Does IBM have elves? Do ads bleed meaning? (muddles in the ad biz model)

IBM ad smarter health for smarter planet

Think with your dipstick

I was watching Stephanopoulos yesterday morning and I saw this IBM ad. 

And I thought, "hey, I've seen that guy somewhere before."

And sure enough, he's in a Castrol Motor Oil ad.

I think it's the same guy, right down to the wrinkles in his forehead. 

Does this matter? Maybe what happens in an ad for Castrol Oil stays in an ad for Castrol Oil.  Or do actors have "transmedia" properties?  Do they carry anything with them between ads?

Here's what the "meaning transfer" theory says.  This actor helped create meanings for Castrol Oil.  And in the process, some of that meaning took up residence in him.  And it's still there when he does the IBM ad.  And this means it plays havoc with the IBM ad…and perhaps the IBM brand.

Once you've played a crazy, dip stick wielding elf, you are less credible as a pious MD in a lab coat.  We are unmoved when you say, "we would see the patterns in your medical history."  (It's probably just rank prejudice but most of us believe elves are not all that good at finding patterns in medical history.)  The ad ends with "Let's build a smarter planet."  Again, we are disinclined to believe that elves care about a smarter planet.  It's just not an important life goal for them. 

To make matters worse, this "smarter world" series of ads from IBM has presented people in the ads as IBMers.  Indeed, the penultimate lines of this ad are, "That's what I'm working on.  I'm an IBMer."  I am pretty sure no one wants to go there.  Thinking with your dip stick?  Not an IBM specialty, I shouldn't think.  

Casting an ad has its own challenges, I'm sure.  And no one wants to say that no actor should ever do more than a single ad or that this actor should be jammed into the same role in every ad they do.  On the other hand, perhaps its makes sense to suppose that actors come trailing meanings and observe what these meanings might be.  This after all the very process by which celebrity works in our culture.  (Russell Crowe comes to each new role trailing not merely his fame, but the very particular roles that have made him famous.) 

I know what some of you are thinking.  "What does this matter?  This casted ad is dead or dying.  In 36 months, old media ads like this IBM example will be completely obscured by new media approaches.  Surely the new model is one in which consumers are drawn into an experience, engagement, conversation, interaction, cocreation with the brand as a result of a stream of alerts and invitations that come to them through blogging (blogging?!?), twitter, apps, games, websites, short messages and tiny bursts of data."

This argument is a powerful one, and much of its will come to pass.  But the new marketing that rises on the back of this new media will fail unless it learns the old rhetorical arts of persuasion, unless it masters the manufacture and management of cultural content through the strategic selection and combination of cultural meaning.  This remains the most powerful way brands take on certain kinds of foundational meaning.  Conversation and cocreation supply something essential, but it is a "sufficient" essence not a "necessary" essence.

We have been at the old media approach to marketing since the end of World War II (at least).  When I was in Arizona last week I had the inestimable honor of having a meal with Sidney Levy, the man who wrote Symbols for Sale in 1959.  This is perhaps the first formal recognition of the cultural outcome of all that Mad Men activity we now know so well from Matthew Weiner's AMC series.  All that furious creative activity in Manhattan, wreathed in smoke, soaked in Scotch, was something more than a hard sell.  It had a purpose: to endow goods with meanings.  Those philandering, back-stabbing executives had a goal: to "build" brands.  The fact that they were also selling snake oil does not mean that they were not using the rhetorical devices of the visual artist and the poet…often in ways more imaginative and constructive than contemporary artists and poets could imagine.  (This was a magnificently shared creative process, perhaps not so much crowdsourced as groupsourced, and in any case quite distributed and superbly emergent.  See particularly the way 1950s ad men and women across many agencies helped create the cultural significance of the cars of the period.)

Here we are some 50 years after the publication of Symbols for Sale, and it is still possible for this now venerable world of advertising to make errors of the order of an actor allowed to "smuggle" meanings from one ad into another. Just when the ad biz is having to learn to defend itself from the young turks and new media, it continues to demonstrate that it rises to self knowledge and discipline only with the utmost reluctance.  Perhaps all that Scotch and nicotine did more damage than we knew.


Levy, Sidney J.  1959.  Symbols for Sale.  Harvard Business Review. Volume 37, Issue 4, pp. 117-124.

Levy, Sidney J., and Dennis Rook.  1999.  Brands, Consumers, Symbols and Research: Sidney J. Levy on Marketing. Sage Publications.  (contains Symbols for Sale)

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Meaning Manufacture.  An anthropological approach to the creation of value.  Culture and Consumption II.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 175-191.  

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  When Cars Could Fly: Raymond Loewy, John Kenneth Galbraith, and the 1954 Buick.  Culture and Consumption II.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 53-90.


Thanks to Melanie Wallendorf for the opportunity to visit the Eller College of Management.  It was really fun.

