Tag Archives: advertising

Beth Comstock and 7 truths for the C-suite

beth comstock

(This post was first published on Medium, April 3, 2018.)

Anyone who works as a creative, a strategist, a planner, a story teller, a PR specialist, or a meme-maker knows the frustration of persuading the organization to grasp and act on culture. (No, not corporate culture. American culture.)

It should be easy but it’s not.

In fact, culture remains a kind of “dark matter” for the organization. Senior managers know it’s out there. They know it matters. They know things go disastrously wrong when they do not “factor culture in.”

But getting these managers to “get serious” about culture has been a struggle.

May I introduce Beth Comstock, until recently Vice Chair of General Electric and the person in charge of GE Business Innovations?

Here is Ms. Comstock on dual themes that are dear to everyone concerned with contemporary culture: multiplicity and fluidity.

In our lives, we are multidimensional people. We don’t want everything to be exactly the same all the time and we have different moods. I think there’s a huge segmentation going forward for marketers, for businesses where it’s state of mind. It’s contextually relevant at the moment. It’s not just, “I am a woman.” It’s not just, “I am X age. I am an American. I am a east coaster,” or, “a southerner.” I think those things are maybe more analog, and going forward, it’s much less binary; it’s much more fluid; we have gotten used to — culturally have much more gender fluidity. I think there is going to be much more interest and experience fluidity. It’s going to be challenging and exciting for certainly business and marketing people.

Who could ask for anything more? This remarks puts Ms. Comstock so far out ahead of the average manager, it’s impossible to measure.

In a more perfect world, this understanding would be “standard issue” for managers, one of the adaptions that help them navigate the complexities of contemporary capitalism. But as it is, there may be only one senior manager who grasps this point this well. Beth Comstock.

When someone doesn’t understand the new realities of the American market place, the following things become more difficult to grasp:

1. that the American consumer is now a creature of new complexity.

Shouting at consumers with dumb advertising is not just ill advised. It is an invitation to outright repudiation. It destroys brand and financial value.

2. that American marketing in general must surrender some of its “keep it simple, stupid” laboriousness for a new control of nuance and subtlety.

Let your creatives do their jobs. They understand culture, or should do. They know how to negotiate its subtleties. They know how to extract meaning that will become value. Don’t keep putting your oar in. You don’t ask their advice on a new M&A strategy. They don’t want your advice on meaning and message making. Leave it to the professionals.

3. that the American brand in particular must be a house of many mansions. It can no longer define itself in a monolithic way or speak in a single voice.

This is a special challenge for American marketing, so long the devotee of simplicity, repetition, and, um, well, repetition. Contemporary consumers, and the younger they are, the more this is true, HATE the obvious. They can do much more with much less. Stop yelling at them.

4. that American corporation can only speak to this diversity by containing some of this diversity.

There are many Americas out there. Perhaps once everyone was prepared to “go along to get along” with a set of shared meanings. Less and less so now. There are new and emerging fundamentals. But there are also differences that will never go away, and these are blossoming everywhere: race, gender, age, ethnicity, locality… Do you know them? Have you embraced them?

5. that some of the new richness and turbulence of the world out there comes from the new richness and complexity of culture.

(You’re afraid of “Black Swans” as a source of disruption? Many of these come from culture. You’re keen on “Blue Oceans” as a place to discover innovation? Many of these come from culture.)

6. that “culture” is something the corporation must devote itself to understanding.

A couple of years ago, I proposed that the organization appoint a “Chief Culture Officer.” This fell on deaf ears.

7. Let’s start with this fundamental truth, that when we say “culture” we are not talking about corporate culture. We are talking about American culture.

I wish people would stop conflating the two! The confusion was charming for a brief period. Now it’s beginning to resemble a chronic inability to distinguish between American football and European football. It’s really not a good look. Trust me.

It’s one thing to grasp these 7 truths. It’s another to put them to operationalize them as working assumptions and active ideas.

Ms. Comstock has taken the lead here as well. She grasps complexity in a practical way. Listen as she talks about Rachel Shechtman’s experiment called Story.

Meanwhile, I mean, there’s a store here in New York, I am a big fan of the founder and the store is called Story. Rachel Shechtman started it, and every six weeks it’s like a magazine and a media experience and an event. Every six weeks, she changes out and curates a new experience in retail every six weeks. So it’s hard to — it’s a hybrid. It’s hard — is it retail? Yeah. Is it media? Yeah. Is it experiential? Yeah. She has three or four different business models. That’s just one example. You are seeing more and more of those. So I think it really is this interesting mash-up of things. The winners are going to figure those two, the analog and the digital, out together.

All hail Beth Comstock. Let’s hope that, some day, all managers have her gifts.

Source of quotes:
From a podcast interview of Ms. Comstock by Mike Kearney in the Deloitte’s Resilient series here.

Conflict of interest:
None. I have never met Ms. Comstock. As far as I know, I have never worked for her, even distantly.

