July 28, 2011

My Favorite Comment

I am on vacation and may not be posting for a while.

My post on Monday (called I Am Offended) about web bullying and free speech received a lot of interesting comments. In addition to the "official" comments posted on the blog, I also received several emails about it. My favorite was one I received this morning:
I'm 87 years old. I used to be art director for some small agencies, but became disgusted by the inbuilt fear I saw all about me. Please continue to anger the assholes who are afraid of differences of opinion.  - Sam Salant

July 25, 2011

I Am Offended

Last week I wrote a post entitled Invasion of the Talking Vaginas. It was about a campaign for Summer's Eve (what an awful name) in which human hands represented talking vaginas.

I ended the post with this comment: I don't hate this campaign because it's offensive. I hate it because it's done so witlessly.

That same day, an article appeared in The New York Times about the California Milk Processor Board having pulled a campaign for milk that poked fun at women with PMS. This campaign offended great swaths of people. It created a huge uproar. It was pulled and the usual mea culpas were issued.

I loved the campaign.  I didn't love the campaign because it was inoffensive. I loved it because it was artfully done .

In fact, while the the campaign was assuredly sexist, it was way funnier and more intelligently conceived than the dreadful spoof of it which appeared in Funny or Die.

I am afraid that we are in a slow but inexorable slide toward the erosion of free speech. To a significant degree, this erosion is due to the erroneous belief that people have a right to be free of offense.

In fact, our constitution guarantees exactly the opposite. It guarantees us the right to offend whomever the hell we want whenever the hell we want to. That's what free speech means.

Our courts have held that as a general principle commercial speech enjoys similar protections as individual speech. This means that businesses and advertisers have the same right to offend that individuals do.

I happen to hold very liberal views about individual liberties, including free speech. But there is a branch of "liberalism" these days that has become very intolerant. These people are humorless scolds who are very easily offended and demand instant redress for their injured sensitivities.

There is also a branch of conservatism that thinks we need to be protected from "dangerous" ideas. Well, I appreciate your concern, but if it's all the same to you, I'd like to draw my own conclusions.

The tricky part is this. Government is prohibited from censoring what we can say. But well-meaning citizens, believing they are protecting society from dangerous, offensive, or prejudicial ideas, have substantial power to censor by applying economic pressure.

In the internet age, it has become much easier to band together to exert pressure for the purpose of silencing ideas we don't like. And we have every right to do so. But before we exercise this right we need to think seriously about the implications.

I don't believe our sensitivities are so profound that they trump someone else's right to offend us. I don't believe we want to allow the limits of commercial discourse to be determined by the loudest bullies on the web.

Do ethnic, racial and sexual stereotypes cause offense? Absolutely.

Should we act to silence them? Absolutely not.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I am very curious about the reaction of readers. If you have an opinion either way, please leave a comment.

July 21, 2011

Invasion Of The Talking Vaginas

There is an alarmingly awful series of commercial videos currently on YouTube for Summer's Eve.

For reasons of propriety I am not going to embed them in this post, but here are some links: Link #1, Link #2, Link #3.

The premise of this campaign is that your vagina (portrayed by a hand) is talking to you. Not being the proud owner of a vagina, it's hard for me to comment on the effect this campaign might have on someone who does have one. But from the verbal reaction I am getting from women, I don't think this campaign is making Summer's Eve any friends.

Here's the thing about this campaign. I'm sure the Summer's Eve people were not naive about the effect it would have. I am sure they understood that there was a significant portion of the population who would be offended by these videos, but they were willing to take the chance to get some attention.

While I think the decision was misguided, I can see how it might have paid off. It might have paid off if the campaign was funny; if it wasn't so appallingly executed; if it wasn't so poorly written and performed.

Back when I was a creative director I used to drive the people in my creative department crazy with the following criticism of their storyboards: This is not  a spot. It's an idea. Now you need to make it into a spot.

What happened in this Summer's Eve travesty is that someone had an idea. The idea was that a "hand puppet" could substitute for a vagina and a vagina could talk. It's a pretty damn gross idea, but it's an idea.

In the hands of someone who could write, this idea might actually have been turned into something interesting. In the hands of the dullards who wrote and produced it, it is awful.

