June 08, 2020

Carnival Of Hypocrisy


"By 2017, American companies had put at least $2.6 trillion into offshore tax shelters...Nike had $12.2 billion.... The company estimates that if its $12.2 billion was repatriated to the U.S., it would owe $4.1 billion in U.S. taxes... Designating its profits this way allows the company to avoid paying even a dime of U.S. income taxes on these profits..." - The Oregonian. More about this in a minute.

The horrible murder of George Floyd was treated by the marketing industry this week as an opportunity to express sincere desire for change. Sadly, it also exposed our talent for hypocrisy.

While brand marketers were exhorting us to end practices that cause social damage to black Americans, they were themselves deeply engaged in some of the most pernicious practices.

I have my own standard for evaluating a company's true commitment to social justice. It is this: to what extremes does it go to avoid paying taxes?

Taxation may be unpleasant. Tax dollars are often squandered on idiotic schemes. Paying taxes may reduce a corporation's returns to investors. But taxation is by far the most potent source of resources for societies to redress social ills. Taxation funds education. Taxation funds housing. Taxation funds health initiatives. Taxation funds social services.

There is no way around this -- when corporations take extraordinary measures to avoid paying taxes, they are doing extraordinary harm to citizens who have the greatest need for education, housing, health, and social services. If brands really believe that Black Lives Matter they must stop starving our country of the resources to improve black lives by hiding their taxable profits in offshore tax havens. Like it or not, to a substantial degree, taxation is the engine that funds social justice.

There will be those who say that these tax dodges are perfectly legal. In many cases they are. This fact impresses me not one bit. If you're going to use social media or paid media to pound your chest about social justice, you have a higher responsibility than just to obey the letter of the law. There is little honor in being legally compliant and ethically opportunistic.

Dear business colleagues -- if you really want to help heal this country here's step one: Pay your fucking taxes. Until you're willing to do that, please instruct your marketing departments to spare us the high-minded pieties.

Let's make this so simple that even a ceo can understand it: You can't be for social justice and against paying taxes.

April 13, 2020

Puzzles and Mysteries


I was rummaging through old blog posts and came upon this one from almost 13 years ago. Since no one read my blog 13 years ago, and I liked this post, I thought I'd re-post it.

An article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker leads me to believe that advertising people can learn something from spies about solving business problems.

Gladwell tells us about a national security expert, Gregory Treverton, who distinguished between two kinds of problems: puzzles and mysteries. His distinctions have great value for us.

Puzzles, he wrote, are problems for which there is not enough information. An example of a puzzle: Where is Jimmy Hoffa buried? If we had more information, we would know the answer. If someone told us “Jimmy Hoffa is buried in New Jersey,” we’d know a little more than we know now. If they said,“He’s buried in northern New Jersey,” we’d know even more. If they said,“He’s buried in the Meadowlands,” we’d have an answer to our puzzle.

On the other hand, there are mysteries. Mysteries are problems for which we have plenty of information, but no accurate analysis. An example of a mystery: Why do inner-city schools do such a crappy job of educating kids? There are thousands of studies. Every education department of every university in America has done a study on this; every committee of Congress has done a report on it; every editorial writer has a theory about it, and every pundit has an opinion. And yet, we have no definitive answer. More studies and more information are not likely to yield an answer. What is needed is an accurate analysis of the voluminous information that already exists.

Gladwell gives a wonderful example of the importance of distinguishing between puzzles and mysteries. In 1943, during World War II, the Allies were concerned about Germany’s boast of having developed a “superweapon.” Did they really have a superweapon, or was it just propaganda? There were two ways to deal with this problem. It could be dealt with as a puzzle, and spies could be sent out to gather more information. Or it could be dealt with as a mystery, and information the Allies already had could be analyzed.