10 thoughts on “Does IBM have elves? Do ads bleed meaning? (muddles in the ad biz model)

  1. mark brady

    Thought, and emotion, provoking. I must say my fave MadMen is the Kodak Carousel, with Draper’s riffed pitch capturing the essence of what many products really are: totems. And now I wanna get Levy’s book, so thanks for that. I should blog this, but I’m here so… Grant, my job used to often entail taking what guys like you do and putting an accessible public face and personality to it. Account svc led to acct planning evolved to ethnography. And, for my money, it was a betterment along the way. Now, I make the occasional ad but spend lots of time trying to pry open the minds of decision-makers to have them see that their products are vessels that convey or turf-up emotions (in their employees as well as consumers) much like Draper showed to those Kodak wonks in that darkened conference room. In a world surplus with “facts” it is feeling that we crave and it’s almost a sacred trust, or should be, for those with the tuning fork to divine and megaphone to act on this truth. Hugh MacLeod says the market for something to believe in is infinite; I use a table of elements to make my meta point; you plumb the depths of identity and commerce as having meaning beyond the material good. Do ads bleed meaning? When any trust is misused–an empathic story, like your IBMer example–there will be blood.

    But we’re way beyond the caution tape here, and I find your Stephanopolous example perfect for this: When he switched to ABC news back in ’95 or thereabouts, very few blinked. He traded his persona as insider and began a parade of fungibility and confusion that we witness today–Hank Paulson? Geithner? Tony (RIP) Snow? Joe Scarborough?–who’s really in, or out for good, and what team are they really on, and whose side are they speaking for now?

    Maybe my point is unclear with all the exposition: The last 50 years have seen some remarkable changes since Rosser Reeves and “Don Draper”, and the last 30 have seen some remarkable recalibrations of terms like the buck stops here and the captain goes down with the ship. Those latter terms, concepts really, have been with us since communal fire, yeah? It’s tempting to believe that the “IBM white shirt” is a fine metaphor for armor and, yet, a poor replacement for the code that used to go with wearing that mettle. As we purveyors of message have learned the secrets of fire, we’re treating it with less and less respect. More (narrow) self-knowledge, less and less discipline. The if-it-feels-good-do-it hippies of the 60s who followed draper didn’t stay in Marin, they became CEOs.

  2. Jim

    When Nabob coffee was in the process of stealing massive market share from Kraft in Canada, they had a spokesperson who was paid an annual fee. He was allowed to do no other commercials, they were very careful to protect all the meaning he stored.

    If memory serves me correctly, they grew from a 2 share to a 16 share, when Kraft finally gave up and bought them out.

  3. Grant McCracken

    Jim, great example, thanks! I wonder what Kraft then did with him? Hard to
    protect this budget line from the sharp pencils who say, “making meanings?
    what are these meanings of which you speak?” Best, Grant

  4. Dr. Tom Guarriello

    Nice one, Grant. Reading this I was reminded of a voice over guy from the 80s-90s. The guy did tons of ads. There was something unique in his enunciation, something almost palpable about his speech pattern, meter, sonorousness (sonority?) that jumped out at me every time. I think he must have sold a bazillion products of all kinds. Hell, he reeked credibility. I wish I knew his name. Anyway, he was a great example of the meaning-bleed you’ve written about here.

    Oh, and great to come across Mark here. He’s always been one of my favs. Been too long.

  5. Arvind Venkataramani

    the question to ponder, though, is why that is not a problem for, say, hollywood actors. when you see brad pitt in ‘benjamin button’, does he reek of ‘Snatch’? how is it that a 30-second ad can be accused of bleeding meaning when we comfortably accept 2 hour long character transformations? is there a continuum from bleedable to agnostic?

  6. Grant McCracken

    Arvind, but I think actors do build lets call them continuities for themselves.  And not just the bad ones, though the bad ones, the Steven Segals, really make themselves prisoners.  Isnt this why we have these painful exercises when an actors decides to play against type and take a role that lets them stretch.  And everyone goes, What?  There are limits within which most actors can play because otherwise they take meanings with them as they go from roll to roll, and this means there are some places they cannot go, not plausibly anyone.  Thanks for a great question.  Best, Grant

  7. Vaughn

    I don’t a whole lot of marketing or advertising based deep insight to shed on this topic, I simply found this post after searching the internet to see if I was the only person who seemed to notice “Hey, the Castrol Guy is an IBM Lab Doctor too?”

    All I can really scrounge up to say on this topic is that I feel that proper timing has been missed. I have no problem with accepting an actor in multiple roles, be it Movies, Television, and/or even Commercials. But for me, I’ve never had to accept two versions of an identical person at the same time. I go back to the Brad Pitt “Benjamin Button” comment by Arvind. I don’t have trouble separating the characters but I’m also not forced to. In this case I think a similar Hollywood situation would be going to the Cinema and having to choose which of the two Brad Pitt movies you wanted to see, or better yet, buying tickets to a double feature with the Brad as the headline actor in both. Sure, actors carry a certain persona with them from gig to gig, but in the case of the Castrol IBMer Mr. Bjorn Johnson, its the terrible parallel timing that bothers me most.

    I also want to say quick that I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this with someone, its so difficult to find people with the same habit for over-analyzing commercials :-).

  8. Grant McCracken

    Johnson, This is a rare fellowship, those who pour over ads as if they were crucial texts.  All we need is a secret handshake.  And a tie.  And a clubhouse.  And a latin motto.  And were there.  Thx, Grant

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