February 23, 2017

Audi, Women, Virtue, And Bullshit


There is an annoying new imperative in the ad business that seems to have had a big moment recently at the Super Bowl.

It's the compulsion of brands to rub our noses in their virtue.

Now, believe me, I have nothing but the highest regard for people, institutions, and companies that do good work. But I have nothing but contempt for brands that hook their "brand purpose" to trendy causes and then do the opposite. You listening Audi?

Don't pitch me your high-minded Super Bowl bullshit about what to "tell my daughter" when you have zero women on your management Board. I know what to tell my daughter. It's to stay away from bullshit artists like you.

Corporations that tie their supposed virtue to trendy causes are annoying. Those that do it and then practice the opposite are trash.

Doing what's right is not an after-school project, it's your responsibility. So do what's right and then shut up about it. 

When I give money to charities, causes, or people in need I don't put up billboards. I don't want kudos for my noble principles. I just want to be able to sleep at night.

Do you, as a company, have certain values? That's great. Support them with money and actions but, please, leave me out of your self-regard. Do it because it's the right thing to do, not to impress me with your nobility.

Virtue-hustling is just one example of the old school psycho-babble trope of "laddering-up" of  consumer benefits. Often to the point at which they have no relationship to the product at hand.

It goes something like this: Shin-E-Flor makes your floors shinier, which makes your house nicer, which makes your family happier, which makes life better, which makes your dreams come true. Ergo, Shin-E-Flor makes your dreams come true.

It is very easy to talk yourself into this nonsense, and usually a really bad idea.

When I was a creative director I would often get synchronized eye-rolls from my staff when I insisted that the two most important words in advertising are "be specific." They all wanted to make ads about how our new vacuum cleaner nozzle made life better. I wanted to make ads about how it picked up more dirt.

My predilection for specificity was reinforced this week. Although I'm a little out of practice writing ads, I still have to write headlines for my blog and my newsletter that will make people want to read further.

I wrote the following headline for a blog post I did earlier this week - "Messaging Versus Signaling." It described what the post was about succinctly and accurately. But as I was writing the blog I wrote the following line of copy, "This is why Tiffany doesn't run infomercials" and I knew I had the making of a better headline. It was nicely specific, and it became one of the most-read posts of the year on the blog.

I was also fretting over a headline for my email newsletter (which, btw, you can subscribe to here.) The headline also acts as the subject line in the email. I wanted to re-purpose an old blog post called "Why I Lied," but I didn't want to use the same headline.

I played around with other headlines that were more "laddered-up" like "Why Are Agencies Afraid Of The Truth?" But in the end I decided to stick with the old headline as it was more direct, and more specific. The average email marketing newsletter has an open rate of about 11%. This one had an open rate of almost 60%.

The bottom line on all this is that we shouldn't get too puffed up, too self-important, and start believing in grand themes for all our communication.

As I once told the misguided owner of a chain of donut shops who wanted to do a campaign about their management philosophy... "no one needs more philosophy, they need good donuts."


February 21, 2017

Why Tiffany Doesn't Make Infomercials


We advertising people often spend months trying to develop the correct messages for our brands. We do consumer research, we create strategy documents, we write briefs, we develop many rounds of creative material, we test and refine these materials, and then we launch them.

It is not hyperbole to say that we are obsessive about "messaging."

However, there are some very smart people who think that there is an equally important aspect to advertising success that we pay almost no attention to. It's called "signaling."

This is well-known in academic circles, but let me try to explain it in idiot blogger terms (if you want to read what grown-ups say about it, check out Don Marti, Rory Sutherland, and Doc Searls.)

I walk into a room. I announce that I am the handsomest man in the world. I have just "said" one thing, but communicated another. What I have communicated is that I am a big jerk.

My message was undermined by what I signaled.

This is one of the most important arguments against tracking-based, data-driven advertising.

Data-based advertising is nothing new. We've had it for decades. It first arrived as "junk mail", oops, I mean direct response marketing. It later morphed into 800 numbers and junk faxes and infomercials. Display advertising of the "click here" variety is just its latest, most technologically advanced incarnation.

Consumers recognize this type of communication as advertising's lowest level of quality. They may not understand why, but they recognize the form.

