Bob Schwartz

Category: Advertising

The Seeming Normal: Coca-Cola Ads from Germany 1938-1939

nazi-coca-cola-ads

Life goes on. Ads with people doing normal things, as if nothing is unusual, nothing is changing. But sometimes things are changing, getting strange. Normal may not be what it seems.

Coca-Cola Ads from Germany 1938-1939

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Advertising as Insurgent Art: Reverse for Kindness

reverse-for-kindness

I recently posted about Poetry as Insurgent Art. Now I want to add advertising to that.

There are going to be a number of Super Bowl ads this weekend that take indirect but clear aim at current events, including anit-immigrant sentiment and the Muslim travel ban. It now appears that one of the world’s biggest ad agencies, Leo Burnett, is joining the cause. Adweek reports:

Leo Burnett has a simple message of solidarity to share with people impacted by the U.S. travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries. Beginning today, when you visit the Leo Burnett website you’ll be redirected to a new site, BurnettLeo.com  http://burnettleo.com/  .

A video on the new site explains that while English is read from left to right, Arabic is read from right to left. Regardless of how we read something, the advertising agency wants people to know that it stands in support of everyone and cares deeply about the values of humanity, bravery and kindness.

Cigarette Ads Circa 1960: Size Matters

TV Guide - July 9 1960

Above is an ad from the back cover of TV Guide from July 9, 1960. It is for Parliament cigarettes. The image shows a man (judging by the hands) measuring a cigarette with a ruler, while a woman looks on with a mysterious, Mona Lisa-like expression. Is she thinking about taste? About how “your lips and tongue never touch” the filter? She is also holding a cigarette. Hers is lit and smoking.

In 1957, journalist and social critic Vance Packard published his groundbreaking bestseller The Hidden Persuaders, “the first book to expose the hidden world of “motivation research,” the psychological technique that advertisers use to probe our minds in order to control our actions as consumers.” Chapter 8 is entitled The Built-in Sexual Overtone.

Since then, discussions about the role of psychology in advertising have continued unabated. Setting aside those discussions, it can be said that sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette, a ruler is just a ruler, etc. On the other hand, every picture tells a story. So what’s the story here?

Mad Men: This Is the Way the World Ends

The Real Thing

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot
The Hollow Men

Readers and viewers know whether they like or are satisfied with the way a novel or movie ends. But they may not recognize the burden of creating those endings, not just to short forms, but to sagas and epics, where possibilities are exponential, and where those dutifully following the tale and trail may be looking for those elusive treasures: resolution and meaning.

It is not surprising that the final episode of Mad Men was written and directed by the show’s creator Matthew Weiner. How could it have been otherwise?

Mad Men is a work of literature disguised as a television show. There are a number of hallmarks of literature and art, including the engagement of those who see and hear. But maybe even above that is coherence, holding together as a work, from one corner of the canvas to another, from the first to last note of the symphony.

Mad Men doesn’t fit it into any particular artistic category: impressionistic or expressionistic, realistic or fantastic, Freudian or Jungian. If anything, it delves into magical realism, where ghosts are real and real people are ghosts and anything can happen and make sense.

Or not make sense. The story of Mad Men in essence begins with the death of the original Don Draper in Korea. Over time, others die, couples come together and apart, people have sex, families are raised, business are started and bought and sold, jobs are lost and found, money is made and spent, some are miserable while others are happy, some grow and all just grow older.

All of it makes just enough sense to be a story. None of it makes enough sense to defy reality, gravity, or time. What more could you ask for? Meaning? What more were you expecting? It’s just the real thing.

Ghosts of Mad Men

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, Don Draper has come unstuck in time. Again.

In the first episode of the last half season of Mad Men, Don as always walks among ghosts. Because, of course, he is a ghost himself, literally the embodiment of a dead man.

He may sense that he will be happiest when he is whole and most present, but that difficult state is looking ever less possible. His most complete moments were with Anna Draper, the widow of the dead man whose identity he stole. As she was dying, he painted her house, stripped down to t-shirt and work pants, no costume, no pretense. Just love for and from one of the few people who knew him fully and unconditionally.

Don Draper, the real one, is dead. Dick Whitman, the real one, is dead. Anna Draper is dead. Lane Pryce is dead. Rachel Menken is dead. Others are alive but dead to Don.

The ghosts are coming, as they will for those who unwittingly seek and invite them.

Discovering Rachel’s death, Don visits the apartment where her family is sitting shiva, the Jewish mourning tradition. He brings cake, an appropriate gesture of respect and regard. But he admits that he doesn’t know exactly why he came, especially because Rachel’s sister begrudges him his relationship with Rachel when Don was still married. Don weakly explains that he is no longer married to that wife, and almost unmarried to his second wife. He looks over to Rachel’s husband and children, as the minyan recites Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.