Fortunately, American intelligence had a bunch of brainiacs who were known as “the screwball division.” They were “slightly batty geniuses” who were brilliant at analyzing information that was readily available to anyone. So instead of sending out spies disguised in mustaches to infiltrate German munition factories, the intelligence community gave the brainiacs German newspapers and radio broadcasts. These guys pored over the information that already existed and accurately predicted that the Germans had, in fact, developed a new weapon, the V-1 rocket. And they also accurately predicted both that it had been stalled in development and when it would be ready.

As a matter of fact, in retrospective analysis, these guys had been correct an amazing 81% of the time in their analyses during the war. A success rate many times higher than the spies.

How does this apply to us? We ad people are almost always tasked by our clients with solving some variation of the following problem: How do we sell more stuff? Sometimes it is a subset of that question like -- who is our target customer? or, what should our primary ad medium be? or, which of these campaigns should we go with? or, what should our brand position be?

One hundred percent of the time these problems are dealt with as puzzles, not mysteries. We always assume that one more study will yield the magic answer. Research is commissioned. Spies are sent out to live with customers, or to interview them, or hold group discussions with them.

The results of these endeavors are all too frequently disappointing. The methodologies are usually dressed up to appear scientifically bullet-proof. But the initial enthusiasm for the process often recedes when the answers aren't conclusive or unimpressive real-world results start rolling in.

On the other hand, most companies have stacks of research and reams of data about their customers and about their industry. This mountain of existing information is almost never consulted. In my entire career, I have never seen or heard a marketing problem treated as a mystery. I have never once heard a marketing officer say,“You know, we have all this research we’ve done over the years and all this data from the industry. Before we do more research, I want someone to go through this stuff and tell me what it means.”

Why do we prefer to deal with business problems as puzzles rather than mysteries? Because it's easier. Going through thousands of pages and discerning patterns is hard work -- the important patterns are not usually visible on the surface. It requires a special intelligence to be able to examine imprecise, unfiltered, inconclusive, often contradictory information and come up with a correct analysis.

It is much more comforting to send a researcher or planner out with a fake mustache and give her six weeks to come back with an answer. Unfortunately, as we all have experienced, an alarming amount of the research we do yields little of actionable value. The following year the report becomes part of the dusty heap of poorly analyzed information sitting around adding to the mystery.

So what are we to do?

The key is to break down the tyranny of titles and find out who our "slightly batty geniuses" are. Simply because an individual has the title of “account planner” or “research director” or "global strategy guru" or “CMO” doesn’t make him an expert detective. In my experience, planners and researchers tend to be puzzle doers, not mystery solvers.

However, there are people who are just naturally good at solving mysteries. They may come from the accounting department or the creative department or the media department or the sales department. We need to identify these people in our organizations. 

Before spies are sent out, these people need to be exposed to all the information that exists and allowed to weigh in on the questions we’re all trying to solve.

The hard part of solving marketing problems is not getting more information, it’s figuring out what the information we already have means.

April 09, 2020

A Seriously Imperfect Species


I wrote this a few days ago but didn't post it because I felt uncomfortable about posting non-positive things during this unpleasant period.  However, after reading the great Mark Ritson's column today, and seeing that he isn't afraid to be level-headed, I decided to stand with him.

We are a seriously imperfect species, we humans.

For those who think the corona virus experience will "change everything," I have some dispiriting thoughts. It won't. Circumstances change but human nature doesn't.

Did the Bubonic Plague make our species more kind, gentle and selfless? Did the Spanish Flu? Did World War I? Did WWII?

At best, disasters lead to temporary outpourings of kindness, gentility, and good deeds. For those who think the CV-19 experience has made us less selfish and more community-minded, I invite you to come to California and try to buy some toilet paper.

One thing every sensible marketer learns very quickly is that as a rule people act in their own self-interest. You may think this cold and disheartening - and it probably is - but it is nonetheless true.

Are there examples of amazing people doing incredible things for others at the expense of their own safety? Yes, and we should be forever grateful for the existence of these wonderful people.

