There was a time when advertising and branding had a certain charm, even a sense of theater. It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that a man floated down from the sky and landed behind the wheel of a shiny convertible as “Hertz put you in the driver’s seat.” There was the compelling melodrama of a woman beleaguered by her Mother’s entreaties to help out who snapped back, “Please, mother, I’d rather do it myself!” and then calmed her life with two small Anacin tablets. There was the elfin charm of Speedy Alka Seltzer and the Keebler Elves, although we count on elves for elfin charm.
Advertising feels like something else now. It often has about as much charm as the wet Thai restaurant menu one finds in the front yard after the sprinklers have soaked it: a message struggling for delivery in a world that has turned its back. Advertising may have, at one point, tried honestly to be our friend. Now, more often than not, it’s a petulant child shouting for attention and muscling-in for a spot on the dashboard of your life.
Although they lack that old school charm and drama, I love the earnest appeal of the ad supplements in the Sunday paper. The merchandise is just sitting there, waiting. The prices may have been violently “slashed” but otherwise there’s just a tranquil invitation to drop by and have a look at the goods. There are few psychological appeals or efforts to entice based on status. There’s very little suggestion that you must have the item to lead a fuller, more meaningful life. It’s just a Weber Grill, and it’s on sale. If you come over and get one you can burn some hamburgers tonight. We’re Target, and our buildings are filled with stuff. Here are pictures of some of that stuff.
In a dialogue with my editor (over cool, refreshing Pabst Blue Ribbon beer) we agreed that advertising has largely become about repetition and hammering a message until your consciousness stops resisting. Even if you don’t give a damn about it, you can’t escape assimilating the message that there exists a sequel to “The Hangover.” While every critic has written that the film does nothing so much as repeat the formula and elements of the first film, the public still walks zombie-like in waves to the theater. The “advertising” message appears to be “Here’s what you want: The same thing over again. You can’t be disappointed.”
Consider the challenges of selling a new idea. Let’s say that there was a time when nobody knew what Red Bull was. But two one-syllable words and a trillion repetitions later, you got to the point of sipping a sample at a mall or store. What if, mixed with alcohol, it possibly caused the user to feel more sober and able to operate a motor vehicle than they really were? How could anyone put out that many repetitions of the message “Ingest Red Bull” and have it be harmful in any way? We might have to go back to all those alluring cigarette commercials that suggested smoking was sexy and fashionable to properly review the current walls between the public and health hazards. Or visit China.
For all of the sly new approaches advertising is taking online, blending humor into text (Groupon) or forcing short ads into our viewing of Internet videos (Every site on earth), advertisers still find big fat numbers to be very exciting. The finale of “American Idol” reportedly pulled 50 million viewers. Most TV series these days are “hits” if they’re pulling 12 to 20 million, although there continues to be appeal in the idea of shows delivering specific demographics albeit in lower numbers. “Idol” likely offers the hat trick to advertisers: Young demographics in large numbers of viewers who are known to be suggestible to the degree that they accept J-Lo as a judge of anything.
What seems to be disappearing are slow building campaigns built on ideas of quality and lasting worth, that old-school notion of value. Not because there aren’t goods and services that have those characteristics, but more because there doesn’t seem to be time for that kind of approach. Red Bull entered California in 1997, but the real push seems to have been over the last five years or so. Look at how quickly laptops and desktops are being left behind by tablets. Advertising delivers the message that it’s time to change, regardless of what you think.
That suggests that the future of advertising holds even less charm and style, and more machine-gunning where targets are in sight. Can we stand it? Should we stand it? Show of hands, who hates pop-up ads on computer and TV screens during content viewing? How many would welcome any message whatsoever about another singer or band that isn’t Lady Gaga? Would you vote YES on a national referendum that stops the marketing of animated feature films to your children with such gale force that parents end up with nothing to say about going to see the movie? It’s not that I seek to have advertising become quaint again to where we actually enjoy viewing a barn roof painted with “See Rock City.” It’s that we’re losing any voice in the visual landscape of our lives, and the tempo of the pummeling has been kicked-up. Put another way, I’m a man in his 50s with involuntary awareness of Axe Body Spray. This is why we fought the Cold War? Mr. Gorbachev… tear down that billboard.