Advertising: the cottage (cheese) industry

In these troubled times, here’s a reassuring thought. Advertising may languish at times like these, but it will never die. Because, like so many other disciplines, the effectiveness of which is wide open to interpretation, advertising is too squishy to be pinned down—like cottage cheese. You can’t dismiss a discipline in its entirety, once and for all, if you can’t come up with irrefutable evidence of its worthlessness. Some advertising seems to work sometimes. And that is enough of a carrot to keep businesses coming back for more.

Disciplines that vanish are those that can be definitively disproven and discredited. Alchemy. Phrenology. That kind of stuff. But advertising, bless its heart, will always be able to make a plausible (but never airtight) case for its effectiveness.

The influencing of human behavior in a gross and macro manner can’t generally be tested and proven successful or unsuccessful. You can look at the numbers and find evidence of the effect of advertising, maybe, but other variables invariably muddy the waters. Not the least of which is the psychological/emotional variable that inclines both agency and client to interpret numbers sympathetically and optimistically, because they need to justify the time, money and effort invested in it.

Of course, direct marketing zealots will be quick to point out that their brand of advertising is absolutely measurable, and I concede that point to them. But that subdivision of the advertising community, it seems, will forever be just that—a subdivision—because, among other reasons, that form of advertising doesn’t seem to lend itself to softer emotional brand image/brand voice advertising that contributes, presumably, to the long term health of the brand. So far, no one has cracked the code on making an ad funny or touching or provocative while at the same time screaming “but wait, that’s not all!” and pounding away at the 800 number or URL.

What about all this online/interactive stuff that is being heralded by many as the future of advertising?

All this alternative/guerrilla/webby stuff suffers from many of the same limitations that traditional advertising does. The metrics that are used are mostly indirect—click through rates and other such dubious measures. But whether the website or the interactive game or whatever is actually enhances the brand or is responsible for an increase in sales is mushy stuff. Like cottage cheese, it’s slippery and squishy and it conforms to the container in which it is held.

I celebrate the cottage cheesiness of advertising because, as long as advertising appears to work, or, at least, doesn’t clearly not work, advertisers will advertise (though maybe not in the coming year, given the gloomy forecasts). And you and I will continue getting away with doing what we do.

A penny for your parallel thoughts

There is a kind of silly movie that came out in September called Eagle Eye. This movie relies heavily on the following device: the protagonist spends much of the movie being directed, via one electronic medium or another, to do this or that by a terrorist cell that has somehow secured control of every electronic network (ATMs, the electricity grid), including networked communication devices like news tickers and other electronic signs used to communicate.

So our hero glances at a news ticker on a building or some such thing, and is instructed to jump off a building or stop a train or whatever, in order to forward the terrorist plot.

The reason this idea of being able to instantly communicate with a single individual out in the world, using whatever medium is in his proximity at any given moment, interests me is that I’ve seen this idea executed by three different parties within the past month.

Here in the Chicago area, the Harris Bank has an ad campaign based on the idea of helpfulness, and has just started running a new set of spots that employs, basically, this same device. In one vignette, a guy bumps into a woman on the street who greets him by name, but he can’t recall her name. At that moment a bus passes by with a poster reading “Her name is Jane” or something to that effect. He reads the sign and greets her by name, thus being saved from an embarrassing moment. Each spot contains three or four of these helpful vignettes, always with signs of some kind providing a critical piece of information in the nick of time.

This month I also spotted a commercial from some other advertiser, the identity of which escapes me, that employs another facsimile of this same device.

Now, for all I know, this idea has been employed in the past by other advertisers. There are, after all, few new ideas. But it’s interesting that all three manifestations of the same device have occurred at virtually the same time.

The fact that all three popped up at the same time tells me that none of these three ripped the idea off from one of the others. This is not an example of bandwagon-jumping. It is, instead, just the most recent example of parallel thought, a phenomenon that most anyone who’s been in this business for any length of time, has experienced.

Being the victim of parallel thought can be very exasperating. How often have you presented an idea to your CD or a client, just to have essentially that same idea show up on TV or the web or whatever, sending you back to the drawing board?

What I’d like to know, but so far have no clue about, is exactly how this happens. Is it, in fact, pure co-incidence, because there are so many ideas being released into our culture at any given time that, inevitably, every now and then, two or three iterations of the same idea are bound to surface more or less simultaneously? What are the odds? I’d really like to know.

Or is there some other process at work, where by the probability of the occurrence of certain kinds of ideas is increased according to the nature and flow of our collective cultural conversation? Or is there some other organizing principal at work?

I have to think that some of you out there have given this phenomenon some thought. Any theories?