Are there examples of average people being especially thoughtful in their behavior. Yes, and we should be proud of that.

But will we be a changed and chastened species when this is all over? I doubt it. Our memories are short and soon after the CV-19 experience is gone, I am pretty sure we will revert to the usual norms of unpleasant, irresponsible behavior.

The same is true in advertising. For now, many of our major marketers are trying to put their best feet forward with responsible, gentle advertising. This won't last long. Nor will our industry's self-control. Soon the ad industry will be leveraging the CV-19 experience to our advantage. As I wrote 10 years ago in a piece in Adweek entitled Ads in the Age of Hysteria...

"...if there’s one thing we ad hacks understand, it’s the relationship between anxiety and cash flow. We’ve spent decades creating anxiety in consumers... Now we can apply the same principles to our clients. And so we have created an ongoing hysteria-fest called The Thing That Will Change Everything. The object is to keep marketers in a constant state of anxiety about the future.

The more we can convince them that everything is changing around them — and they need us to interpret the changes — the longer we stay employed."







March 30, 2020

Branding And Grandstanding


I sometimes listen to branding "experts" talk and wonder if they live on the same planet I do. I hear them say...
  • Consumers want to “join the conversation” about brands.
  • Consumers want to co-create with brands.
  • Brands need to create communities of engaged consumers to be successful.
  • Consumers want a relationship with brands.
  • Consumers want brands that align with their values.
I suspect that the more these branding experts can link "branding" to business success, the more of a market they are creating for their services.

First of all, I don't like the word branding. It's like so many words in the dreadful lexicon of marketing -- far too open to interpretation to mean anything specific. There is nothing stupid you can do with a logo that can't be excused as "branding."

Yet, despite my misgivings about branding "experts," I believe that creating a well-known, desirable brand is the highest achievement of advertising. So what the hell are we talking about here? Let's do a little thinking.

As stated above, creating a well-known, desirable brand is the highest attainment of advertising. There are people who would disagree and say that creating a best-selling product is advertising's highest attainment. They are wrong. Advertising alone cannot create a best-selling brand or product. There are far too many elements in marketing, and business in general, that influence product sales. Advertising cannot affect product quality, distribution, pricing, product design, etc. As Mark Ritson often points out, marketing is a lot more than communication.

In the long run, no amount of brilliant advertising and its concomitant brand value can overcome a shitty, ugly product that tastes bad, is hard to find and is unaffordable or unprofitable.

And yet brand babblers seem to think that every business problem is a branding problem. They rattle on and on about the power of "the brand" until you want to shoot yourself. Or them. They inflate the importance of what they do and disguise their ignorance of the complex nature of business success, behind a vague, non-specific curtain - the magical mystery module of "branding."

Many well-known and respected brands have died ignominious deaths (e.g., Polaroid, Oldsmobile, Kodak) -- not necessarily because their "branding" sucked, but because either their products couldn't cut it anymore, or they fell behind the competition, or their financials were cockeyed, or some non-communication aspects of their marketing strategy were inadequate.

To wit, I suspect that one of the economic consequences of the current CV tragedy will be the demise of several "major brands" who have been living on investor money instead of operational income.

Successful "branding" can help make a product more desirable and it can raise the perceived value of a product. In general it can raise the likelihood that a business or product will be successful.

Yes, creating a desirable brand is the highest achievement of advertising, but...
No, creating a desirable brand is not nearly a guarantee of business success.

There are a lot of contingencies in creating a successful business. There are nuts and bolts, and wind, rain, and snow, and salt and pepper, and a little of this and a lot of that.

Despite the implications and assertions of brand babblers, in no way does successful "branding" lead inexorably to a successful business. Getting "the brand" right is a significant component of marketing success, but you gotta get a whole lot of other things right first.

February 24, 2020

Sugar And Technology


For a good part of human history food didn't taste so good. That's why spices from the Far East were such treasured commodities in the West.