Photo credit:
With thanks to Joi Ito
Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) here.

Bud Caddell

Whenever I have the chance to talk to Bud Caddell, I take it. This’s because while I know the future is badly distributed (in Gibson’s famous phrase), I fervently believe it must be somewhere in the near vicinity of Bud Caddell.

In this 10 minutes of interview, Bud talks about the following things

00: 37:00 mark (~) that with his new company Nobl Collective, he is learning how to configure the culture inside a company to articulate it with the culture outside the company.

00:58:00 the digital disruption changes these things in succession

  1. culture
  2. how brands communicate
  3. how products are made
  4. the teams within the organization

1:39 On joining the world of advertising and why he left.

3:43 the thing about that very famous Oreo campaign (that it took 6 different agencies, and a lot of money). This was not the “safe to fail” experiments the world now holds dear.

4:20 companies are having to learn to both optimize and futurecast, and that these are opposing challenges.

6:00 there is a tension in the corporation between pushing the innovation team too far away or holding it too close. (Amazon is the case in point.)

6:43 Nobl believes that companies take human choice away from teams. The point of Nobl is to restore that choice.

10:20 Bud is concerned that, all the noise to the contrary, we are actually moving away from small startup entrepreneurialism. Bigness is not dying, it’s once more on the rise.

11:56 Bud is concerned that with this culture inside, the culture outside (i.e., American culture) could narrow and something like a 50s monoculture

11:18 organizations are inclined to treat employees like errant children or robots. The point of the exercise find their strength, not assume their weaknesses. Give them autonomy. (Because they can’t navigate the future, they can’t create value, without that autonomy. My words, more than Bud’s. Sorry!)

??:?? Nobl aims to construct core teams with 4 properties

  1. customer obsessed (prepared to “leave the building” to find out more
  2. closely aligned with one another
  3. autonomous, free to discover an idea and test it
  4. organized by simple rules

Thanks to Bud for the chance to chat.

I am hoping to do more of these interviews. My assumption is that we are all works in progress working on a work in progress in a work in progress, and that to listen to one another as we configure works1, works2 and work3 is interesting.

One last note on method. This interview might stand as a grievous example of “leading the witness.” I was shocked when listening to it again to hear that my questions were more about me and less about Bud. Yes, you have to start somewhere. And yes, inevitably you are going to speak from what you know. But the very point of ethnography and the thing it does so well is to discover things you don’t think and hadn’t ever thought to think. It’s always a chance, more vividly, to get out of our heads into that of the respondent. Or to put this another way, I was insufficiently curious in this interview.

 

 

Less public knowledge, more private meaning (lessons for politicians and brands)

This is a part of a map of London drawn by Fuller (aka Gareth Wood).

Wood says that he created a map to show his relationship with the city over several years.

“It’s about documenting a particular time and experience.”

Wood’s map of London ends up being a personal document.

Of course personal is the last thing that maps are supposed to be. They are supposed to come from official sources and authoritative parties. In an almost magical act of abstraction, they remove everything that has anything to do with anyone. There are millions of people in London interacting with the city in many millions of moments. Mapmaking is meant to make all that disappear. We give you London, all place, no time, all place, no people, all place, no particulars. At all.

Something in us now recoils from this abstraction. Authoritative meanings are on the run. But of course we will continue to need maps of the old fashion, abstract kind. Chances are we will never use Wood’s map actually to find our way around London. (Though that’s a pretty charming idea and it’s easy to imagine a guest who is very late for a dinner party giving as her plaintive explanation that her Fuller map is “really not all that helpful when you get right down to it.”)

But more and more we like a world that vibrates with particularities. Public knowledge seems a little thin. Authoritative versions of the world seem a little unforthcoming if not positively stingy. Surely, we think, the world, and especially London, is more interesting than this.

This shift in expectation runs through us with big consequences. Political figures must learn from it. Romney seemed very “official map.” Obama seemed somehow more particular.  (Though he never did get all that personal.) Hillary is very official map. It’s as if so much of what makes her personal plays to her disadvantage that she wants to get abstract and stay that way. Every politician needs to solve this problem. How to show the real person, the authentic individual, even when everything in them screams to keep the image airbrushed. In his strange, deeply stupid manner, Trump has addressed this problem.

Things are easier in the world of the brand.  Every brand has been struggling to make itself less official and more particular for some time. This means letting in the consumer and the world in ways that were once unforgivable. American brands used to be very abstract indeed. But they are (marginally) less alarmed about making the transition away from abstraction. Out of the USP into life. I always thought Subaru has done a nice job of this.

It’s a good exercise for a politician or a brand. If your present self is a formal map of who you are, what would Gareth Wood’s version look like? Creatives, planners, brand managers, campaign managers, please let me know if you try this and it works.

Acknowledgment:

For more on Wood and his map, see the excellent coverage by Greg Miller here.