I am not trying to denigrate direct response. It is clearly effective at certain types of selling. But is hopeless at building major brands.

I cannot think of one major brand of anything in any major consumer product category that has been built by direct response advertising (beer? soda? soap? fast food? shampoo? snack foods? clothing? paper goods? pain relievers? toothpaste? cars?... okay, I'll stop.)

One of the reasons is signaling. The knowledge that an ad was personally targeted at us, that it includes mechanisms of direct response, and that it appears in a certain type of (sorry DR people) cheap and cheesy media, signals to the consumer that it is not a high quality brand.

This is why Tiffany doesn't run infomercials.

The value proposition of display advertising is re-targeting -- that we will find the most valuable target for a product at the least expensive site. In other words, we will find the most luxurious eyeballs in shittiest possible location.

This is essentially the promise of tracking, adtech and re-targeting.

And this is where signaling kills you. Most people are pretty good behavioral economists. They may not know anything about how the products they buy work, but they know how to read the advertising signals.

According to an article I read recently, the average Western household has about 10,000 items. People can't possibly take the time or energy to learn how every product they buy is made or the variables behind its efficacy. So they take what they can understand about the product as a proxy. And one of the variables they use as a proxy is advertising signal.

Their subconscious logic (is that an oxymoron?) goes something like this: A quality brand has a reputation built over years and worth billions. As a result, they have sufficient resources to advertise in proper places and with a set of skills that is unavailable to less successful, less reliable companies.

They know how and where quality brands advertise and what advertising for quality brands feels like. And they also know where shitty brands advertise.

When your re-targeted ad appears on a crappy website among the ads for divorce lawyers and discount dentists -- as it unquestionably will -- are you building a brand or sabotaging one?

You may be saying that you are the handsomest man in the world, but you may be signaling that you are a big jerk.

February 16, 2017

Interpreting Research Bullshit


We poor oppressed advertising and marketing people are daily fed many flavors of bullshit.

One of the least understood is research bullshit. Research, because it sports the veneer of science, is generally not subjected to the same degree of scrutiny as, say, media bullshit or creative bullshit.

But, make no mistake, research bullshit is just as pervasive in our sorrowful world.

Here at the headquarters of Ad Contrarian Labs, we like to feature some nice research bullshit every now and then just to stay on our toes and keep our readers on the lookout.

Yesterday I was reading a piece in the Research Brief From The Center For Media Research. Now, I have no idea where the Center For Media Research is, but based on the logo at the top of the page, I have a feeling it's a laptop in the basement of the MediaPost office.

Anyway, the story in question was a little convoluted so I'm not going to recap the whole thing (if you want to read it you can find it here.) But I want to highlight a couple of "facts" found in the article. The study in question, done by a company called Kibo, reported that...
  • "94% of consumers do research online before visiting a store"
  • "92% of consumers reported interactive content influences them to make a purchase"
Now these are very impressive numbers. They give the impression that people hardly buy anything before researching it online, and are amazingly influenced by interactive content. But as is so often the case with sneaky online data, it means nothing of the sort.

The problem here is not that the numbers are wrong, it's that they are grossly, and perhaps intentionally, misleading.

Here's how this baloney works.

It's hard to tell from the article what period of time this study encompasses, but it seems to be six months. Let's assume that.

So if you went online once in September to check the price of motor oil at Costco, you are one of the 94% of consumers who "do research online before visiting a store." You may have shopped for thousands of items in the months before and after and never gone online to do "research before visiting a store" but if you did it once, you are one of the 94%.

Similarly, if you happened to once come across a tweet that said you could save $1 on a pizza you ordered, then "interactive content" influenced you to make a purchase. You are among the 92%.

This is the same type of deceptive horseshit that a few years ago lead to the absurd "fact" that "60% of shoppers use QR codes." Yeah, right.

What's obvious here is that if the researchers wanted to do a serious analysis on the impact of "online research" on shopping, and the influence of "interactive content" on purchasing behavior, they would have reported on the frequency of each behavior, which is much more relevant, not the reach. But I doubt it would have made for very clickable "facts."

I mean, what kind of story would you have if the facts turned out be...
  • 6% of items are researched online before they are bought
  • 2% of purchases are influenced by interactive content