Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Modest Proposal

Aside from the bit in the sidebar there to your right, I've not discussed my jealous and possessive love for ads. [This might be the right time for you to click away from here as fast as you can, if you would prefer to remain blissfully unaware of this madness.] Print ads, in particular. I can talk about the nuances of advertising the way other people might talk about, oh...heroin. (And by "people" I mean "people currently on heroin.") It's endlessly fascinating. When it's wrong, it can be so spectacularly wrong that I almost enjoy the outrage it produces in me, as though it's the villain tying the ingenue to the tracks. Currently, for instance, there is a billboard on the side of the freeway nearest me. It's for a big chain supermarket, and it features a sheepdog. The sheepdog is speaking. (You can tell because the large words right next to the dog are in quotes.) And the sheepdog is saying, "My owner's smart. She shops at Ralphs."

No, I'm serious. On a billboard, in front of God and everyone, "My owner's smart. She shops at Ralphs." To which one can only assume the intended reaction goes something like, "Oh! I'm not shopping at Ralphs. Does my dog think I'm dumb?"

At that point in the analysis my brain breaks a little bit, and all I can think is WHO WROTE THAT? Because somebody wrote it, and then someone put it next to the stupid photo of the dog, and then someone pitched it! And then... someone approved it. Someone looked at that ad, with its dog and its bordering-on-Flight-of-the-Conchords-absurdity level of fallacy, and said You know what? That's it, right there. That ad is fantastic! Do it. This will reach our customer, the person who lives in fear that her dog thinks she's a big dummy and might be laughing behind her back with the other dogs. We're going to be rich!

Seriously, what a big hot mess! How does that happen?! Why is it okay?! It's like flushing money down the toilet, as my mother said every five minutes when I was growing up.

At the opposite pole exist the ads that cut through the tired hyperbole and speak to who you are on a very basic level. Yes, yes, it's manipulation at its finest--but that's the point, after all. I may find Apple's policies odious and their ubiquitous presence just this side of Starbucksian, but damn, their ad campaigns make me believe. They (duh) work.

A few years back, Sharpie had this brilliant campaign geared toward creative types--graphic designers, specifically; it was a multi-page affair that ran in graphic design magazines. Each page featured some part of a designer's workday, with one word, in bold caps--e.g., a Pantone book said "LUST" beneath it; under an image of a meeting in an oval conference room was the word "HELL". It was simple and clever and personal and so, so appealing. The very last page said, in part:

When you look at movies and books and typography, do you get excited?
When you can't solve something, do you beat yourself up?
Do you then start fantasizing about jobs like selling shoes?
Worry that you'll never have a good idea?
Feel like an imposter?
Do you suddenly worry you're becoming a hack?
Do you worry you already are one but don't know it yet?
When you come up with a good idea, do you suddenly feel like life is worth living again?
Do you fall in love with your ideas?
Do you wear that love on your sleeve?
Are you, in face, one of those people?

My immediate, gut response: yes, yes, yes! And: I need seven thousand Sharpies because they understand me!

Advertising isn't about showing off. It's about seeing people for who they are. (There is a difference.) When people feel acknowledged, they are more likely to want to be around the entity doing the acknowledging. Brand loyalty, anyone?

But very good advertising has the power to do more than just sell, to create more than that coveted customer-for-life. I cut out that list of questions from the Sharpie ad. I glued them to the front of a notebook. And when I was working a job that I loathed, that made me doubt my innate abilities and the skills I've worked at long and hard, I would look at those words. They helped to remind me that my small-minded supervisor could say whatever she liked, but I wasn't going to be there forever. I'd be on to bigger, better, more creative, more suitable things.

And hey, look, I am.

Oh, of course I don't think Sharpie responsible for my moving on up, so to speak, but look--if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. Not everything is going to be inspired or inspiring, sure, there's nothing sexy about shopping at Ralphs. But for Pete's sake, what's wrong with stepping up the game, just a little bit? What if we tried?


Sophie said...

:) I really got a good laugh out of this one, I like how you described the whole experience. I think this part really sums it up nicely:

Advertising isn't about showing off. It's about seeing people for who they are. (There is a difference.) When people feel acknowledged, they are more likely to want to be around the entity doing the acknowledging. Brand loyalty, anyone?

You know that Geico commercial featuring the stack of money with eyes? Jose LOVES it. Every time he sees it (and I mean every time), he cracks up because he appreciates this particular commercial for it's stupid simplicity. He even sings the song randomly throughout the day! Ha!

...that's why this brought a smile to my face :).

I can't wait to hear more about this new project. It all sounds so exciting and I'm glad you're doing what you love. Isn't that what it's all about?! :)

Michael said...

I notice ads too, but I don't worry too much about the annoying ones anymore. I read recently that in a recession economy, the witty, smart-aleck ads take a back seat to the hard-sellers, the Ginsu Knife salesmen. This is the time to keep it simple and focus on selling. I'm guessing the purpose of the talking dog is to appeal to dog lovers. Cute dog = feel good = shop at the store. Perhaps there will be a series: talking baby, talking cat, talking car so that every demographic is hit.

It's been a long time since I've worked in the marketing business. At the time I wasn't aware enough to think about it, now I find it endlessly fascinating. Not the ads themselves so much--they are just necessary noise--but the "science" and art behind them.