Cultural Leaders and Laggards, the problem with beer ads

I love this ad.  How quickly bashful behavior gives way to full-on performance.  And how this disappears (when the woman enters the store). And then reappears (when it occurs to our singer that there is a small chance the strangers might actually come listen to him.)

Funny. Human. With lots of little grace notes. The store is brilliantly cast. The singer is that perfect combo of surprisingly good and still terrible.  The way the woman rolls her eyes in “whatever” dismissal when she enters the store to find a man singing.

Beer advertising has been the bad part of town when it comes to cultural creation and creative ingenuity.  TV with the advent of really good shows and new nuance has stolen the lead. Now it can be really painful to move from good narrative to bad advertising.

Beer advertising has been especially trying on the gender theme. As Bob Garfield has pointed out, beer ads treat men in a way that’s patronizing and diminishing. In a really symmetrical universe, men would protest this treatment with outrage and boycotts.  (Or at least roll their eyes in “whatever” dismissal.)

Beer advertising has been tone deaf when it comes to culture. Yes, some guys continue to act like dolts, and all guys treasure moments of deep, unapologetic stupidity at least some of the time. But beer advertising has to wake up and come to grips with the revolutions taking place in the world of maleness.

There are all kinds of things, a new feeling for play, wit, creativity, multiplicity and, yes, performance. Which brings us back to this Miller Lite ad which acknowledges this new development with just the right combo of tender heartedness and ruthless scorn. Very male that.  (Or maybe not.)

Hat’s off to MillerCoors Chief Marketing Officer Andy England and  TBWA\Chiat\Day LA and director Matt Aselton of Arts & Sciences.

The real message of advertising?

If the art of advertising (one of them anyhow) is closing the distance between the brand and the consumer, you can’t do much better than this.

Do we know you?  Yes, we know you.  This is sometimes the most urgent question advertising has to answer.

I’m told that the people responsible for this work at Digitas were  Michael Frease and Jeremy Bacharach.  Hats off to Jon Hall, Senior brand manager at Whirlpool  (See Dale Buss’ interview of Hall in Brand Channel here).  I would especially like to know the names of the people who did the ethnographies.  Really top notch work all around.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the magnificently talented Scott Donaton.

A new name for this blog

grant mccracken II

My blog subtitle used to be “This blog sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.”  This was both too grand and untrue.  Fine for politicians but not websites.

So now it’s “How to make culture.”  For the moment.  Also thinking of “New Rules for Making Culture.”  Is that better?  I can’t tell.  Please let me know.

Yesterday, I was blogging about the new rules of TV.  And in the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about advertising, education, late night TV, game shows, culture accelerators.  Less recently, I’ve been talking about marketing, comedy, language, branding, culturematics, story telling, hip hop, publishing, and design thinking.

All of this is culture made by someone.  And all of it is culture made in new ways, often, and according to new rules, increasingly.  Surely an anthropologist can make himself useful on something like this.  Anyhow, I’m going to try.

I have four convictions.  Open to discussion and disproof.

1) that our culture is changing.  Popular culture is becoming more like culture plain and simple.  Our culture is getting better.

I have believed in this contention for many years.  Certainly, since the 90s when I still lived in Toronto.  (It was my dear friend Hargurchet Bhabra who, over drinks and a long conversation, put his finger on it.  “It’s not popular culture anymore.  Forget the adjective.  It’s just culture.”)

This was not a popular position to take especially when so many academics and intellectuals insisted that popular culture was a debased and manipulative culture, and therefore not culture at all.  Celebrity culture, Reality TV, there were lots of ways to refurbish and renew the “popular culture is bad culture” argument.  And the voices were many.  (One of these days I am going to post a manuscript I banged out when living in Montreal.  I called it So Logo and took issue with all the intellectuals who were then pouring scorn of popular culture one way or another.)

My confidence in the “popular culture is now culture” notion grew substantially this fall when I did research for Netflix on the “binge viewing” phenomenon.  To sit down with a range of people and listen to them talk about what they were watching and how they were watching, this said very plainly that TV, once ridiculed as a “wasteland,” was maturing into story telling that was deeper, richer and more nuanced.  The wasteland was flowering.  The intellectuals were wrong.

2) This will change many of the rules by which we make culture.  So what are the new rules?

I mean to investigate these changes and see if I can come up with a new set of rules.  See yesterday’s post on how we have to rethink complexity and casting in TV if we hope to make narratives that have any hope of speaking to audiences and contributing to culture.  Think of me as a medieval theologian struggling to codify new varieties of religious experience.

3) The number of people who can now participate in the making of culture has expanded extraordinarily.  

This argument is I think much discussed and well understood.  We even know the etiology, chiefly the democratization (or simple diffusion) of the new skills and new technology.  What happens to culture and the rules and conventions of making culture when so many other people are included, active, inspired and productive?  We are beginning to see.  Watch for codification here too.   (As always, I will take my lead for Leora Kornfeld who is doing such great work in the field of music.)

4)  We must build an economy that ensures that work is rewarded with value.

