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The Marketing March to Hell

March 3rd, 2010 by Bruce Wiseman

Not to pander, but I am truly curious; how is it that Ad Age, the advertising industry’s preeminent mouth piece, can continue to carry frank, highly lucid, insightful editorial copy about the declining state of ad quality, while its readers – agencies and advertisers alike – continue their marketing march to hell?
Rance Crain, the mag’s editor in chief recently editorialized in their Dec 15, 03 issue,”…but what’s really broken in today’s system is the amount of very bad advertising that gets approved by top management. Are CEOs so absorbed by trying to make their next deal that they tolerate the inept and stupid ads guaranteed to alienate their best customers?”

The same issue carries an article about brand credentials, brilliant in its simplicity, by none other than the Godfather of positioning, Al Ries.

“Most advertising is mush, especially TV advertising. Thirty expensive seconds wasted trying to proposition the viewer with out providing enough of the brand’s credentials for the consumer to take the offer seriously.”
I ponder this nightly while perusing the Wall Street Journal over dinner as if searching in vain for the meaning of life.
How do US advertisers spend $250,000,000,000 a year (that’s a quarter of a trillion for the mathematically challenged) with the ostensible purpose of selling their products and services using ads that do anything but?
Yes, the agencies create and produce the ads – that’s its own subject – but presumably the CEO or someone in the client’s senior management approves them. I realize I speak heresy of the most inexcusable kind to agency Creative Directors, but here’s a news flash – ads are suppose to sell something.
Branding, the mantra of the last decade or so is fine, so long as it is not done to the exclusion of getting your message across and motivating the prospect to go to your store, or pick up the phone or click the mouse.
A review of ads running in national magazines and print media these days calls to mind the moving and powerful scene portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the great Stanley Kramer film, Judgment at Nuremberg. Lancaster, playing one of several judges who sat on the bench during the Third Reich, on trial for crimes against humanity, sits in stoic silence throughout the trial as Maxamillian Schell, whose academy award winning performance as the group’s defense counsel, tries to convince the Tribunal (chaired by Spenser Tracy) that the judges were not aware of what the Nazi’s were really doing.

During a highly inflammatory cross-examination of Judy Garland’s character (who had fraternized with an old Jewish man) by Schell, Lancaster has finally had enough and stands, his face a visage of fury.
In what may be his most prized performance outside of Elmer Gantry, Lancaster, his voice rising with intensity and volume with each word, tells Schell and the rest of the court that he and the others were aware, and asks in rhetorically outrage…
“Were we DEAF, DUMB, BLIND?”
It is a stirring performance.
Lancaster I am not, but the question applies…are they DEAF, DUMB, BLIND?
I am thumbing through Forbes scanning the offerings like a parent in search of a lost child. There is a picture of a red brick wall that takes up most of the full-page, four color ad. It’s a home builder or construction company, I think, but this is a wild guess. I look more closely because I am writing this newsletter. At the top of the wall is the word Elevate. Perhaps it’s some kind of self-improvement program. I look at the copy that would best be read with the Hubble telescope (Okay, it’s not that small). But I read it (which I would never do under ordinary circumstances). It’s an ad for Conoco Phllips, the oil giant explaining how “…where others see an obstacle, we see a chance to elevate.”
Did they have some recent failures and now feel compelled to tell people that they can overcome them? In short, what in the name of John David Rockefeller has this got to do with selling oil and gas?

I have subsequently seen this ad in other business publications- it’s somebody’s brilliant idea for an advertising campaign. Unbelievable. Who signed off on this… this…metaphorical brick wall, this Tony Robbinsesque PR ad? I’m sorry, but what a waste. It may be this kind of executive brilliance that, according to the July issue of Alexander’s Gas & Oil Connection, has seen the “…company’s share price decline 20% last year and generate the lowest return on capital (in the industry) employed over the last three years…”
Come on, this isn’t rocket science. Your advertising dollars should be getting you a reach, a response, a sale.
I don’t care how sexy the girl, how elegant the design, how sophisticated the message, if it doesn’t generate a response that leads to increased sales and income, it hasn’t done its job. Sorry.
I close with what is a self-serving note that nevertheless happens to be true. Your ads should forward a message and a position that have come from the mind/s of your public – not the boardroom. That way they resonate, and generated reach for product or service.
This is the kind of research we have been conducting for clients for almost twenty years. If you want your ads to communicate and generate response. Call us.