Don is beyond wanting a do-over or indulging in what ifs. He wants the ghosts to help him make sense of the years and of the present, which they can’t or won’t do.

Honeywell Kitchen Computer and the Delights of Old Tech

Kitchen Computer - Menu Selection

Some people love old cars. Others of us delight in old digital tech.

We are not alone. The latest episode of Mad Men on AMC includes the installation of a computer at the agency. And the new AMC series Halt and Catch Fire is (coincidentally?) about the early days of personal computing. (Halt and Catch Fire is a real/apocryphal/funny code instruction that might send a computer into an endless loop, resulting in its ultimately stopping or bursting into flames.)

This is a page from the Neiman-Marcus Christmas 1969 catalog. The impeccably dressed N-M housewife is standing next to what appears to be an unusual table, but is actually the Honeywell Kitchen computer, which can be purchased for $10,000. (The apron will cost you another $28.) “If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute.” Indeed.

Kitchen Computer

Here is something completely different from the era, prophetic rather than silly. It is Isaac Asimov, a science fiction great, advertising Radio Shack’s TRS-80.

Asimov - TRS-80

Note that in the spirit of what goes around comes around, this is a pocket computer almost exactly the size of a smartphone—or is a smartphone a pocket computer exactly the size of a TRS-80? Either way, Neiman-Marcus and Honeywell were clueless, but Asimov and Radio Shack were not.

That would be a pretty good close for this post. Except that the following ad is irresistible, telling us something else about the early days of computing.

TSP Plotter

Just as cars were, and to some extent still are, sold by using sex, sometimes so were computers. This is an ad for a plotter, possibly the least sexy of all peripherals. The copy is mostly bone-dry and technical. But then there’s the trio of the model with her dress open to her navel, the headline “New, Fast, and Efficient!”, and the lead “The TSP-212 Plotting System is a real swinger.” $3,300 COMPLETE. Well, almost complete, as the model is presumably not included. But you know, that cool plotter just might attract one.

Mad Men and Kabbalah

Don Draper - Broken Vessel

“I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?”
Don Draper, Mad Men, Season 7, Episode 1, Time Zones

Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men show is not about Kabbalah, or so it would seem. It has, though, frequently touched on religious and spiritual matters. In the first episode of the new Season 7, for example, Roger Sterling’s daughter appears to have had some sort of enlightenment experience that allows her to accept her father as he is and to forgive him unconditionally. And at the end of last season, Don Draper’s hitting bottom included his punching out a Christian preacher in a bar. There have been Catholics, Jews, Hindus, and all manner of beliefs in the mix.

And then, in the latest episode, Don grows introspective and candid with a beautiful stranger on a plane. He admits to being a terrible husband, and then assesses his own responsibility: “I keep wondering, have I broken the vessel?”

For some, the image of the broken vessel instantly brings Kabbalah to mind. According to some traditions, God created the world by sending emanations—holy sparks—encased in ten vessels. Had all the vessels arrived intact, this would be a perfect world. But the force was so powerful and the vessels so delicate that a number of them shattered. In an imperfect world, it is our mission to gather up the holy sparks that have scattered, and thus to make the world better.

One of the first people to make Kabbalah popular and accessible in recent times was Rabbi Herbert Weiner. His book 9-1/2 Mystics: The Kabbala Today (1969)  was the introduction for many to the subject. By coincidence, Rabbi Weiner died almost exactly a year ago at the age of 93.

None of that is much to go on. There is no known connection between Matthew Weiner and Herbert Weiner. And as strange as Don’s dialogue sounds, he has said plenty of strange things before, he is an unlikely Kabbalist, and sometimes a broken vessel is just a broken vessel. Still, Mad Men has taken us places we never thought we’d go, so why not? After musing about the broken vessel, and after refusing the advances of his new friend, Don turns to the plane window and opens the shade. Bright morning sunshine washes his face. Not much to go on. But if there is some message there about Don’s awareness of a duty to gather the broken bits of light and heal his world, Kabbalah or not, that would certainly make Mad Men fans happy.

Lesson from The Voice: Caveat Inspector

The Voice
The Voice is now the dominant singing competition on television, having surpassed, probably permanently, American Idol. There is a lesson from The Voice that goes beyond just music, a lesson that goes to the heart of what has become a more media centric/entertainment centric society.

The reasons for the success of The Voice are pretty simple:

A substantial number of solidly talented and interesting contestants.

Panels of likeable and helpful celebrity coaches, with real musical expertise and real chemistry between them: Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton in the fall; Shakira, Usher with Levine and Shelton in the spring.

