering.

  6. kurt

    i wonder if what you are identifying is akin to jim collins’ findings from Built to Last or Good to Great (i forget which) “core values are essential to greatness, but it doesnt seem to matter what those core values are.”

    i think collins is focusing more on internal values (who you are to your employees) as opposed to external values (who you are to your customer), but the operation is similar: commit to an identity.

    this commitment serves the purpose of the velvet rope and bouncer, you create customers by eliminating customers.

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