I have had quite enough of gurus telling us how great it is that the internet represents a gift economy, a place where people give and take freely.  Two things here.  1) The argument comes from people who are very well provided for thanks to academic or managerial appointments.  2) This argument is applied to people who are often obliged to hold one or more “day jobs” to “give freely on the internet.”  Guru, please.   Let’s put aside the ideological needle work, and apply ourselves to inventing an economy that honors value through the distribution of value.

I have made this sound like a solitary quest but of course there are many thousands of people working on the problem.  Every creative professional is trying to figure out what he or she can do that clients think they want.  I am beginning to think I can identify the ones who are rising to the occasion.  They have a certain light in their eyes when you talk to them and I believe this springs from two dueling motives I know from my own professional experience, terror and excitement.

Thanks

To Russell Duncan for taking the photograph.

More thoughts on advertising’s “magic moment”

rboyko

(with thanks for Rick Boyko, pictured, for the conversation from which the idea for this blog post sprang.)

Last week Bob Scarpelli and I offered some thoughts on the “magic moment” in advertising.  The magic moment is the small detail that helps bring an ad suddenly, unexpectedly to life.  Here’s the original post.

We can’t quite say how the magic moment works.  What’s worse, we can’t plan for the magic moment or even anticipate it.  It just happens.

It is this unpredictable quality that prompts some people in the ad biz to insist that the magic moment is off limits.  It cannot be part of the industry’s value proposition, or the way any particular agency sells its ware.  After all, if the magic moment is pure serendipity, it can’t be created, managed, predicted, or, least of all, promised.  It is a gift from the gods and the gods pretty much do what they want.

Even if a client hires the best agency, with the most robust planners, strategists and creatives, there is just no telling whether a magic moment will manifest itself.

I admire how scrupulous this is.  I admire an industry that will not promise what it cannot deliver.  But there is another way to make the argument.

Yes, magic moments are serendipitous, but that does not mean they are beyond our grasp.   We can increase our chances of summoning the magic moment.  We can call it out of the heavens.  There are no absolute assurances.  But we can increase the odds.

And this is precisely why those who hope for magic moments will spend the time and money to hire the right agency, director of photography, casting director, and actors.  These people cannot deliver magic moments but they will act like one of those “listening arrays” with which we scrutinize the heavens.

science outer space nasa astronomy astronauts radio telescope_www_wallpaperhi_com_71

It turns out magic moments are not truly random.  They don’t happen to stupid, talentless hacks.  And this means talent does play a role.  And this means, at the very least, are chances of a magic moment go up when we are dealing with people with the talent, imagination and intelligence.  (And that’s what we pay them for.)

There is some connection.  Somehow, talent plays nursery to genius.  Agencies and creatives matter.  We can summon magic, even when we cannot promise it.   In that famous phrase, the gods favor the well prepared.

We may have merely increased the chances of a magic moment by, say, 40%.  For the creative community, this looks meager and nothing like a sales pitch.  They can’t imagine ever selling anything this way.  But for the statistically gifted brand manager, 40% is an opportunity to assess the risk and  justify the expenditure.  Believe me, what the brand manager does not want to hear is, “Oh, this is completely mysterious.  We have no idea how it happens.  Just pay us.”  But we are wrong to think that “40%.  Our chances go up 40%” means little more.  Forty percent is something to reckon with.

My conclusion: the ad agency should be selling itself with the magic moment.  This should be a way to discriminate agencies from no agencies and good agencies from bad agencies.  And it should be the grounds on which agencies justify their fees and the fees attached to recruiting the best talent.  We are not guaranteeing magic moments.  But we are increasingly their likelihood.

Hacking culture (an April Fool’s edition)

EmberAds like this are springing up in Toronto as people contemplate the prospect of another term for Mayor Rob Ford.

Ridicule is the order of the day.  A decade ago, this would have taken place in Toronto bars and pubs.  (In this once Scottish Presbyterian outpost, spirits and mockery used to meet every day after work.)  But, hey presto, nowadays people can do a pretty good replica of the campaign sign.

What changed?  Well, everything, mostly.  The technology is there.  Anyone can find a printer willing to bang out campaign signs.  But the important change was the willingness to ape the experts and make culture for ourselves.  People were once cowed.  Making a campaign sign, not just for politicians anymore.

When culture was official, we didn’t dare presume.  We didn’t dare make it or fake it or board it or hijack it, borrow it or make off with it, or “have a little fun with it.” We didn’t dare hack it.  Now we do.

Ember

Phil Jones inserted himself in someone else’s real estate ads.

Goofy realtor smile.  Matching shirt and tie.  Bad mustache.  Ill fitting wig, and all.  Phil missed nothing.

Ember

People have made their own  memorials on Brooklyn Bridge.

D-I-Y memorials. Hacking public space for private purposes? That’s something.

 

UNICEF hacked the vending machine

Ember

A Harvard student hacked the tour of the Yale campus.

Andre Levy, a Brazilian living in Germany, managed to hack the coin of the realm.   His art now goes everywhere.

