February 24, 2011

Ego Disguised As Advertising

I did a little experiment the other day. I went back and watched Super Bowl spots out of context. In other words, I watched them two weeks after The Big Event.

My hypothesis was this -- in order to get a true perspective on the merits of these spots required me to view them out of the context of hysteria in which they ran.

Because the Super Bowl is such A Big Deal it's easy to lose perspective. It's easy to adopt the amateur POV that the best spots are the most expensive or the most entertaining, rather than the most persuasive.

What my experiment found, not at all surprisingly, was a lot of corporations, agencies, and creatives flexing their egos. In fact, in many cases I found more ego than advertising.

I found a lot of spots that probably had some kind of logic to the creators, but were clearly incomprehensible or irrelevant to a potential customer.

Here are three lovely examples of ego-driven advertisers talking to themselves.

The first is remarkably unintelligible. There is absolutely no point to this thing except, I guess, to spend as much money as possible on inane special effects.

Next is for something called Chatter. It is indecipherable. Unless you have a copy of the script in your hand, I can't see how it is possible to know what the product even is. Oh, but it has a celebrity, so it must be awesome.

When the creative director was presenting the next spot (for the Motorola Xoom) to the client in the conference room, I'm sure it tickled the client to death. Who wouldn't want to be the guy who takes on the most famous Super Bowl spot of all time? Unfortunately, when spots go on the air, there is no creative director to explain what they mean. Here is a spot that probably made no sense to 98% of the people who watched it, and had absolutely nothing to do with the product it was supposed to sell. But it must have made the client feel quite self-satisfied..

It is remarkable that an industry that claims to have a special understanding of consumer behavior can so often have no ability to see beyond itself.

February 22, 2011

Self-Hating Grown-Ups

If there is one thing that truly makes me sick, it's mature people fawning over youth.

I think it started in the 1960's when youth culture became an obsession. Condescending clergymen, misguided commencement speakers, and pandering magazine covers proclaimed the arrival of a new species of human. They were young, caring, involved, and committed. They were going to change the world.

They changed it all right. Into a complete pig's breakfast.

But the wrong-headedness of youth worship hasn't had any effect on the ad industry. Despite massive evidence that young people have no money and make lousy customers, the ad and marketing industries are still in the sway of young people and their inane culture.

Advertising used to be about finding something uniquely differentiating about a brand and communicating it. Today it's about digging around for the next fad and contriving a way to attach a brand to it. In this environment, the worst thing you can be is out of touch.

Consequently, the most terrifying prospect for your average ad hack is the fear of growing up.

There are many manifestations of this. Today we are going to talk about just one. Several months ago I wrote an article for Adweek called Advertising In The Age of Hysteria. The point of the piece was that agencies have become very good at frightening clients into believing that they (the clients) are out of it. And unless they have us (the agencies) to interpret what's going on for them, they will die.

This has been lowered to a new level by PHD (one of Omnicoms thousands of agencies) who have taken these scare tactics, coupled them with youth worship, and come up with a truly appalling piece of digi-babble crap. As you watch it, try not to choke on your vomit.

February 17, 2011

Intro To My New Book

I recently spent several weeks away from this blog trying to finish up a new book I've been working on called 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising. Here is the intro to the book.


The title of this book is 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising. But, as you'll see, there are actually 105. You paid for 101, but you're getting 105. Consequently, you owe me four contrarian ideas.

I’m not going to be a dick about this. If you don’t have four ideas, you can send me four bucks or something. How about four bottles of Ketel One? Whatever seems fair.

Now that we’ve gotten your obligations out of the way, let’s talk about the book.

It’s mostly stuff I wrote for my blog The Ad Contrarian. In three years of writing The Ad Contrarian blog, I published about 50,000,000 pieces. Most of them were pretty stinky, but there were a few good ones and I think they’re nicely represented in this collection.

The difficult part of writing the blog was that I toiled mercilessly and received not a penny in return. It’s payback time. You want to read something about advertising that isn’t the usual brain-liquefying drivel? This time it's $14.95.

There are some pieces in this book that are not about advertising. They’re about things like fish, and cosmology, and singing our national anthem. I have called it 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising because I thought 101 Contrarian Ideas About Advertising And Fish And Cosmology And Singing Our National Anthem sounded stupid. I think you’ll agree.