Regardless of what they did with it, Summer's Eve were going to offend some people. That's fine. The problem with this thing is, even the people who were not automatically going to be offended will be horrified because the writing and voice over performances are so astonishingly dumb.

Comedy is a funny thing. It's easy to be funny over lunch. It's very hard to be funny standing up in front of hundreds of people. It's the same in advertising. It's easy to have a funny idea. It's very hard to make a funny spot.

The Summer's Eve campaign had a very slight chance to be successful. It might have been successful if it was funny. It is stunningly unfunny, and as a result it is a disaster.

I don't hate this campaign because it's offensive. I hate it because it's done so witlessly.

Thanks to Sharon Krinsky for calling this campaign to my attention

July 20, 2011

You And Me And Monkeys Throwing Darts

Here at Ad Contrarian World Headquarters, there are a few principles that guide us.

First, we never make predictions. The reason for this is that people who make
predictions are almost always wrong. It's way more entertaining to make fun of other people's stupid predictions than to have them make fun of yours.

Another is that we never trust experts. Again, their pontifications almost always turn out
wrong and there's nothing we like better than sticking it to them. We try to base our
opinions on facts, rather than ideology. This is a point of view that is terribly out of fashion in contemporary marketing.

Just to clarify something here, there are certain types of experts we have vastly more confidence in than others.

Physical scientists, while sometimes mistaken, have a system of checks that self-corrects. They are constantly peer-testing each other's assertions, which in the fullness of time usually leads to the uncovering of fallacious ideas. Social scientists, on the other hand, are completely unreliable. They use the language and trappings of science, but their studies usually produce opinions, not facts.

Consequently, I believe experts in the physical sciences really are experts, while "experts" in the social sciences are frequently just people with credentials and loud beliefs.

Of all the social sciences, economics is the one I have least confidence in. As George Bernard
Shaw once famously said, ""If all the economists were laid end to end, they'd never reach a

President Harry Truman, tired of hearing economists say, "On one hand...but on the other
hand..." asked if anyone knew where he could find a one-handed economist.

Of all the disciplines within economics, marketing is the one I have toiled in, am most familiar with and, sadly, have little confidence in. Within marketing, the branches I have gone out of my way to criticize are branding, web advertising, and social media marketing.

While I believe that these fields are laden with bozos and charlatans, the truth is I have no comprehensive scientific evidence to prove it. All I have are anecdotes, and anecdotes are fun but unreliable.

This does not mean, however, that there isn't evidence in other fields that demonstrates the unreliability of many social science "experts."

Enter Philip Tetlock.

Tetlock is an author, professor of organizational behavior at the Haas Business School at the University of California-Berkeley, and the winner of lots of impressive awards.

According to CNN, Tetlock is the world's foremost expert on experts. For over 25 years, he has been conducting an experiment to quantify the forecasting skill of political experts.

Tetlock has studied 300 academics, economists, policymakers and journalists and compared more than 82,000 of their forecasts to what actually happened in the real world. Here are his conclusions:
  • "We found that our experts' predictions barely beat random guesses - the statistical equivalent of a dart-throwing chimp..."
  • "Ironically, the more famous the expert, the less accurate his or her predictions tended to be."
  • "(Experts) go wrong when they leap to judgment or are too slow to change their minds in the face of contrary evidence."
  • “Partisans across the opinion spectrum are vulnerable to occasional bouts of ideologically induced insanity.”
  • "The most important factor was not how much education or experience the experts had but how they thought. You know the famous line that [philosopher] Isaiah Berlin borrowed from a Greek poet, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"? The better forecasters were like Berlin's foxes: self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence, were doubtful of grand schemes and were rather modest about their predictive ability. The less successful forecasters were like hedgehogs: They tended to have one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch, sometimes to the breaking point. They tended to be articulate and very persuasive as to why their idea explained everything. The media often love hedgehogs."
From a New Yorker article about Tetlock's book Expert Political Judgment:
  • "When (experts are) wrong, they’re rarely held accountable, and they rarely admit it, either. They insist that they were just off on timing, or blindsided by an improbable event, or almost right, or wrong for the right reasons."
  • "The accuracy of an expert’s predictions actually has an inverse relationship to his or her self-confidence, renown, and, beyond a certain point, depth of knowledge."
  • "Expert Political Judgment is just one of more than a hundred studies that have pitted experts against statistical or actuarial formulas, and in almost all of those studies the people either do no better than the formulas or do worse."
Listening to Tetlock speak recently, I found one of his points particularly gratifying. He said that an algorithm that predicted no change did better than the experts in forecasting the future. This coincides nicely with a little aphorism that appears every day in the right column near the bottom of this page, "Nobody ever got famous predicting that things would stay pretty much the same."