Ember

See more of Andre’s work at talesyoulose.tumblr.com.   

The hacking thing begins, for near-history purposes, with the advent of Punk.  Irreverent fans watched a band on stage and said, “Oh, I could do that, only like, way, way worse!”

And remember that jewel of the digital world in the 1990s when  everyone was wowed by All Your Base Are Belong To Us?  I remember several people saying, “Oh God, anyone can make an ad!”

That’s another difference.  Our standards have gone up.  We can all  dispatch a campaign sign, a painted coin, even a rehabilitated vending machine.  This used to be the kind of thing that only MIT engineering students could pull off.  Prankster acumen, even this is being democratized.

The spirit of hacking is everywhere.  It manifests itself even in your niece who bangs out NCIS fan fic effortlessly and with no sense that she is trespassing on anyone’s creative patch. Every consumer is now a producer, or near enough.

Everyone is in possession of the skill and the gumption to hack culture.  It’s just a question of imagination.   More and more, the public world looks like an opportunity for intervention.  And for the rest of us, everyday will call for the wariness we exercise on April Fool’s Day.  Could this be what it seems?  Or is my culture being hacked.

Post script

Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for letting me know about Toronto campaign signs.

Speaking of hacking Toronto politics, there is a great experiment taking place on Twitter.  It’s the work of someone (I will name him if he lets me) who has taken the name of Bert Xanadu and the persona of the Mayor of Toronto circa 1973.  Follow him as  @moviemayor.  It’s like Groucho got a Twitter account.

For more on hacking culture, see my book Culturematic.

Brands Being Human

Subaru is doing great work for the SyFy’s  Being Human.  Here’s one example:

This is an insider ad.  You have to know the show to get what’s happening.  These are werewolves.  They’ve gone into the woods to “turn.”  The brand has found the spirit of the show and “had a little fun with it.”  Romantic feeling is imposed on something that will shortly turn nasty and violent.  Clever.  And this is absolutely in the spirit of Being Human which plays with genre expectation constantly and well.

Here is Being Human in action.  In this scene, Sally, the ghost, discovers that her house is up for sale and she decides to discourage home buyers with a ghostly trick.  Ooooooooooo!  In this scene, remember, she is invisible.

Generally speaking, Subaru has done a great job claiming a nest of companionable, cozy, domestic meanings for the brand.  It has attached itself to “family” as well as any brand in the biz.  (And that’s saying something, considering that so many brands are trying to make this connection.) Recall the Subaru ads that feature dogs aging and kids practicing for their driver’s license.  This is great work but it may leave the Subaru brand defined as something perhaps a little too domestic and of-this-world.

The Being Human work manages this problem beautifully.  A brand that verges on the humble and everyday becomes suddenly exotic and even daring.  The Subaru meanings expand wonderfully.

Notice how elegantly this is accomplished.  The Being Human work is site-specific and exists, in effect, only for the Being Human audience.  There is no danger  that the broader Subaru market will see this work and no danger that it will transform their “cosy” associations with the brand.  This is brand surgery.

Another thing I like about this approach is that it is the opposite of product placement.  Instead of jamming the product into the show, the show is allowed to find its way into the “brandscape,” to use John Sherry’s term.  And both the show and the brand profit.

Product placement is often an absolute tax on a show.  You know that moment when the appearance of the product suspends your suspension of disbelief.  You might as well stop watching and thousands no doubt do.  I don’t care how much the show makes from product placement.  In many cases, the artistic price is too high.  Plus, as a strategy, this is just plain dumb.  It says in effect, “People aren’t watching our ads! Ok, so let’s force them to look at the product!  We’ll make them watch us!”  You’ll make them watch you?  This is your idea of persuasion.  This is your idea of managing meanings? Really?

There’s another Subaru ad for Being Human that feels, to me, less successful.  It shows three actors acting like characters from the show.  See it here:

This execution feels wrong to me and it serves I think as a useful test of where this strategy can work and where it fails.  When the ad is merely leveraging the creative original, it feels like a pale imitation and it provokes, I think, a relative loss of value.  By which I mean, more is taken from the show than is returned to it.  The brand is merely exploiting the dramatic riches of Being Human and not taking possession of them for larger creative play.  In the immortal words of T.S. Eliot, “bad poets borrow, good poets steal.” This spot borrows where the first one steals.  This is not as bad as product placement but it isn’t a lot better.

Carmichael Lynch, the agency in question, has done great things for Subaru.  There is a cultural sensitivity at work here that really is exceptional.  And our opening “werewolf” ad breaks new ground.  Letting the brand out to play in an ad, in this way, is to let the brand out to play in the world.  And this is one of those cases, where brand and ad are working together, borrowing meanings from one another, to their mutual benefit.   Both brand and show get bigger, richer, and more interesting.