I have spent more time than is healthy in the ad business. During my unbecoming longevity, I have developed a deep and abiding cynicism -- not so much for the ads themselves but for the way in which the ad business is conducted. It has been my experience that bad advertising gets punished by the market, but bad advertising business practices are thriving as never before.

One blog called my last book “the best ad book of the last 10 years.” They have since, on several occasions, tried to take it back, but I have it in writing, so they can’t. Ha!

I like to think of this new book as “the best ad book of the last 10 minutes.” I realize it’s not a great accolade, but at least it’s something.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoy it. And if you don’t, write your own damn book.

By the way, the three funniest words in the English language are nympho, homo, and Kotex.

February 16, 2011

Slow Company

For some reason, Fast Company has taken it upon itself to publish some of the dumbest articles about advertising I've ever read.

The latest one is called Could 2012 Super Bowl Spots Double Their Impact As iAds?

The article's premise is based on a piece of junk research done by Nielsen (on Apple's behalf) that purports to demonstrate that...
"...Apple's iAds appear to be twice as effective as a TV spot.
This conclusion is based on an exhaustive study of one (count 'em, one) ad for Campbell's soup.

The article does the usual journalistic trick of describing why the study was complete bullshit and then adds the 'nonetheless' conclusion.

The piece seems to have no understanding of the cost-benefit relationship that advertisers have to deal with. It states
...It was hardly a(n)....apples-to-apples comparison, since the TV ad was passive and the iAd featured all kinds of interactivity such as recipes....
Duh. Hiring people to knock on 100 million doors and personally explain the benefits of a product would also have a lot more impact than a Super Bowl spot. But it's kinda expensive.

And, just as an aside, at the current rate of sales it will take the iPad about 100 years to reach the number of people the Super Bowl will reach. But let's not let facts or logic stand in the way of a good headline.

February 15, 2011

It's Better To Be Employed Than Right

Recently I wrote about the book The Big Short, and how it applies to the current online ad bubble. The Big Short is about the crash of the financial system in 2008 and the people who saw it coming.

There is a lesson I learned from the book that is important to ad contras -- being right often doesn't matter.

One of the heroes of the book -- who had a remarkable record of investment acumen -- had to fight tooth and nail with his investors who insisted that he undo his bets (um, investments) against the tide of conventional thinking. Ultimately he was proven absolutely right when the financial system crashed, just as he had predicted. He made a fortune for himself and fortunes for his investors.

Once they got their money, every single investor left him. He didn't have one left.

There is a very strange psychological phenomenon that most humans are prone to. We are afraid to  buck conventional thinking. We like to believe in experts and we don't like it when experts are contradicted, particularly by outsiders.

I see it every time I question the conventional wisdom of my clients. When I tell them that...
  • TV ratings are at their highest point ever
  • Only one banner ad in a thousand gets clicked
  • People with TiVo watch live TV 95% of the time
  • 98% of video is still watched on a TV
  • 2 Facebook ads in 10,000 get clicked on
... I can sense that it doesn't matter whether I'm right or not. They want to believe what the "experts" have told them.

They're tired of making TV ads and radio spots, and billboards. They want something new and different and exciting. They've read all about the miracle of online advertising and the magic of social media. They don't want anyone telling them to slow down and think twice. They don't want to look behind the curtain.

Now, to be honest here, it's pretty easy for me to speak my version of the truth to clients. I've had a nice career and while I certainly don't want to, I can afford to get fired. It's a little different for most people in advertising.

So keep in mind one of the the lessons of The Big Short. If you challenge peoples' beliefs and expectations too sharply and too directly, sometimes it doesn't matter if you're right.

February 10, 2011

Unequivocal Proof That No One Has Ever Clicked On A Web Ad

Here at Ad Contrarian Global Headquarters, we sometimes enjoy role playing. Not the French maid kind of role playing, the business kind. Not that we have anything against French maids...

Today, I am going to role play. I am going to pretend I am a web data analyst and use the mathematics and logic of web analysis to prove to you that no one has ever clicked on a web ad intentionally. Sound like fun?

Here we go.

Last week, several trade publications reported on a study by Webtrends that claims that click-through rates on Facebook ads have dropped to .05%. To those of you who were not math majors, this means that for every 10,000 ads served on Facebook, 5 get clicked on. This is described by Adweek as "abysmal."

It is worse than abysmal. It is mind-blowingly, incomprehensibly, abysmally abysmal.

But that's not the end of it. According to a Facebook insider, the 5-clicks-in-10,000 number is actually a gross exaggeration. This person says that the true number is actually less than half that -- 2 clicks per 10,000.