In the seventeenth century sugar imported from New Guinea and India became more easily available in England and started becoming very popular. One of the prime reasons was that it made tea taste a lot better.

But Brits went overboard on it. They couldn't get enough. In 1700 the average Brit consumed about 4 pounds of sugar a year. By 1900 the annual per capita consumption was 90 pounds.

Until experience kicks in you never know what the effects are going to be. At first, they didn't know about the effects sugar had on teeth.

It is reported that Queen Elizabeth's teeth turned black from sugar. Not that long ago, many women in England had their teeth pulled in their twenties.

The point is, when something comes along that magically satisfies a craving there can be harsh and unintended consequences.

In the 20th century the advertising industry had a gaping hole. We had very little scientifically reliable information on the efficacy of advertising. Mostly what we had were anecdotes and case histories - in other words, bullshit tarted up to look like facts.

The 21st century brought us technology. And with technology came the promise of science and an enormous appetite for data, measurement, and mathematics.

Data, measurement, and mathematics are important aspects of advertising when consumed in reasonable quantities. But when the craving for numbers becomes a mania, there are sure to be unintended consequences.

We humans are emotional creatures. The release from deprivation tends to create an obsession for that of which we have been deprived. Ask any sailor.

We ad humans have been kicked around for so long because our discipline has been devoid of the benefits of reliable science, that when technology came along we went from 4 pounds to 90 in about three seconds. We are swallowing all the technology we can stuff into our mouths as quickly as we can regardless of its relevance, reliability, authenticity, or the detrimental effects (corruption, fraud, scandals, political and social disruption, the deteriorating quality of our product) it is having on our industry.

Desperately hungry for the gratification of science, we are gorging on technology and finding that our frenzied indulgence is rotting our teeth.


February 19, 2020

Decade Of Delusion


I like to think of my new book, Advertising For Skeptics, as an undiluted bounty of heretical, unpopular, and aberrant thoughts about our industry. It is now available at Amazon.

The past decade was expected to be a golden age for advertising. We had amazing new tools and amazing new media.

Our ability to personalize advertising and reach consumers “one-to-one” was sure to make advertising more relevant, more timely, and more likable.

Our ability to listen to consumer conversations through social media and react quickly couldn’t help but connect brands more closely with their customers.

The opportunity for people to interact with media was certain to make advertising more engaging.

And yet, by the mostly unanimous opinion of people inside and outside the ad business, the past decade has been a shit show...
  • Rather than creating advertising that is “more relevant, more timely and more likable” we are  creating advertising that is more annoying, more disliked, and more avoided. The New York Times says, “The Advertising Industry Has A Problem: People Hate Ads”
  • Marketers are taking advertising in-house or hiring consulting firms to do what we once did
  • Public regard for our industry is at an all-time low
  • The ANA claims corruption in our industry is "pervasive"
  • Between one and two billion devices are reportedly armed with ad blockers
  • Regulators and governments are on our ass with a vengeance
  • Tens of billions are being stolen by ad fraud
  • Scandals involving privacy and brand safety are reported every week
  • Social media is undermining confidence in democratic institutions
  • Consumers are becoming disgusted with tracking and spying
What went wrong? Pretty much everything.

I hope this book will give you some things to think about that are antithetical to much of what the advertising and marketing industry now take for granted.

If you've ever wanted to stand up at a marketing meeting and scream, I can't stand this bullshit anymore...

If you've ever suspected that advertising people don't really know things they think they know...

If you've ever had the feeling that there are famous people in our business walking around with nothing but a powerpointful of jargon and bullshit...

....I think you will enjoy this book.




February 06, 2020

Looking For Problems


One of the biggest dangers successful brands face is falling into the hands of dumbass marketers.

Successful brands are usually created by an inscrutable recipe of hard work, good product ideas, luck, and competent marketing. After a period of success there is always a second (or tenth) generation of marketing. Many new generations of marketing make a similar mistake. Before we get to that mistake, let's talk about baseball.