But what might be more remarkable is the fact that the Carmichael Lynch work takes Subaru almost no other automotive brand is prepared to go.  This is daring.  It is clever.  It participates in popular culture.  It makes the brand a living, breathing presence in the life of the consumer and our culture.  It takes the brand a little closer to being human.

Acknowledgments

Dean Evans, CMO, Subaru

I am hoping Carmichael Lynch will send me names of the creative team so that I can give them a mention for this really exemplary work.  Watch this space.

Medieval marketing

Please come have a look at my thoughts on the revolution sweeping through the world of marketing and the rise of secret messages in contemporary culture.

You can find them here at the Harvard Business Review blog.  Click here.  

Pepsi steals Santa

I was astounded recently to see a Pepsi ad that shows Santa on vacation somewhere in the Caribbean. There he is in a Hawaiian shirt, dancing in the sand, surrounded by noisy, happy sun-seekers. The tune is Montell Jordan’s new jack swing staple from 1995, “This is how we do it.”

Santa orders a Pepsi at the bar and the bartender says, “I thought you had a deal with . . . you know.” Santa replies, “I’m on vacation! Wanna have a little fun!”

In the history of cheeky ads, this is perhaps the cheekiest.

Please find the rest of the post here.

wars of a different kind

Someone called Veronica commented on the HBS Blog post “The War for the Soul of Advertising.”  She suggested that my interpretation of the ads in question is sexist.  (I don’t think I have the right to reproduce Veronica’s comment here.  I will have to ask you to go here to see it.  

My first reply, written last night around 11:00, was a little intemperate.

Veronica, I can’t help feeling this is a drive-by accusation. The use of this language judged by context and not by the instincts of an inquisitor is appropriate. I don’t object to showing someone as a “competent leader of outdoor expedition” but I wouldn’t have thought it wouldn’t take much interpretive skill to see that the ad in question makes the character in question look like a complete and utter idiot. (I mean, really, is the guy behind her actually made more secure by “watch your step.”) As to your difficulty figuring out “exactly” what my argument is, I would suggest reading it again. Thanks, Grant

My second reply, written this morning, was still more intemperate.  So much for the clear light of day.

Veronica, I wanted to follow up on my original reply, my last night in haste about 11:00. As it turns out I am a fourth-generation feminist. My great-grandmother saw to that. I point this out not to argue that I am incapable of sexism. This is so deeply embedded in our culture and in our upbringings that I wouldn’t dare make this claim. I point it out to argue how seriously I take your accusation.

So let me give you a more detailed reply than the one I gave you last night. First, “brittle and shrill” is my reading of _a woman in an ad_. I am not imputing this to a real person! Second, it is the guy _in the ad_ who is “suffering” a call from his wife. Go back to the ad and you will see that _it is the ad_ that makes this guy nonchalant. And now to defend the creatives at BBDO. I believe they have made him so in order to set up the embarrassment that is to follow. I am not imputing his indifference, the ad is. And the ad is not doing it out of sexism, it is setting up the story to follow.

Having accused me of sexism, you carry on to diminish the men in the ads…as middle school boys and people with the memory of a goldfish. This is so shockingly hypocritical as to test belief. You can’t accuse me of sexism and then engage in it.

Then to leap to the conclusion that I “don’t relate to ads with strong women in them” This is, well, a leap, isn’t it? Pray have a look at my blog, specifically a post called Lighting It Up at the Coca-Cola Company, February 17, 2006. This post lauds Mary Minnick then the CMO of the Coca-Cola Company.

[I begin with this quote from Hein and Sampey] “The strategy for the global Coke campaign is to make choosing Coke a purposeful act,” said Mary Minnick, the head of marketing strategy and innovation. “We don’t just want to be entertaining or be different, we want to be more relevant. We want to build a relationship with consumers, not hold a mirror up to them.” (from Hein, Kenneth, with Kathy Sampey. 2006. Pouring It On: Coke Unveils New Tagline, Products, Philosophy. Brandweek. December 08, 2005

[the post continues] This is an interesting model that marketers may with to conjure with. In the meantime, we may admire the recent Diet Coke ad (“Haircut”) that seems to me to capture and perhaps illuminate Minnick’s philosophy.

A young woman enters a very old fashioned barbershop. She emerges triumphant. The risk has paid off. She went into the shop a great beauty. She emerges a great beauty who has claimed her beauty with an act of daring and imagination. [end of post passage]

I believe this establishes that I admire strong women in ads, and as makers of ads.

Best, Grant

I pressed on to suggest that Veronica seemed to me to be practicing the blogging equivalent of “vexatious litigation” (as Wikipedia defines it: “legal action which is brought regardless of its merits, solely to harass…”) but by that time I was feeling a little less irritable.  

Last note:

I’m not sure exactly why I sharing this with you, to be honest.  Your comments, please.

good ads, bad ads and the struggle for the soul of advertising

Please come have a look at my latest piece at the Harvard Business Review blog in which I compare this ad to an ad of such deep and enduring stupidity I dare not clip it.  

Please leave comments!  

