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Marketing in Troubled Times

March 3rd, 2010 by Bruce Wiseman

You’ll excuse me if I make a racist observation.. Or maybe you won’t.
But a review of several top weekly magazines reveals an all too visible truth: the ads in Ebony Magazine communicate better, faster and with more impact than those of several of its more well established competitors.

This doesn’t mean the magazine is better… or worse, just that, on the whole, their advertisements deliver their messages with more communication value.

The reason for this is not to be found in a Wharton MBA thesis on the successful strategies of ethnic advertising.

It is simpler than that: their ads are more visual than those of the other weekly magazines we reviewed (Time, Forbes, Fortune).
Most people think the familiar adage, “One picture is worth a thousand words,” is an old Chinese proverb. In fact, it is often attributed to that all time Oriental homeboy, Confucius.
But alas, the C-man missed this one: the phrase was created by ad man Fred R. Barnard, for an advertisement he placed in the industry journal, Printer’s Ink, in 1921.
And Fred’s observation was beyond prophetic, because today, almost a century later, we live in a culture so driven by image that cosmetic surgery is now a right of passage along other ornamentations of the flesh such as piercing and tattoos. But I digress.
We are talking marketing here and the use of images to attract consumer attention has turned the world of commerce into an orgy of the visual.
In case you died in the seventies and are just returning, it’s not just movies and television anymore.
The arsenal in the assault on our senses – in what positioning gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout called The Battle for Your Mind – has exploded like the set of a Madonna concert.

A stroll through Times Square in Manhattan or down Sunset Blvd in Hollywood with their towering, electronic advertisements seems more like a scene from Blade Runner than a walk in a modern American city.
And YouTube has 100 million video view per day…. Yes. Per day. Think about it.
Five hundred channel cable, TiVo, DVDs, digital video, the Internet, email, cell phones, iPods and PDAs have been added to old line communication channels like magazines, newspapers, billboards, and that life blood of the US postal service, direct mail.
So why, as obvious as this seems, are untold millions spent every year on text only ads by corporations whose advertising budgets could retire the national debt of several third world countries? Or, if there are images, why do they do everything but communicate the message the advertiser should be seeking to convey?
It’s not just magazines. An all too telling example appeared in The Wall Street Journal a couple of days ago.
You may have stopped at Starbucks to grab a latté and missed it, but there are only three players still standing in the U.S Wireless wars: Verizon, Sprint (Nextel’s new dad) and Cingular (which, despite a bit of lingering indigestion, devoured AT&T wireless for breakfast a short while ago).
Sprint, for reasons we will leave to their strategic marketing people, has decided to go head to head with Cingular. They’ll get no gripe from me on this, as this kind of competition can drive pricing down and service up.

But if they are going to engage in marketing warfare, why in the name of Alexander Graham Bell would they print two ads in the nation’s leading business Journal with no visuals and text that reads like a petulant third-grader.
Speaking of the Cingular wireless product, Edge, one ad says, “If Cingular’s EDGE is ‘high-speed,’ then Sprint’s broadband is high-high-high-high speed.”
The other says, “Sprint mobile Broadband is 5x faster than Cingular’s EDGE.”
Oh Yeah? My dad’s stronger than your dad.
What a missed opportunity for some instant visual positioning.
We are not a design and graphics house – we do research and surveys that help create market positions – but Dude, they could have done, what?… A tie-in with the release of the new Batman movie – Sprint is the Batmobile, Cingular the hobbling penguin. Or any number of visual positionings, which would have shown the difference in speed at a glance, instead of trying to tell it in words – The Starship Enterprise and an old DC 10; a Daytona racing car and a Model T; one of those Miami Vice muscle boats and a row boat….
The great American author, editor and publisher, Sol Stein makes note of this change as it has affected the literary culture in the last half of the twentieth century in his superlative Stein on Writing. His comments here are for writers, who, incidentally, do not have the opportunity of showing a picture as an ad man does, but note the shift in importance to the visual he points out here:
“In the nineteenth century, novels and stories were filled with summations of offstage events, past or present, almost always told to the reader in summary form. …,
In the mid-century, the advent of television brought a visual medium into homes. Television and movies are full of immediate scenes, visible to the eye, ready to be experienced firsthand. This has influenced stories and novels more than we realize. Twentieth-century audiences now insist on seeing what they are reading.”
Try to make him read it and you may lose him. If you attract him with a visual image then you may be able to tell your story. But the more communication in the image, the better.
The key word here, however, is communication. Just showing any old image is not the answer either. The image must tell the story.
There are some skin care advertisements in the issue of Ebony mentioned above that communicate in a flash. It is not just that the women are beautiful. In the world of models, that is a given. No, there are pictures here of African American women with skin so lustrous you can feel it.
No question of what the product is or what it does, or that it is desirable.
Compare that to a full-page ad in a recent issue of Forbes. On a dark gray back ground are written the words:
At the bottom of the page there is some fine print that I assumed was mandated by the firm’s legal department. Maybe it’s a drug ad, I think, and they are listing the ubiquitous litany of side effects. But because I was writing this newsletter, I squinted mightily and read it.
Surprise. Here we get the actual message (that I would never have bothered to even try to read under ordinary circumstances) that,
“…we provide the software that enables designers to create the electronics inside your PDA and mobile phone.”
Off in the bottom right hand corner of the page, in a box that makes me think of a child playing hooky from school and hiding from the truant officer, is the company’s name: the brand, which happens to be Cadence.
Later, looking again at the ad, I see a fogged-over image in the middle of the page behind the words above. I hadn’t actually seen it on first glance. It’s like an apparition.
I look at it for some time before I realize that it is a hazy picture of a cell phone- at least I think that’s what it is.

I checked the company out on the Internet. They are apparently a very successful software firm. Kudos. But guys, come on… you’re intelligent engineers. Why would you spend the money for a full page ad in a national magazine and not SHOW what you do rather than running a page of copy which seems to have as its main purpose making the reader guess at it.
Do the people who created this ad really think that the busy business executives that thumb through Forbes are going to grok the message on this page, or that they are actually going to read the fine print at the bottom?
Here’s another.
There is a full-page ad in Time by one of the drug company behemoths (aren’t they all). At the top of the page is a headline: “If you have COPD associated with chronic bronchitis, ADVAIR ® helps you breathe easier.*”
Below that is a picture of an older woman and a child. The woman appears to be singing to the little boy who is smiling. But at first glance, it is a little confusing as to exactly what they are doing.

A closer look gives you the idea that the older woman is breathing on the glass and the child is playing tic tac toe on the frosted pane. But you have to study it for a few moments to figure this out.
Besides the lack of clarity in the visuals, I want everyone in the room who has ever heard of COPD or has any idea what COPD is, to raise your hand.
I thought so.
Unbelievably, nowhere on the page – nowhere – does it explain or even define what COPD is. (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
Compare this to another ad in the health care category in Forbes. The first thing that attracts your attention is a large, very detailed four-color picture of a heart on a visual screen. You can clearly see the many veins and arteries running through the heart. There are two doctors looking at the picture of the heart on the screen talking.
The headline?
“Who is accelerating the diagnosis of HEART DISEASE?”
A bit of text is followed by “SIEMENS” in large bold print.
A quick glance at the heart, the doctors and the brand and…boom, you got it: Siemens makes equipment that provides clear, detailed pictures of the human heart so that diagnoses can be rapid and accurate.
So where does this leave us?
It leaves us raising our glasses in toast to the simple wisdom of Fred Barnes, because a picture is worth a thousand words.
But it also leaves us with the understanding that it must be the right picture that communicates the right message.