In Major League Baseball's National League, pitchers have to hit. They are very bad hitters. Not because they lack athletic ability, but because they usually didn't hit much, if at all, in high school, college, or minor leagues. Hitting major league pitching is indescribably hard and if you rarely hit as an amateur coming into the major leagues and trying to hit is a nightmare.

Because pitchers are such bad hitters, National League teams usually have between 3 and 5 automatic outs in every game they play. This is a significant hardship because in every 9-inning game you only get 27 outs.

But baseball people are smart. They don't spend a lot of time trying to teach pitchers how to hit. Yes, they have them take batting practice to keep their timing up, but they figure that there's a limited amount of time to be spent in training, and it's best spent improving a pitcher's pitching technique rather than his hitting technique. In other words, there's more benefit in improving what he does well than in trying to improve what he does badly. Many marketers don't understand this.

Every company has strengths and weaknesses. The temptation to focus immoderate amounts of time, energy, and money on tweaking weaknesses rather than maximizing strengths can be overwhelming. To wit...

For many years I did advertising and marketing work for a large fast food corporation. Marketing regimes at large corporations like this don't usually last long. In my 16 years in their stable of agencies, I lived through several marketing regimes. As each new marketing regime took control it was inevitable that they would look at research and discover that - surprise! - they did not score well with consumers on healthfulness. What fast food company does? And the wild goose chase would begin.

Instead of focusing on improving what they could do well and try to deliver a better hamburger in a cleaner store in less time, they would go on a "let's pretend we're healthy" kick which would go nowhere. Months of work and zillions of dollars would be wasted because time and money spent on a non-productive exercise was not spent on making what they could be good at better.

When new marketing "leadership" shows up at a successful brand, it is highly likely that the very first thing they will do is try to identify what "the problems" are. It makes them seem smart. If left unchecked this inevitably leads to trying to fix what the company does poorly instead of maximizing what the company can do well.

In other words, they try to turn pitchers into hitters.

February 03, 2020

Storytelling Or Personalization -- Pick One.


For the past couple of years, the advertising industry has been fixated on two themes: the creative side of the business has been preoccupied with "storytelling," and the media side has been hooked on "personalization."

What no one seems to realize is that these two goals are contradictory. We'll get to that in a minute. First, a little overview.

The dumbest idea of advertising's digital age has been "interactivity." Consumers who could barely stand to watch or read ads anymore were suddenly going to want to interact with them and join conversations about them. 

Because people wanted to interact with pop musicians, famous athletes, and movies stars we thought they'd want to interact with us. Not.

The idea that the same consumer who was gleefully clicking her remote to escape from TV ads was going to joyfully click her mouse to interact with online ads is going to go down as one of the great marketing fantasies of all time.

Our second dumbest idea is "personalization." Somewhere marketers got the idea that personalized one-to-one targeting is superior to mass media reach. (I'll have a lot to say about this in my new book "Advertising For Skeptics" set to be published within the next few weeks -- start saving now!)

Amazingly, the same people who babble on about "personalization" also won't shut up about "storytelling." They can't see the contradiction. They don't understand that storytelling and personalization are enemies. Storytelling is about shared, universal narratives. Personalization is about individualized messages.


Jesus on the cross, Joan of Arc at the stake, George Washington and the cherry tree are not "personalized." They are powerful storytelling because they are universal. They are known by masses of people. That's their power.


If you want to create successful stories you have to tell them out loud and in public. If you want to get all personal you have to do it privately.

We have become so absorbed in our own insular feedback loop that we have lost any sense of the connection marketing has to the basics of human communication. You can't be pro-storytelling and anti-mass media.


As usual the marketing industry is so far up its own ass with its new technology toys that technology trumps common sense. The fact that we can do personalized, one-to-one advertising is not a compelling reason why we should.

January 06, 2020

Facebook's Year Of Disgrace


Here are 29 ways the "move fast and break things" jerk-offs soiled our lives in 2019.