The show process begins with the uber-concept in the show’s name. The first round is a blind competition, where the panelists can hear but not see the contestants sing. It is, at least in part, all about “the voice.”

This week began the Knockout Rounds, where votes from the TV audience determine who will stay and who will be eliminated. The first of two nights on Monday was peculiar, anomalous for any singing competition. Of the ten singers who performed, not a single one was criticized, even for a tiny misstep—even though a few performances were very good, some were okay, and some were just not quality singing.

American Idol never quite figured out how to deal with judges’ criticism of contestants. Starting with the original panel, and continuing through the revolving door of judges who failed, there were more or less roles for the judges: the more brutal but somewhat constructive one (Simon Cowell), the kind, encouraging and heart-on-the-sleeve, maybe a little ditzy one (Paul Abdul) and whatever one (Randy Jackson).

There was an underlying issue in all that. There is little doubt that the producers of Idol shaded and spun the show so that certain contestants might rise a little higher than others. Whether this amounted to rigging results is unsubstantiated overstatement. But clearly, with all the elements at their command, producers could shine a different light on different singers, light that might affect voting. A judge’s praise or criticism could certainly be one of those elements.

In so many ways, for the better, The Voice is not American Idol. But the toolbox has some of the same tools: heartwarming or heartrending back stories, strategic song choices, etc. If the panelists/coaches criticism could affect the outcome, on Monday the decision seemed to be to have none at all.

And it was weird. At some point, even as the least trained audience ears could sense a musical problem, you could see coaches forcing smiles and faint praise. One big tell is when a panelist begins by telling a singer how good they look or how wonderful a person they are. Which is utterly ironic, since the show is based on the premise that voice matters above all.

If Monday’s absence of criticism was notable, it was even more apparent as soon as the Tuesday Knockout Round began. From the first singer on, many of the performances received what was in all cases deserved small critiques—never devastating, sometimes not as big as it could have been, but critique nonetheless. It was as if someone behind the scenes had noticed and said: our audience may like certain singers for their look, their attitude, their personality, but the audience isn’t deaf or stupid. We have a panel with four eminently talented musicians, and while we don’t want brutality, their credibility as judges of performances—their honesty—is on the line.

Which brings us to the greater lesson that should never be forgotten. From the beginning of advertiser-paid media, newspapers to now, all of those media have dual roles to play. They are whatever they essentially do—report news, entertain us, stage competitions, offer ways to publish short messages to the world, etc. But they are all also ways of delivering eyes, ears, hearts and minds to advertisers. There is nothing wrong with this. Nor is there anything wrong with media not being transparent about this obvious dual role and announcing all the things they do to increase the audience.

So enjoy. Get invested in your favorites (this season: Caroline Pennell, Tessanne Chin and Cole Vosberry, all of whom could be The Voice, all of whom deserve success). But remember that in commercial media, along with caveat emptor (buyer beware), it is caveat lector (reader beware), caveat inspector (viewer beware), and on this day of the Twitter IPO, caveat tweeter.

Syria Videos and the ASPCA

ASPCA Ad
Almost everyone knows the Sarah McLachlan television ad for the ASPCA, her haunting song Angel playing as background for heart-tugging scenes of cats and dogs. It is widely reviled and sometimes mocked: some viewers can’t lunge quickly enough for the remote. It is also one of the most successful fundraising ads ever, considered by some a game changer.

This weekend, supporters of a military strike against Syria are using a similar approach. Horrific videos of victims, especially children, in the throes of chemical warfare in Syria are now circulating.

Emotional rather than rational appeals have to be carefully calibrated. There may be a sense that the emotional appeal is a last resort, because your rational argument is weak or failing. Viewers may also feel unduly manipulated, even insulted, by the premise that they are too stupid or uncaring to get the point otherwise. Finally, disgust may take over, nearly making further appreciation of whatever good arguments there are impossible to hear.

The ASPCA ad worked not because people were entirely guiltily coerced into giving. Those who did manage to stay and were not turned off had an aha moment: you know, I thought about it some more, and I get the point. Animals are mistreated and homeless, something I care about, and I can help.

This is where the Syria horror show falls down. Even when those who aren’t disgusted to the point of numbness think about it, they have trouble getting the point because, even if there is or once was a focused point in Syria, it keeps shifting, as do the rationales, as do the discussions of outcomes.

If you give to the ASPCA, there is reasonable certainty that your donation will go to programs reasonably designed to help mistreated and homeless animals. If you give your approval and support to an attack on Syria, what exactly are you getting for that donation?