In advertising, we have always had a great many articulate, self-assured, and highly-esteemed people who pass themselves off as experts and futurists. As the art and technology of marketing have become more esoteric and arcane, and as data, metrics, and analytics have soared to the forefront of our attention, these people have achieved greater and greater status. Their pretensions are, once again, undercut by Tetlock.
"...mathematics has a certain mystique. People get intimidated by it, and no one challenge(s) the models."
For the most part, our branding, web, and social media experts (and their acolytes) tend to be enthusiasts and ideologues. This makes them unreliable. Regardless of their credentials and their alarming self-regard, they are no better at forecasting trends or results than you or me or monkeys throwing darts.

Follow them at your peril.

July 19, 2011

Life Imitates Blogging

Several months ago, here at The Ad Contrarian, we wrote a satirical memo from a fictitious agency CEO which included this paragraph:

"We must realize that in today’s inter-globally connected world, inter-connectivity is globular. And maybe not just globular, but inter-globular! Our clients expect that our inter-globularity will exceed their expectations and create the opportunity for a multi-channel globuverse."

Yesterday, we posted an actual quote from the CEO of PepsiCo Beverages...

"[Before] it was more of a global coordination as opposed to a global management," Mr. d'Amore said. "Technology, both social networks and mobile platforms, have created this global generation. We really want to connect our global brands with the global generation, and the best way to do that is with global management."

These days, there's a very fine line between satire and marketing.

July 18, 2011

Pepsi: There's Madness To The Madness

Here at Ad Contrarian World Headquarters we've had a great deal of fun over the years poking fun at Pepsi. I'm happy to say that it looks like we will have many more years of hilarity ahead of us.

Just to "refresh" your memory, Pepsi had a pretty bad year last year. They started 2010 with a great deal of hoo-haa about "exploring how a brand can be integrated into the digital space" and lots of other insufferable digi-babble.

They cancelled their longstanding commitment to the Super Bowl -- and TV advertising in general -- and instead poured tens of zillions of dollars into the largest social media campaign ever, called the "Pepsi Refresh Project." It turned out to be a pig's breakfast.

While Pepsi was busy collecting Facebook friends and Twitter followers, their competitors were busy collecting money and market share.

As a result of this (and a whole lot of other marketing fumbles) Pepsi recently did a major overhaul of its marketing department.

Now, Pepsi's new "beverage guru" has unveiled his plan to fix their marketing problems. Apparently all these fiascos had nothing to do with stupid strategy or dumb-ass ideas. The problem was with management structures. You see, if they had "global management" instead of "global coordination" none of this would have happened. His plan seems to be to get Pepsi back on track by harnessing the  power of corporate double talk...
"[Before] it was more of a global coordination as opposed to a global management," Mr. d'Amore said. "Technology, both social networks and mobile platforms, have created this global generation. We really want to connect our global brands with the global generation, and the best way to do that is with global management."
Wow! Can you get any more global than that? I think we're talking total worldwide globularity here! He went on to say...
"There is real logic to this perceived madness" 
Well, one man's logic is another man's bullshit burrito.

According to Ad Age...
The new global teams will be charged with innovation and identifying local trends that could have ramifications globally, as well as shepherding global campaigns.
I've always wanted to shepherd a global campaign. Much less smelly than shepherding sheep.

Apparently, Pepsi's globularity is already in the works. Once again from Ad Age...
Already, a creative brief has been circulated to key offices for both BBDO, which handles Pepsi in international markets, and TBWA/Chiat/Day, which handles the brand in the U.S. ... A "steering committee" with representatives from both shops is evaluating creative concepts...
Oh yeah, shepherds and steering committees. That should do the trick.

