Under the radar

 
 

Under the radar

WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF AN EPIDEMIC OF CYNICISM.

Our belief in sacred institutions, such as government, church, and the news media, has been declining for decades. Even doctors have taken a hit in the credibility department. But, of course, at the bottom, just above car salespeople, sits the advertising agent. Less than 10 percent of the population believe advertising agents tell the truth, and half of those poor souls are probably our mothers. Now consider dear Mother. Chances are you are probably twice as cynical as she is or ever was. That's because, as American consumers, we have been exposed to twice as many ads as the next most heavily advertised country, England. As a result, we have become twice as cynical about ads and twice as good at tuning out those nasty messages. We have developed deflector shields all around us. Under-the radar marketing is all about finding the weak spot in those shields and getting through to the consumer's nerve center. But this is getting harder and harder every day. Today the myriad of television channels (soon there will be as many as 500), magazines, radio stations, outdoor advertising, movies, videos, and Internet options overloads a dazed consumer with too many choices and too little time. Channel surfing is becoming a way of life even beyond the television set. We surf the Internet and even our mail. Check your mailbox and see how many catalogs and direct-mail pieces you get every month and how many you end up tossing! No wonder we're becoming the attention-deficit-disorder generation. How can we expect for a moment that consumers wouldn't develop a mechanism such as surfing for coping with this problem? As marketers have inundated consumers with as many choices as the media have, they should not be surprised that the old methods of reaching consumers have become ineffective. New products and brands have proliferated so fast that any product advantage, regardless of how many years or how much money was pumped into it, is immediately copied by a competitor, thus making the choice harder for a shopper. This proliferation has resulted in marketers bringing out newer and better versions even faster and line-extending any brands that show the slightest signs of life. Miller beer fathers Miller Lite, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller Ice.... Will we have Miller Ice Dry Genuine Draft Ultra Lite Amber? In this way, marketers have compounded the inundation of the consumer that has resulted from growing media choices by peppering them with an ever expanding number of new products and product enhancements to absorb. The resulting cumulative effect on the consumer has been marketing overload and frustration. A key part of the overload has historically come from marketers who have subscribed to faulty research conclusions that say the more selling points in an ad, the better chance marketers have of moving the customer to purchase. But as Kevin Clancy of the research firm Yankelovich, Clancy & Shulman notes, when you add messages to an ad, you wind up with more of a laundry list than an advertisement, with none of the messages being memorable. Unfortunately, this style of advertising, in which the advertiser attempts to get the consumer to memorize the advertising as if it were multiplication tables, is still very much alive-a remnant of the 1950s when packaged-goods giants wrote the generally accepted rules of advertising. As a defense mechanism against the overload, consumers have learned to tune out all but the most relevant and intrusive messages. Declining recall and marketing overload have rendered the old rotelearning method of advertising ineffective. Instead, many marketers have been moving their funds into sales promotion, using coupons. This area lends itself to the schoolteacher tactic of learning by rote; consumers always believe marketers when they say "50¢ off" or "three for $1" because coupons are tangible. It is much easier to say that brand-building advertising has lost its effectiveness than to admit that the classic rules of advertising, the ones we were taught in business school, are now obsolete. It is particularly easy to lose faith in advertising when there are no universally acknowledged "new rules" to replace the outmoded ones. It becomes easier then for the brand manager to say, "Screw it! Just do a coupon or a rebate!"



To cope with all of these new products, new messages, and new media, consumers have developed what we call "marketing radar." That is, they can immediately identify an incoming message as marketing contrived to manipulate them into buying something of questionable value or relevance. Today, nearly half of all college students have taken marketing courses, so they know the enemy and are able to see through the obvious ploys, such as "You will be a better, more popular person if only you would purchase this new peppermint scented detergent." In focus groups, participants delight in dissecting ad messages: "So, you are targeting kids, huh?" We often hear focus group participants trying to play brand managers by saying, "The strategy on this ad is bad, it should be this...." Shooting down the advertising has become a kind of sport, designed to show that the participants are not stupid enough to be manipulated, particularly by those without enough respect for their intelligence to at least make the sport challenging. We have a saying at our ad agency that illustrates this point:

Pardon me, your strategy is showing.