You're probably not as unstable as I am, but maybe you've noticed something. Every now and then, as you're wasting your life away on the web, you accidentally click on something that you didn't intend to click on. I call this Unintended Click Syndrome. In my case, at least half the time I find myself facing a display ad, I had no intention of clicking on it. I got there as the result of being a victim of Unintended Click Syndrome.

According to Google, CNET, and Forbes, the number of these "invalid clicks" may be as high as 10% of all clicks (they define "invalid" clicks as those that are either unintended or fraudulent.)

Let's be generous here and say that only 5% of clicks are unintended. Now let's do a little math.

If the Facebook click-through rate is 5 in 10,000 (let's be generous again and use Webtrend's number) , and the invalid click rate is 5%, then of 500 clicks in 10,000 are invalid. It is, therefore, quite possible that all the clicks on Facebook ads are invalid and the actual click-through rate for Facebook ads is zero.

But this is not just true of Facebook.

The click-through rate for all web ads is 1 in a thousand. If the rate of unintended clicks is 50 in a thousand (5%) then, once again, it is possible that the rate of intended clicks on all web ads is zero.

My conclusion -- no one has ever intentionally clicked on a web ad.

Case closed.

February 09, 2011

Gravity And The Web

Today's post is being published in Adweek's online edition. It's called Gravity and the Web. It includes ideas from a post I wrote earlier this year plus some new stuff. Click here and leave nice comments.

February 08, 2011

Ads That Look Like Super Bowl Ads

It's time to admit it. The era of the Super Bowl ad is over.

This has been going on for years. We haven't recognized it because of Culture Lag -- the period of time it takes to realize that a cultural phenomenon is dead. Sometimes it takes years.  Sometimes decades. The Super Bowl spot is dead but it's going to take a while for us to catch on.

The advertising industry seems no longer capable of making Super Bowl ads. The best we can do is make ads that look like Super Bowl ads.

They are big. They are naughty. They feature celebrities. The things they are not are original, sophisticated, or good.

Recent Super Bowl ads have devolved into 3 distinct categories:
1. Go For The Groin: Things hit people in the crotch, people get knocked on the head, or girls with big boobs jiggle 'em.

2. Celebrities Not Being Funny: Celebrities are placed in fish-out-of-water situations which seem funny in the conference room and are rarely funny on the screen.

3. Big, Bombastic, Bullshit: Millions of dollars are spent on production to make a point that is highly relevant to clients and account planners, and meaningless to consumers.
TV has lost its primacy. Most agencies today believe that the web is equal to or superior to TV as an advertising medium. They are hiring people with web skills, which are way different from traditional advertising skills.

When agencies get an assignment to make a Super Bowl ad they apparently get hysterical. Instead of making a good ad that is simple, memorable and persuasive, they make an ad that looks like a Super Bowl ad.

I guess it's the next best thing.

February 07, 2011

Obligatory Super Bowl Post (#4)

My fourth year of random thoughts on the Super Bowl:
Most Notes Ever Sung Torturing The Star Spangled Banner: Christina Aguilera

No Wonder They Skipped It Last Year: Pepsi

It Wouldn't Be The Super Bowl Without Monkeys: CareerBuilder

Action Movie Trailer That Looked Like Every Other Action Movie Trailer: All of 'em

Longest Run For The Shortest Slide: Audi; Kia Optima; Motorola Xoom

Actually Made Me Laugh: Doritos
Makes Me Darn Proud To Be An Ad Guy: GoDaddy, Shape-Ups
Further Proof That Ads About Advertising Always Suck: Chevy "Teacher";  Bud "Product Placement"; Lipton Brisk "Eminem."
What Did They Need Diddy For? Mercedes-Benz

The Funny-Yet-Pointless Award: Bridgestone "Reply All"
Remember When They Used To Make Great Ads? BMW
Most Egregious Use Of Auto-Tune In A Half-Time Show: Will.I.Was
Gratuitous Mention of Facebook: Chevy

Best Super Bowl Player Name: Frank Zombo 

Will Live Forever: "Cram It In The Boot"

Missing In Action: Web schemes and social media tie-ins

Bad Acting By Bad Singers: Ozzy and Hairboy
Eminem: One for two
The Game Kept Getting Better And The Spots Kept Getting Worse: Super Bowl XLV

February 03, 2011

Why The Social Media Bubble Won't Burst

During my recent well-deserved sabbatical from blogging, I read a book about the financial meltdown of 2008 called The Big Short, by Michael Lewis.