So, anyway, when brands lose their minds and go off the rails, their next move is usually to snap back to their roots. With that in mind, here's the kind of campaign I expect Pepsi to force the shepherds and steerers to come up with:

Concept: Happy, youthful people of every color from all over the global world are drinking Pepsi while the most expensive pop stars of every color in the global world are singing about Pepsi. This will all be tied into a mobile Facebook/Twitter/YouTube friend and download fest and will culminate in a worldwide pop concert streamed live all over the global, mobile world. The campaign theme will be "Planet Pepsi" or something else of equal globularity.

Whatever it is, let's just hope it's really big and dumb so the rest of us can continue to stay "refreshed."

July 14, 2011

Some People Have A Knack

Some people have a knack.

I'm not sure what a knack is, but I know it when I see it. It's the ability to recognize what others can't recognize. It's the ability to know what's coming, when there's no way to know.

During my career, I've come across several business people who are extraordinarily successful for no discernible reason. They're not smarter than us. They don't work any harder than us. They just have a knack.

I don't know if a knack is hard-wired or acquired. I don't know if it's related to intelligence, intuition, guts, charisma, or just luck.

Most of us don't have a knack. But if you come across someone who does, hang on tight.

July 13, 2011

Social Media And The Utopian Instinct

Last week I wrote a silly post called Social Media Madness Goes Global which poked fun at a ridiculous piece of utopian nonsense called A Perpetual State Of Beta...
"We are now living our lives in a perpetual state of beta through social media. It’s a new social frontier, or ‘third place’ which is filled with opportunity, where personal and professional participation culminate in a ‘reconnection’ to what is good and true..."
Fortunately, most social media professionals are not as brain-addled as this guy. However, this baloney and its ilk demonstrate a naive streak of utopianism in some of social media's most extreme proselytizers.

The origin of social media utopianism can probably be traced to The Cluetrain Manifesto, a very influential book of the late-90's (which I have also taken the liberty of poking fun at.) Cluetrain gave us the beginnings of web evangelism...
"...the web is touching our most ancient of needs: to connect."

"Millions have flocked to the net...because it seemed to offer some intangible quality long missing in action from modern life..."
"Many of those drawn into this world find themselves exploring a freedom never before imagined."
Yeah, right. Freedom to watch porn, upload pictures of your cat, and hurl anonymous stink bombs.

I don't know about you, but this kind of Shangri-la-di-da officially annoys the shit out of me. Virtually all of human barbarity can be traced to some crackpot group's utopian dream.

Believe it or not, young proto-nazis would sit around strumming guitars on college campuses in Germany in the 1920's and sing about the glorious spirit that resided in the ecologically pristine woodlands of the fatherland. They had a romantic longing for a "volkisch" paradise. We know how that one ended up.

The nazi and communist nightmares, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and today's jihadists, all provide clear lessons that the utopian vision tends to spawn the most appalling human savagery. The nazis wanted to purify us. The communists wanted to free us from materialism. Religious fundamentalists sought (and still seek) to create heaven on earth.

I enjoy social media and I am not for a moment suggesting that social media zealots are burning heretics at the stake or building concentration camps. I am saying, however, that the more they erect ideological scaffolding around social media and spout utopian blather, the more they give me the creeps.

July 12, 2011

Art Director Disease

There is a terrible ailment afflicting the ad business. I call it art director disease. It is the inability to say something once.

Every presentation I attend seems to be a festival of repetition. Nobody seems satisfied to say something just one time and move on.

If we're lucky, the presenter will simply find a synonym for the key word in his/her sentence and repeat the sentence with the synonym replacing the key word.

If we're not lucky, the presenter will review the five points on his slide, and then find a new way to describe each point.

It is not just occurring at formal presentations. Many informal meetings and conversations take twice as long as they should because of the power of this disease.

There must be a certain type of insecurity that makes people feel that saying something once is not sufficient. Or that once-over doesn't demonstrate enough commitment to an idea. Or that by saying something twice they are being more articulate. Or maybe they just can't shut the f*ck up.