What we mean is that persuasive marketing should be invisible, with the consumer feeling the benefit rather than having to uncomfortably digest its overt message. Much of bad and ineffective advertising has at its core a too-obvious message that makes the consumer all too aware of the actual selling technique being deployed. It's like the difference between successful social climbers and unsuccessful ones: The unsuccessful ones are too obvious and are labeled social climbers, thus reversing the very object of all their efforts. It became fashionable in the 1980s to blame the television remote control and the videocassette recorder that became fixtures in households for threatening the efficacy of TV advertising. Consumers change channels when ads come on or fast-forward through them when they watch a taped TV show, according to this theory. But the zapper and the VCR aren't the real threats. The real threat is the consumers' mental machine guns, their very own personal defense departments that can shoot down messages at any given point. And there are only a handful of techniques today that are sophisticated enough to act as stealth bombers, dropping new messages behind the wall-escaping detection by consumers' ever present radar!




Ads that don't get under the radar ultimately get shot down by it, usually fading silently into obscurity. But the most dramatic way to get shot down is to go down in flames. This happens when consumers loudly and publicly reject the message, causing humiliation for the client and an account switch for the unfortunate agency that created the burning campaign. This is a marketer's greatest fear, and it probably accounts for a client's typical reluctance to do something really risky and creative, since only those campaigns risky enough to be highly visible get shot down in flames. Virtually all of these disasters happen for the same reason: The strategy is showing.

THE "OLD" IN OLDSMOBILE




Until the late 1980s, Oldsmobile sold very well to an older, middle american, male customer. Between 1983 and 1986, for instance, the General Motors division sold more than one million cars a year. But by 1995, it was selling just 372,000. The reasons for the free fall are twofold. First, Oldsmobile's parent, General Motors, had gutted its different divisions-Olds, Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, and Cadillac-of any significant product differentiation among the brands by selling the same cars trimmed out in slightly different packaging, so that virtually the same car was offered at every GM dealership but at different prices. Second, the negative market forces for Olds have been dire and many. Oldsmobile's older male customer, who traditionally turned his car over for a new Oldsmobile every three or four years, has been dying off. Families that once appreciated the roominess of an Olds sedan have turned to sport utilities, mini vans, and station wagons. Families have become smaller and don't need the "road sofa" ride of an Olds. As men entered their 40s and 50s, Olds's traditional buyers were giving up their brand loyalty to Asian imports that had proven to be more reliable, more fuel-efficient and better designed to meet their families' needs. And perhaps most important, as baby-boomer males entered their 40s, they were different from the way their own fathers had been when they entered their 40s. Boomer 40-year-olds purchase such things as cars and clothes to extend their youth. They think younger than their fathers did at the same age. They still listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. So, for many, an Oldsmobile that still reflects their father's values is not a viable option. Oldsmobile marketers asked themselves, "How do we appeal to a younger, more contemporary audience?" Simple. Just tell them it's for a young audience. Thus, a campaign that literally proclaimed in the ad copy, "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," was born. The overtness of this approach to today's cynical audience is like that of a man approaching a woman in a singles bar and saying "I'm handsome, rich, and have a Ferrari parked outside. Don't you want to date me?" The problem results from confusing the stimulus and the response. The desired response from the woman is that she is interested in going out with him. But the stimulus to elicit that response should not overtly state the reason why she might want to; rather, the man should demonstrate and allow the female to figure out for herself his attractive qualities. Overt reasons, like the ones given by the Ferrari owner, tend to elicit the response, "What a jerk." Just as successful, likable people communicate to others so that they will learn and discover their "product benefits," marketing messages should, in a way, seduce rather than sell. The Oldsmobile campaign had the effect of bringing Olds's staid image to the forefront, eliciting the response, conscious or unconscious: "They have no idea how to talk to a young person. They must be more outdated than I thought." Shakespeare had it right when he said, "The lady doth protest too much." When you write the desired response into the actual ad message (stimulus), your strategy is sure to show. What Oldsmobile could have done was create an image to show that owning an Oldsmobile is a kind of rite of passage. Cigars and golf are traditional products that have nonetheless captured the young males Oldsmobile has been losing in droves. When Olds chose "It's not your father's Oldsmobile" as the stimulus, it was virtually guaranteeing that the consumer response to be "Olds is old." If the stimulus had been something like "You are now ready for an Oldsmobile," the expected response might have been "I'm finally mature enough for an Olds."