Extreme emotional appeals are not necessarily illegitimate; in some cases, as with the Holocaust, they are necessary. But care is the keynote, knowing exactly what you are saying in support of what you are showing. Right now, the Syria videos are being shown in the context of a bunch of different explanations. The audience is left not only with uncertainty about where it all leads or should lead, but with a diminished regard for the presenter. These are serious times, and when the presenter is the President of the United States, none of us can afford that.

Pepsi and the Line between Stupid and Clever

Mountain Dew
You’ve got to love the movie Spinal Tap. Below the surface of this hilarious fake “rockumentary”, beyond the wisdom of lines such as “It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh…clever”, is a genuine commentary about what happens when popular art meets commerce.

When the band tries to revive its fading fortunes with an album called “Smell the Glove”, the record label rejects a cover photo of a woman on a leash being forced to, well, smell a glove. Instead, the album is released with a plain black cover.

Pepsi has long looked at its Mountain Dew brand as the edgiest of its beverages, with potential youth appeal. That would explain why it hired a 22-year-old hip-hop artist and music producer known as Tyler the Creator to create a series of videos for the brand. The storyline is that a goat named Felicia, voiced by Tyler, is obsessed with Dew and angry at its being in short supply. The goat brutally attacks a white waitress. In the third video, the injured waitress is at a police station, looking over a lineup of four black men and the goat. The goat threatens her, among other things reminding her that “snitches get stitches.” She is scared off and will not “dew” it.

After complaints about its being the most racist commercial ever, PepsiCo removed it from the web (you may still be able to see it here).

PepsiCo said, “We understand how this video could be perceived by some as offensive, and we apologize to those who were offended. We have removed the video from all Mountain Dew channels and have been informed that Tyler is removing it from his channels as well.”

Tyler’s manager said:

“It was never Tyler’s intention to offend, however offense is personal and valid to anyone who is offended. Out of respect to those that were offended, the ad was taken down. For those who know and respect Tyler, he is known for pushing boundaries and challenging stereotypes thr[ough] humor. This is someone who grew up on David Chappelle. This situation is layered with context and is a discussion that Tyler would love to address in the right forum as he does have a point of view. As someone who hasn’t had the experience of being discriminated against I choose to respect the opinion of those who have. What I can speak to is Tyler, who represents much more than the current narrative this story suggests.”

“Contrary to what many may discern from this, Tyler is the embodiment of not judging others, his delivery may not be for everyone (which is true for anyone who pushes boundaries) but his voice is nonetheless important to the conversation since his demographic understands what he ultimately stands for and sees the irony of it all. Context may or not help those who are offended and I wholly respect that, but for those who are interested, I can offer the following and leave the rest to Tyler.

“1. This spot was part of an overall admittedly absurd storyline about a crazy goat who becomes obsessed with Mountain Dew, 2. The lady in front of the line-up is the waitress from the first spot, 3. The line-up consists of Tyler’s friends and Odd Future members who were available that day. (L-Boy, Left Brain, Garret from Trash Talk and Errol) 4. He absolutely never intended to spark a controversy about race. It was simply an…admittedly absurd story that was never meant to be taken seriously. Again, we apologize if this was taken out of context and would never trivialize racism, especially now in America where voting and civil rights are being challenged at the highest level. I can however stand firmly by someone I have believed in since we met, only because I know him and I know all of this was never his intent.”

It’s not clear who this “David Chappelle” that the manager mentions is, but Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest, strangest, most boundary-pushing comic artists of recent times. Chappelle created one great piece after another, including a bit where a blind black man is a vicious anti-black racist, because he thinks he is white. That’s brilliant, so let’s start with the fact that Tyler has a long way to go.

Artists are supposed to do whatever their vision tells them, and we shouldn’t be stopping them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes the art is behind or ahead of its times.

But that doesn’t mean that those who pay for the work have to go along with everything that artists conceive and produce. There is actually a bit of cleverness here, but it is plagued by so much troubling text, context and subtext that it could not possibly have passed any feasibility test that any mainstream corporate advertiser might apply.

One thing that makes this even a little more troubling is PepsiCo’s quasi-apology. We are supposed to have gotten used to cleverly crafted statements that are meant to sound like apologies but aren’t quite. That is now the norm. We are not that stupid. “We apologize to those who were offended” is a defensive or even condescending posture: if you are among those who don’t get it (or as Tyler’s manager says, not part of “his demographic [that] understands what he ultimately stands for and sees the irony of it all”), then we are sorry. Mass media have mass audiences, and if you want to put something out there that is likely to cause trouble but you believe will help you, either stand behind it or don’t. Apologize or don’t. It may turn out to be commercially smart or stupid. But at least you’re brave.