Whatever it is, it is growing and becoming more annoying all the time.

Why do I call it art director disease?


July 11, 2011

Order And Chaos In Advertising

We exist in a world of delusions.

Our delusions live inside us and color everything we do. They infect our opinions of who we are. They distort our place in the world, twist our behaviors, and warp our sense of reality.

Like the proverbial fish in the ocean, we are so immersed in delusions we can't even sense they are there.

An article in last week's New York Times reminds us that we are very good at filtering out information that does not fit neatly into our vision of the world. “We can’t cope otherwise,” says James Glieck, author of books about chaos theory (and the famous "butterfly effect") and biographies of Newton and Feynman.

The business of advertising is particularly rife with delusions. We think we know how advertising works. We think we know what will motivate people and what will not. And yet, every day we unconsciously filter out compelling evidence that what we think we know is terribly flawed.

After months of "research" and "testing" we create TV spots that have no effect. After hundreds of thousand of dollars in development we launch websites and online campaigns that no one ever sees. And yet we continue.

We go into new business presentations and make bold, cocksure statements about our own particular brand of delusional advertising philosophy. And we never have the guts or self-assurance to tell the truth -- that all our posturing is just an estimate of likelihoods and a speculation on probabilities.

Part of it is our fault. We are not willfully deceitful. We just find it very hard to admit that we are devoting so much of our energy and our soul to something about which we really understand so little.

Part of it is the environment. Our clients want results. They don't want to hear that they are spending millions of dollars on likelihoods and probabilities.

Advertising is chock full of contingencies and unintended effects. There are a multitude of critical steps in the development of strategy, creative concepts, media plans, and spending alternatives. None of which assures success. Every one of which can foreshadow failure.

Something as routine as the casting of a photo shoot or TV spot can have an enormous effect on the success or failure of a campaign. And that is just one of a thousand equally weighty variables. We cannot possibly assess all the variables in a methodical way. So we fall back on our prejudices and our mathematical models of how advertising works. In other words, we call forth our delusions.

The workings of the real world are impossibly complex and messy. And in advertising, as in every other human endeavor, we "prefer to turn a blind eye to reality’s messiness."

July 08, 2011

Just The Facts

The Mile High City
According to The Daily, there are now more "medical" marijuana dispensaries in the city of Denver than there are Starbucks.

The Web Is Shrinking, Kinda
According to the website All Things D, when you remove Facebook from the rest of the Web, minutes of use of the web shrank by nearly nine percent between March 2010 and March 2011.

Unclear On The Concept
Last week, a 55-year old man participating in a motorcycle ride to protest mandatory helmet laws in New York was killed during the protest when he was thrown over the handlebars of his bike. He was not wearing a helmet.

Yeah, But What About All Those Conversations?
Social media is the best way to engage with consumers, right? Uh, not really. The website Coherent Social Media reports on a study by Razorfish that indicates that social media is among the worst ways to engage with consumers. Consumers rated email, websites, telephone, and even print ads above Facebook.

Teach Your Children Well
The Christian Science Monitor calls it the biggest school cheating scandal in American history. But not a single student was involved. Apparently, award-winning gains by students in the Atlanta, GA Public School system were the result of a conspiracy by 178 teachers and principals to cheat the system on standardized tests.

Sick Of The Click
According to Solve Media, you are more likely to survive a plane crash or win the lottery than click on a banner ad.

Dumbest Campaign Currently Airing
Coors Light "The bar exam." Feels like it was written by the cleverest guy in the billing department.

You Can't Escape Me
Be sure to catch my semi-brilliant letter to the editor in The New York Times Book Review section this coming Sunday.

Help Wanted: Experienced account director who has managed a franchise-based account (ideally, but not necessarily, fast food.) This is an excellent position with the potential to manage an office. The position is in the Pacific Northwest. Send an email to adcontrarian@gmail.com 

July 07, 2011

Social Media Madness Goes Global

Just when you think that utopian social media claptrap has about run its course, along comes something that renews your faith in the ability of web-addled maniacs to create infinite permutations of infantile nonsense.