CALVIN KLEIN: THE SHOCK JOCKEY SHORTS




Calvin Klein manipulates sexual images in his company's advertising. He has a license to do so, even though he's a bit obvious, because his brand is about provocation. That's his territory. Just as Don Rickles can get away with more insults, because everyone knows that's his act. But even Calvin has limits. He must stay inside the line that separates chic provocation from deviant sexuality that offends or from outright pornography. The problem is that what is sexually taboo is constantly changing. What was outrageous 50 years ago is ho-hum today. Sex is style, and you have to get it just right, or else. This is what happened with the "kiddy porn" campaign of 1995, in which Klein showed young models, who appeared to be around 15 years old, in a situation where it seemed like they were auditioning for an X-rated film, albeit in their Calvin Kleins. Now, most people love sex appeal and romance, and we are willing to suspend disbelief and moral judgments for the fun of going along for the ride, even if we sometimes know we're being manipulated and that Calvin Klein is doing it for shock value. "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins" and "Ahh, the smell of it," two Calvin Klein slogans, were right up to the edge. But the "kiddy porn" ads vaulted right past the edge and into an abyss that made even the trendsetters feel very uncomfort~able. As we watched that campaign, all of a sudden we were fully aware that it was advertising-and advertising that was intended to make us feel uncomfortable. In creating such an effect, Klein entered the land of taboo, which elicited responses that ranged from anger to outrage. The juxtaposition of children and sex is a subject of such angst and moral disgrace with most Americans that we are just not willing to accept it as a vehicle for anything commercial. We are offended not only by the poor taste displayed in using underage-looking models, but by the affront to our intelligence and sensibilities. Add to that the almost instant recognition that Calvin Klein was tapping this vein purely for publicity reasons, and we are not only affronted but disappointed that the strategy was allowed to show in such a ham-fisted way. It's the same effect that Madonna's book, Sex, had on her image. Everyone instantly became aware of the rock star's "marketing" skills. Although she is a master of changes, when she remakes herself again we will think twice before joining in the fantasy world she creates and letting down our collective guard. As a fashion designer who must reflect society's mood and consciousness as much as any advertising creative department, Klein should have known better than to let anything as unseemly as that marketing strategy show through to the public.