Hats off to BBDO Atlanta for their brilliant work.

Flo motion: That Progressive ad starring Stephanie Courtney

Ad campaigns are like corporations. Nothing happens without a big bold idea. But there is no hope of success without an unblinking eye to execution.  

The devil is in the details.

Which brings me to the campaign created by John Park and Steve Reepmeyer at Arnold Worldwide for Progressive.  It stars Stephanie Courtney as Flo.  

Spot 1: no more holding her purse!

Flo greets a husband and wife.  Flo shows them their car insurance options and then says to the husband,

"And no more holding her purse!"

The wife replies,

"It’s a European shoulder bag."

The husband adds,

"It was a gift."  

Fair enough.  Funny enough.  Job well done.

But what sells the spot, and the insurance is the details and the acting.

The wife delivers "It’s a European shoulder bag" just about perfectly.  Flo has just put her foot in it. The wife is salvaging the situation by returning this reality to her concept of it.  This is what we call "putting a good face on it."  All better.  Her husband is no longer a girl.  Flo needn’t be embarrassed by her mistake.  What sells this moment especially is the beauty of the wife’s voice and how flutingly she uses it.  No other voice or tone would have managed social repair.

The husband does a nice social repair of his own.  He lets us know that he is obliged to carry the purse.  (It was a gift.)  Even as he tells us, by rolling his eyes, what he thinks of having to  carry it.  (His wife is a kook.)  Hey presto, he’s saved face for both Flo and his wife.  Good girl.  Boy!  I mean, boy.  

And now Flo (aka Stephanie Courtney) does that little "bobble head" thing people do when they have just stepped into someone else’s madness and now wish to withdraw from it without of course in any way repudiating the madness (and they really mean that).  They smile stupidly to show that of course they accept the terms of these deranged people and wish merely to be allowed to leave quietly.  (I think anthropologically we could go a step further.  Flo’s bobble head performance has a social logic.  It says, "You may have lost face, but look, I’m too dim to have noticed!  You’re fine!")

Here is the bobble head gesture (eyes right).  How long does it take to get these details right?  How long to train the actors in the first place, to give them the ability to play social situations…as if they were unfolding spontaneously.  How long to find the actors?  How much direction and take after take is then called for?  This is an aspect of the creative process of meaning making that will probably never makes its way into social media.  This is part of the art of advertising that could now be in peril.  

Spot 2: Calculator humor

Courtney has special dramatic powers.  I was impressed with a second spot, the one that features the line "calculator humor" and has Flo saying "I’ll be here all week" and then "I will. Those are my hours."  (I can’t find a version of this anywhere on line.  Please let me know if you find it somewhere)

With the blessing of a VCR, I played this spot a couple of times, first at full speed, then in slow motion. Flo motion?  It’s astounding to see how fast and how cleanly Courtney gets into and out of each of the bits in the bit. (Andy Grove has a piece in his Only the Paranoid Survive about watching an image in transition and not being able to spot the exact moment of transition. Courtney’s acting here has that quality.)

A case in point:

In the "calculator humor" spot, Flo moves from stage 1 ("I’m here all week") to stage 2 (sly glance at customer) to stage 3 ("No, really those are my hours.") in the blink of an eye but with perfect clarity. These are quite different dramatic moments but she executes each of them cleanly.  There’s no blur or "trail."  

Bad actors make one of two mistakes.  In the first, they can’t accelerate into and out of moment with Courtney’s deftness.  It takes them awhile to lumber into stage 2 and then awhile to lumber out again.  We show this here (eyes right) with long tails. This error means that the creatives cannot "pack" the signal and the spot is rendered thin and less engaging.  Worst case, the ad becomes an exercise in tedium.  The worst offender on air at the moment is for 5 hour energy drink.  You actually need the drink to survive the ad.  (I’ll be here all week.)

The second mistake comes when an actor has the ability to accelerate but cannot get far enough into the bit.  We, the audience, is left to wonder where he or she might have gone.  What we get is a rough indication of the social moment the actor and the creative meant to deliver.  And no more. The spot, the campaign, the brand are shortchanged.  

This is meaning manufacture and meaning manufacture as the ad biz has always done it.  It takes a fantastic attention to detail.  It means that the creatives and the actors must have a deep knowledge of how social interaction works.  And they must use this knowledge to craft 30 seconds that engages us. It’s easy, I think, to look at an actress like Courtney in a spot like this, and see it as broad and goofy comedy.  

But as usual our culture has wheels with wheels and the people who would contribute to it must have gifts within gifts.  Hats off to Courtney, Park, Reepmeyer, Arnold and Progressive for this splendid work.

References

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor.  

The "and no more holding her purse!" Progressive ad on YouTube here

The Wikipedia entry for Stephanie Courtney is here.  

The Wikipedia entry for the Progressive campaign starring Flo is here.

Low Fidelity culture

A couple of days ago, Addy Dugdale observed a paradox:

One of the things that excites people most about technology is that it is seen as a gateway to the future. So how does that explain the recent glut of lo-fi adverts, software, and user interfaces that seem to be being spewed out by so-called hi-tech companies?