1. January: It was discovered that Facebook-owned WhatsApp was being used to spread illegal child pornography.

2. January: Researcher Aaron Greenspan, former running mate of Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard, said that Facebook's claim of reaching 2 billion people is a lie and said Zuckerberg "may be the greatest con man in history."

3. January: Zuckerberg writes a Wall Street Journal op ed defending Facebook and gets roundly roasted for it.

4. January: British health minister threatens to close down social media after 14-year-old girl commits suicide after seeing disturbing content on Facebook-owned Instagram.

5. February: It was discovered that Facebook was paying kids as young as 13 to install spyware on their phones.

6. February: A committee of Parliament in England denounced Facebook as "digital gangsters" and said, "Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalised ‘dark adverts'..."

7. February: The Wall Street Journal discovered that people were entering private information into apps and, unknown to them, the apps were feeding the info to Facebook.

8. March: Federal investigators summoned a grand jury to investigate criminal implications of Facebook's agreement with over 100 tech companies to provide them with information about 100s of millions of FB users without their knowledge or consent.

9. March: Facebook leaves hundreds of millions of user passwords unencrypted.

10. March: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sued Facebook for allowing "advertisers to exclude people from seeing housing ads based on their race, religion, background and other characteristics"

11. March: In the wake of the massacre of 50 people in New Zealand which was live-streamed on FB, the Prime Minister of Australia threatened to jail social media execs.

12: April: It was discovered that a Mexican company had stored over 500 million Facebook records in plain site on the Amazon cloud for anyone to access.

13: April: Bloomberg reported that almost 400,000 crooks have been using Facebook for as long as eight years as a marketplace to buy and sell criminal materials.

14: April: The Daily Beast reported that "Child Brides in Africa Are Advertised on Facebook and Sold to Old Men."

15. April: The New York Times reported that "Regulators on four continents are preparing for a long-awaited showdown with Facebook..."

16. May: In an article in the NY Times, Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, called for its breakup.

17: July: FTC fines Facebook $5 billion for Cambridge Analytica scandal.

18: August: Netflix airs "The Great Hack" about the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal. PBS airs "The Facebook Dilemma," savaging the company and claiming it has blood on its hands.

19: September: TechCrunch found another unprotected data base online which contained the phone numbers and user IDs of 419 million Facebook users.

20: September: The BBC reported that a study by Privacy International determined that "Intimate data, including when people have had sex, is being shared with Facebook."

21: September: Massachusetts attorney general found that Facebook lied when they said they suspended 400 apps to remediate after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In fact, they suspended 69,000 questionable apps.

22: September: A study conducted by researchers at Oxford University found that "Facebook remains the No. 1 social network for disinformation...Organized propaganda campaigns were found on the platform in 56 countries."

23: October: Facebook agreed to pay a group of advertisers $40 million to settle a  suit which claimed that Facebook had inflated its video metrics by as much as 900%.

24: October: Zuckerberg gave a speech at Georgetown University defending Facebook's policy of airing political advertising they know to be false.

25: October:  BuzzFeed reported "How A Massive Facebook Scam Siphoned Millions Of Dollars From Unsuspecting Boomers."

26: October: P&G announced that they had built their own data base of 1.5 billion people because they don't trust the numbers of Facebook or Google.

27: November: Aaron Sorkin, writer of the movie "The Social Network," savaged Zuckerberg's "free speech" hypocrisy in a NY Times op ed.

28: December: CNET reported "more than 267 million Facebook user phone numbers, names and user IDs were exposed in a database that anyone could access online."

29: December: In response to an inquiry from two U.S. Senators, Facebook admitted it can track peoples' location even if they opt out of tracking.

My favorite Zuckerberg quote: "I've developed a deep appreciation for how building a strong company with a strong economic engine and strong growth can be the best way to align many people to solve important problems." 

I can't help but wonder what important problems Mr. Zuckerberg thinks he's solved.