Perhaps the most significant change from the 1950s to today in terms of reaching the consumer with high-impact marketing is the abundance of messages fired at consumers as if from a Gatling gun. In the 1950s, there were only three TV stations, in addition to radio. These three channels reigned supreme, and the country was united behind newly created shows and their sponsors. I Love Lucy, for example, has been called the most popular television show of all time because of its power to assemble the nation's viewers in front of the TV set. Such national devotion to one show can never happen again: There are too many shows, on many more channels now. Even the evening news, once a time slot in which an advertiser could count on reaching the country's most influential consumers, is not what it once was. At 6:30 or 7:00 P.M., many adults are not-yet home from work. And if they are, they might just as commonly be watching a syndicated rerun of Seinfeld or Mad About You as they are Dan Rather or Peter Jennings. In the 1950s, people not only believed advertising, they believed in advertising. This may be because most Americans seemingly believed in almost everything that was fed to them by what we think of as the Establishment-government, corporations, teachers, parents. Perhaps it was this way because we simply wanted to believe. The United States had become the undisputed world power. We had Dwight D. Eisenhower, the hero of World War II, in the White House Postwar prosperity created an uplifting feeling, a feeling that was reinforced daily through the marvelous new medium of television. Advertising was helped by the fact that the popular TV shows of the day, such as The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver, showed nothing but an idyllic suburban existence where the worst problems faced were a broken window and not having a date for the prom. These shows helped keep at bay the kind of pessimism that a decade later would lead Americans to question just about everything corporate and institutional. The problems of the sitcoms were all fixed in 30 minutes. With few exceptions, such as the undoing of Senator Joseph McCarthy by Edward R. Murrow, TV journalists of the day were largely "in league" with our government leaders. They actually covered up events that would grab headlines today, such as the extramarital dalliances of John Kennedy. The media in those days worked in concert to create an illusion of perfection in the name of an odd kind of cultural patriotism. It seems strange to us today, because, since the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, uncovering the truth, no matter how unpleasant, is considered one of the highest forms of patriotism. In that environment, advertising had a free ride. Sponsors had only to put their products on television and explain the benefits (regardless of whether the benefits were real). That the product was on TV at all made the claims believable and desirable. What we view today as creativity in advertising was not an issue yet. It wasn't necessary. Advertisers treated the public, to whom TV was still a novelty, like children in their first year of school, drilling information into them like multiplication tables or historical dates. "Have you mentioned the product name seven times in the ad?" was about the most probing question a brand manager had for the ad agency in the 1950s. Consumers were seen as one long column of 'droids moving in lockstep to the direction of whomever was calling them-be it Eisenhower, Procter & Gamble, or General Motors.




Advertising was tame, because the country was tame. Advertising tries to reflect society's mood, needs, desires, demeanor. By doing so, the thinking goes, an advertiser will be able to reach consumers on their level with a message that will make it under the radar to their minds, hearts, and consciences. Advertising started to change for real when the feel-good times of the 1950s were over, a process which began with the Cuban missile crisis but continued in earnest after John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The nation's optimism had been shaken in a way that still reverberates all these years later for many people who lived through it. Television was there, bringing Kennedy's murder and funeral into our living rooms. That event, of course, was followed by years of fighting a war few people understood. Again, television was there, bringing footage of America's sons fighting a jungle war that looked very little like the war fought romantically and valiantly by John Wayne, Van Johnson, and Audie Murphy, a war they themselves also fought and endured. The TV also brought into our homes the war at home between whites and blacks. As the culture changed to one of more caution, fear, and cynicism, advertising began to change, though not as fast as the culture did. The events brought home through the wonder of television showed us that we were not only carrying a false sense of optimism, but that we might have been better off with a healthy degree of cynicism about whatever our leaders had been telling us. Originally in advertising, the copywriter had been viewed as the most savvy of ad people. But in the 1960s, as the advertising business underwent change, there was recognition that consumers were just as smart as the writers. This change in thinking led to the first creative revolution in the ad business. It became chic for advertising, for example, to slyly acknowledge the consumers' cynicism and mistrust. Advertising that was confident enough to be straight with consumers was the new model. The most famous ad of this era was the Volkswagen "Lemon" ad, which admitted that some of its cars were, in fact, lemons. But the ad reassured the public that VW's quality control procedures were the toughest of any car company and that none of these cars ever left the factory with even the smallest defect. The admission of a small negative in order to gain the larger trust, so that a positive impression is made, was established as a creative strategy that is still employed today. The inner workings of the advertising industry were also changing in the 1960s to accommodate our increasingly multicultural society. Until the late 1950s, advertising was a lily-white industry. It catered to white Anglo-Saxon clients who owned or were in charge of most American industry. Cary Grant played the archetypal ad man in the film, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, in which he commuted to his estate in Connecticut and got some of his creative ideas from his African-American maid. Both Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, a film from the 1950s, and the 1960s situation comedy Bewitched glamorized the ad industry, as well as the status of the corner office and the executive washroom. Through its practice or its depiction in the mass media, advertising reflected and subjected the public to its vanilla version of the American dream. If advertising does nothing else, it reflects like a mirror what is current in American culture. One of the forces driving the creative revolution in the business in the 1960s was the admission of minorities, particularly people of Jewish, Italian, and Greek descent, into the creative departments of New York ad agencies. We'd heard stories from some of the old-timers that the prevailing theory of the day was that Jews made good writers, while Italians and other mediterranean types made good art directors. And who better to work on accounts for companies actually owned by an emerging upper middle class of Jews, Italians, and other minorities? The creative breakthrough campaign of the day, "You Don't Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy's," is an example 4 of a little rye bread emerging in America's white-bread world.