And lest you think that America has a monopoly on social media madness, this thing comes our way via a recent article in B&T in Australia. According to the piece...
"We are now living our lives in a perpetual state of beta through social media."
Ohmygod, a perpetual state of beta! And I thought it was just a little case of irritable bowel syndrome...
"...it’s a place where opportunity and innovation exist interdependently presenting us with new paths and a new narrative; stories that inspire a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. Understanding this fully is, in part, learning how we can authentically drive content across platforms to create new experiences."
Wow. Who knew? I imagined I was just posting some stuff on Facebook about how my friend's cat peed on his new golf bag. Turns out I'm authentically driving content across platforms to create new experiences! You gotta admit, I'm pretty awesome.
"Ultimately, it’s about learning how we can transform from being content producers to ‘context producers’ as we reflect reconnection in our products, culture, and people."
Well that settles it. I am so going to reflect reconnection in my products, culture and people.
"...a frontier where creative and strategic partnerships play out in a heroic celebration of the everyday, and which are bound together by a new currency that considers peoples’ lives...This is more than an altruistic pipe dream – it’s the emergent context made possible by sociological technical advancement."
So here's a question. Do  you have to be completely demented to be a social media director? Because this guy is clearly delusional. An "heroic celebration of the everyday?" In social media? Is this guy nuts? Social media is morons like me posting pictures of our dogs sleeping.
"The sheer profundity of our ability to bring together people of diverse background, geography, passion, interest and opinion, to create dynamic value and competitive advantage is evidence of what the future holds."
Dude, calm down. Here's what the future holds -- the same crap as now, only worse.

Help Wanted: Experienced account director who has managed a franchise-based account (ideally, but not necessarily, fast food.) This is an excellent position with the potential to manage an office. The position is in the Pacific Northwest. Send an email to adcontrarian@gmail.com 

July 06, 2011

The Absurdist Movement In Modern Marketing

It is hard to exaggerate the lengths to which  contemporary "experts" have gone to complicate the shit out of marketing.

You have only to go to a marketing conference to find yourself face to face with some kind of cockamamie diagram loaded with lines and arrows and buckets and silos that purports to visually demonstrate something terribly insightful about marketing.

Last week I came upon a doozy. This monstrosity was created at Forrester's recent "Customer Experience Forum" and is supposed to illustrate "The Customer Experience Ecosystem" as described by the event's keynote speaker.

Now, I think it goes without saying that any presentation with "ecosystem" in its title is likely to be a  seven-course bullshit banquet. But this gem has something about it that transcends your typical business wank-o-graph. Take a look at it and see if you can identify what makes this baby even more absurd than your average Rube Goldberg marketing diagram (if you're having trouble reading it, click on it and it will grow.)
At first glance, it's really no more silly than most consultants' "visualizations." It has the obligatory "touch points" and the above-mentioned ecosystems. Then, of course, you need to "map" the ecosystem and "socialize" the ecosystem. And when you're done with that you need to "nurture" the ecosystem. I'll get right on that. Of course there's a lot of prioritizing and prototyping going on as well.

But there's one exquisite little thing missing from this "Customer Experience Ecosystem." One little thing that some people might think is important. One little thing that might actually make an impact on an actual customer's actual experience.

It's the f*cking product!

Apparently, these days, a "Customer Experience Ecosystem" has nothing at all to do with the product or service. It's all 5-step processes and co-creations and touchpoints.

It occurs to me that we have reached a new level of absurdist marketing when an 'expert' is so profoundly confused she can't be bothered to include the product in the customer experience.

Thanks to Frank Johnson for this.

July 05, 2011

The Ad Contrarian's Fourth Anniversary

It's the fourth anniversary of this thing.

Ten days into it I thought I had run out of things to say. Fortunately, advertising is a very long-running comedy series. There always seems to be new material.

I have to be honest and say that the 4 years I have spent writing this blog have probably given me as much personal satisfaction as the more than 35 years I've spent in the ad business. I know there's something very wrong with that, but I'm not sure what it is.

Thanks to all who have taken the effort to check in here from time to time. I know you don't always agree with me -- and I'd be discouraged if you did -- but I hope I've given you some stuff to think about.

Thanks for four terrific years.