Addy offers into evidence a Rube Goldberg ad from Google Chrome.  Very low fi indeed.   It show tests begin performed on the speed of Chrome versus the speed of sound, lightening, and a potato being fired from a gun.  The lab looks like a mechanic’s garage in the 1950s. It is manifestly the world of an enthusiastic amateur pretty much flying by the seat of her pants.  It’s all very duct tape and “there, that should hold it.”  This is the kind of lab where you really only feel  comfortable in full body armor. 

Addy’s right.  The paradox is palpable.  On the one hand, we have digital perfection, a search engine that returns millions of results with great speed and precision.  On the other hand, we have a world of improv and accident where anything can happen and usually does. 

We have seen this paradox before.  Sara Winge pointed out a couple of years ago that many of her friends who work in the digital world spend some of their spare time works on projects by hand.  There is additional evidence everywhere, including magazines like Craft and now a book from Make editor Mark Frauenfelder called Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.

Addy gives us this useful glimpse of another cultural producer of this Lo-Fi effect for which I’m grateful.  (I hadn’t seen it before.)

The high priest of lo-tech sensibility is, without doubt, Michel Gondry, whose devotion to the handmade and hand-drawn knows no bounds–don’t forget, he directed a episode of Flight of the Conchords, starring the ultimate amateurs, Bret and Jermaine. Gael Garcia Bernal’s character Stephane in The Science of Sleep, whose set design was part Rube, part craftsy, says this: "I think people empathize with what I do, because it comes from here [my heart]." Gondry’s 2008 movie Be Kind Rewind explores the whole hand-made theme. A viral for the Tomorrow Awards, a competition that celebrates technological excellence in advertising is pure Gondry.

I think there are three drivers of this paradox. 

The first is a simple nostalgia.  That 50s laboratory was a nightmare of inefficiency.  Indeed, in the 1950s nothing worked especially well.   The mechanical world was shot through with imperfection and accident.  Thanks to several factors, now it works pretty well.  And because human beings are in our very souls contrary, ungrateful creatures, we now hanker after the world we have lost. 

The second is a wish for a kind of groundedness.  As the world got digitized, the grammar of everything was now beautiful organized and streaming 1s and 0s.  There almost no moving parts on my iPad.  It operates with silent precision.  So there is something kind of wonderful about tech with seams, levers, nice, big dials and moving parts. 

Digital products are silent and slightly accusatory.  They give nothing away about their internal operation, because frankly, they seem to say, you wouldn’t understand it anyhow.  Naturally, we love the Italian, nearly operatic, full disclosure of Lo-fidelity tech that discloses not just what it does but how it does it.  This is candor we can believe in.

Now that we can buy a video camera capable of very high fidelity, we like the imperfections of the Fisher-Price PXL2000, aka PixelVision, aka  KiddieCorder.  Actually, something in us requires the imperfections of the PixelVision.  (And that’s why it was one of the cult objects of the 1990s.)  Now that we can capture a perfect image, the PixelVision seems to promise a larger, poetic truth.  In a world of post mechanical perfection, we love the the actual, the manual and the mechanical.  It grounds us.  It lets us back in.  Most important, it flatters us.  (It appears to care what we think, and for this small concession we are deeply grateful.)

Third, and here we must reverse fields entirely, we love the Lo-Fi aesthetic because it is a pretty good symbol of what the world is now.  The new tech world may be  rational, exact, dependable, reproducible.  But the cultural effects are entirely opposite.  They profuse, individual, unpredictable and all a great big muddle.  Using the new technologies our culture is decentralized, distributed and busted out all over.  It proceeds with scant regard for editorial direction and elite control.  We are in the phrase created by Errol Morris, now Cheap, fast and out of control.  We have many players and an immense number of plays.  Indeed, Morris’ title seem to take on unintended significance precisely because it feel like it captured a world where everything was happening all at once. 

In this world it is as if we all occupy our own little laboratories.  We have the knowledge and the means of production that would only have to come to us if we has signed up as full time film makers, journalists, academics.  And now that we live outside these institutions, we are very largely flying by the seat of our pants.  I spend a good deal of time tapping the big dial of laboratory instruments, wondering if this reading, so interesting, is reliable.  I am, as we all are, Victorians authorized to produce new kinds of culture by the conviction that, “hey, if you us, who, if not now, when?” 

This aspect of the Lo-Fi aesthetic isn’t nostalgic or compensatory.  This aspect is tapped into what our culture is now. We have the feeling that at least metaphorically our future is going to look very like this past.  

References

Dugdale, Addy.  2010.  Lo-Fi Design is Conquering the World of Tech.  Fast Company.  June 10. here.

Frauenfelder, Mark.  2010.  Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World.  New York: Portfolio. 

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  The Artisanal Trend and 10 Things that Define it.  This Blog.  November 6.  here.