Who is the United States of America? What is your mental image of the country? It's no longer one homogeneous group, if in fact it ever was. Hispanics will soon number 20 percent of the population. The l . Asian population is also rapidly increasing due to extensive immigration. America is becoming Europe: many disparate cultures within a culture. And the assimilation process is far different from that of the Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants who flooded the country a century ago. These new immigrants are keeping their old languages and customs alive instead of giving them up to fit the traditional image of "American." Groups such as African Americans and Native Americans are now trying to recapture their roots. To get under the radar of Americans today, you have to think of the country in plural as "the Americas." This requires a much greater degree of sensitivity than was previously considered. A few years ago, KB&P handled a very interesting project for Revlon. The cosmetics giant included a division for professional and ethnic products, and the agency was given the assignment to work on a campaign for a hair relaxer line called Creme of Nature. The first thing we did was hire an African-American focus group moderator to talk to the brand's target of African-American women. What we found out was surprising because no one had ever asked the right questions before, and the answers we got were so incredibly different from what we or Revlon had originally thought. For years, Revlon had been running an overall institutional image campaign, featuring glamorous models, with the slogan, "The world's most beautiful women wear Revlon was a department-store brand that was successfully brought to the chain-store level and appealed to consumers because of the glamour and sophistication that had been built into the brand. Revlon was the classic definition of mass with class. Upper management, therefore, thought the use of the Revlon name, even on a sub brand like Creme of Nature, would add value. The reaction in the African-American focus groups, however, was radically different from what the company had assumed. African-American women buying Revlon's Creme of Nature products perceived Revlon as a big white company. The black models, such as Beverly Johnson, used in the Revlon campaign were all lightskinned, were "white looking" in the minds of the beholders, and wore hair extensions. The Revlon name on the Creme of Nature product was actually considered a detriment by the product's target customers. Until this point, Revlon had not taken the time to talk to these customers and to listen. It assumed that the all-American image of Revlon was the gold standard for all of America. The agency's recommendations to remove the Revlon name from the product or diminish it in size, and to use a range of African-American models showing the diversity of color within the community, were met enthusiastically by consumers because it demonstrated that the company respected them enough to try to understand them and their needs. Respect involves the ability to both listen and change the way you are comfortable thinking-even the way you were brought up to think. A difficult trick when most CEOs are still essentially the same as they've always been: white, male, middle-aged, highly educated, and American-born. Sometimes the most respectful multicultural advertising approach is to run exactly the same advertising for all targets. Our campaign for Hennessy cognac, for example, doesn't differentiate among ethnicities in its advertising, as other spirits marketers do. Some spirits brands have markedly different campaigns for white and for black consumers, and most of the ads aimed at African Americans seem very patronizing or downright offensive. African-American consumers then see ads that are tilted to white consumers, and they are made to feel segregated. The radar is on alert for these kinds of ads. Recognizing ethnic nuances in ads is one thing. But on a certain level, the highest form of respect advertisers can pay consumers is to treat them alike.