The book is about the Wall Street morons and hustlers -- oops, I mean experts -- who, to an alarming degree, control our economy. Anyone who believes in the preposterous "wisdom of crowds" needs to read this book.

For those who don't know much about why the meltdown happened, here's the dumb blogger version:
1. Banks were making loans to people who couldn't afford them, particularly real estate and real estate-backed loans.
2. These loans often contained "teaser" rates which made them very attractive for the first two years, and very expensive thereafter.
3. Wall Street was then making zillions of dollars by taking these loans and bundling them into bonds (it's complicated, read the book) which they were selling to investors.
4. Everyone was complicit: banks, Wall Street, bond rating companies, government, and consumers. It was cheap and easy money. When a few prescient -- I am tempted to say contrarian -- individuals warned that when the teaser rates ended and consumers started defaulting on the loans the sky was going to fall, no one paid attention.
The contrarians -- much reviled by the bankers, Wall Street, and government knuckleheads -- turned out to be right. In 2007, when the teaser rates ended, the defaults started. Ultimately this lead to a crash and a global financial crisis, the impact of which the world is still reeling from.

One lesson I drew from this book is this. If there had not been a day of reckoning, that is, a discrete period of time during which teaser rates ended and defaults reached a tipping point, the bubble might still be growing. But because there was a time of reckoning it suddenly became clear that the house of cards could no longer stand.

We are currently in an online advertising bubble. People are rushing to put money into online advertising, particularly social media, because everyone else is. If you are a CMO and you are not spending lots of time and money on social media your management thinks you're stupid.

Nonetheless, there will not be an online ad crash. Here are a few reasons why:
1. In light of plummeting click-through rates, cost-per-thousands for online display ads have come down. This indicates that there is at least some sanity in the market.

2. Facebook, the poster child for social media, can only get ad rates that are, at best, 50% of average (see The Facebook Enigma.) Once again, this demonstrates that advertisers and their agencies aren't getting completely taken in by the hype.

3. Advertisers will continue to insist on cost-per-action pricing, which attenuates the otherwise unbelievable waste (according to a Facebook insider, 2 clicks per ten thousand. Less than half of the already hideous number reported in the trades this week.)
 4. Apparently,  intelligent clients are starting to get skeptical about all the digital ad hype. According to Chicago-based media management company Strata, interest in online advertising took a big dip (19%) compared to last quarter, while interest in television advertising increased 24%.
5. The always handy, rarely verifiable argument for online advertising as a "brand building" mechanism is only slightly less credible than it is for traditional advertising.

6. There will be no "day of reckoning." There is no timetable at which online advertising has to either put up or shut up. Most online advertisers and social media schemes will continue to get lackluster results. Agencies will continue to gin up or misinterpret the results to make them look better than they actually are...
...and the beat goes on.

February 02, 2011

Sex And The Super Bowl

For a hack copywriter, nothing gets your blood pumping like the prospect of writing a spot for the Super Bowl. (Well, that and being introduced to an impressionable young account coordinator. But that's another story...)

I had my chance at Super Bowl glory.

In 1998, my agency had an account called Vivus. Vivus had developed a product called Muse. Muse was the first of the "new-age" erectile dysfunction remedies. That's right, boner dust.

I wrote a spot for Muse. Because it was the first of its kind in a sensitive product area, the spot was developed intentionally to be "fact-forward" and non-suggestive. It was very simple. Visually, it was all type. Ed Asner did the voice over.

The client decided to run the spot on the Super Bowl.  NBC had other ideas. They rejected it. They said the subject matter was too radical for prime time.

Today you can't turn on Saturday morning cartoons without seeing icky, sex-crazed Baby Boomers jumping into rooftop bathtubs at sunset. But, alas, it was a different time.

As I sit here today, it's probably a good thing that NBC rejected the spot. You see, Muse was a suppository. That's right, you had to stick the little pill up the little...please...don't make me say it.

A few months later Viagra came out with a pill that could be taken orally -- a much less alarming "delivery system." The rest is history.

Now that I’m a useless old bean-counter, sometimes I sit back in my rocking chair and reminisce about my glory days as a hack copywriter. I had one brush with Super Bowl immortality, and I blew it.

So to speak.

By The Way...
...at the time, one of our copywriters wrote the best boner dust headline I've ever seen: "This Ad Can Give You An Erection."