Everyone likes to beat up the campaigns that are publicly shot down in flames. It makes great copy and juicy press stories. But to the credit of the people behind those charred campaigns, they at least tried to put the brands out there where they could be seen. If a brand were kept in the hangar all the time, the consumer would never notice it at all. The real crime is that most campaigns are tiny blips, shot down before they ever appear on the public's radar screen. They fall into a large black hole called the "Who Cares?" category. In an average day most of us typically have a few very pleasurable experiences and a few irritating ones. But most of what we do is immediately forgotten. Most ads wind up in our mental garbage pail, discarded like yesterday's half-eaten tuna sandwich. This is not to advocate shock advertising, such as the kind Calvin Klein tried. Worse than being callous, as in the case of Klein, or awkwardly obvious like Oldsmobile, perhaps the most grievous sin a company can commit is being so afraid of articulating a strong point of view that the brand remains invisible despite all the ad dollars spent on it. In fact, literally billions of dollars are spent every year on ads that you never see. These tiny blips on the radar screen are shot down before they even enter your consciousness. We could probably list 100 campaigns that spent $10 million or more last year, and your eyes would glaze right over. The most creative part of these charades may be the way the agency works over the research numbers to convince the client that the ads are working, when they never even had a chance to work because they were never really seen by anyone.



It's easy to get under the radar with a one-shot ad, event, or PR hit. To get your brand to live under the radar long term takes a long-term campaign and the intestinal fortitude to stick with it. This is not easy. One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in the marketing process is the clash between corporate America's obsession with quarterly results and the fact that consumers' attitudes change over years, not months. Unfortunately, the only kind of marketing that meshes with the pressures of quarterly financial reporting is sales promotion. Therefore, it becomes more manageable to put a great deal of money into couponing and trade promotion, the results of which are easily computable, versus putting a lot of money into advertising, the effects of which are built up over many months and years. Consequently, some of the smartest marketing campaigns are killed before they are given the chance to actually work. Persistence usually gets you under the radar, if you wait long enough. It communicates to the consumer that you really are serious, that you really are committed to the claims you are making in your advertising. After a decade of seeing the Energizer Bunny, we believe that Eveready is committed and serious about longevity. True commitment is a wonderful weapon with which to combat consumer cynicism. The reason is that cynicism is consumers' way of protecting themselves from companies and people who lack that commitment. It is a way to avoid getting taken in by false promises. Eventually, as an advertiser's commitment is demonstrated over time, it becomes safe for even the most cynical naysayers among consumers to get on the bandwagon. As the business climate has become more and more competitive, there are fewer long-lasting campaigns. This climate then is actually an opportunity for the smart marketer who sticks with a marketing strategy that includes a creative and cohesive advertising campaign over the long haul. The $5 million advertiser, by holding a creative and strategic course, can outmarket the $20 million brand that switches its campaign every year. If the $5 million advertiser is able to stay the course, as well as do impactful under-the-radar work, then the $5million-per-year budget feels like $10 million per year and the gap is closed even faster between the low-budget advertiser and the bigger spender. Now, if that same $5 million advertiser were to unify its entire brand communications-including advertising, public relations, and promotion-behind a single idea, that might make the $5 million work like $15 to $20 million. This is an effective way to play the game in today's marketplace. Patience + Impact + Unification = Success. Grey Poupon, the fancy Dijon mustard that is marketed by Nabisco, is a perfect example of a small advertiser that has stayed the course with a solid, impactful idea over the years and that makes its ad budget do many times the work of another campaign with the same amount of spending behind it. Grey Poupon marked the 15th anniversary of its "Pardon Me . . ." campaign in 1995. The campaign is as familiar to consumers as "Have You Driven a Ford Lately?," a campaign that has hundreds of millions per year spent behind it. Grey Poupon has been putting fresh twists on the same clever idea since 1980: two Rolls Royces pulling up next to one another on a road, each with a well-heeled British blue blood riding in the backseat. The creative people who have worked on each new ad in the campaign typically give the two characters something different to do that shows how ridiculous and pompous the wealthy can be sometimes. Though over its history the presentation has been altered a bit to show, for example, two yachts pulling up next to each other, the theme stays the same. The high standard for creative quality and the commitment to a consistent strategy stay the same. The result: In surveys that measure recall, Grey Poupon's "Pardon Me . . ." has ranked as high as third, behind just Coca-Cola and Ford, despite spending only $5 million, at the most, per year. Of course, in our early days we were able to make clients like Kenneth Cole and No Excuses famous for even less. And in his early days, David Ogilvy made Hathaway shirts famous on not much more than carfare by having a great idea (the Hathaway eye patch) and sticking with it forever.
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