Bob Schwartz

Category: Advertising

Syria Videos and the ASPCA

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.

When Brands Are Like Packaged Bad Mortgages

Once upon a time, a home loan was a simple but powerful thing. It allowed people who could not afford a house get one and get on the path to full ownership. And it allowed financial institutions to have a concrete obligation that could be sold, the value of which was based on the house and on the ability and duty of the borrower to pay.

If the solid simplicity of that is not completely gone, we know that over the last few decades, culminating in a mighty disaster, very creative financial craftsman were able to turn this into something supposedly bigger and better, but something not rooted in anything other than itself. Once that became obvious, as with the naked emperor, all hell broke loose, and the economy collapsed

Every maker and marketer of goods and services should be students of this phenomenon. Brands, for example, are truly things, and things of value. So much value that we attach a measure to it—brand equity—and for some companies, it is their greatest asset.

The idea that brand, or marketing, or messaging, exists independent of some more basic thing is seductive but silly. In American politics, we are witnessing this debate on a grand scale. Is reliance on creating or refurbishing a brand, ignoring the unvarnished nature of the product you’re selling, a form of denial? Or is it an implicit acknowledgement that adapting products to the times, to demographics, and to competition is just really, really hard—and sometimes impossible.

This isn’t only, or primarily, about politics. It is about business, about companies who may have come to believe that marketing is all there is, and that ever more sophisticated approaches can leave the basic realities behind for fancier and more valuable derivatives. The sophisticated and fancy can be important, but it’s not all of it, or even most of it.

The smartest people in the room (they would say in the world) forgot that a mortgage was nothing more than a house and borrower. We all, sadly, paid the price for that arrogance and, let’s say it, stupidity. Products and services of all kinds are exactly the same. Businesses, no matter how big, no matter how branded, forget those basics at their peril.

Walt Whitman Helps Launch Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

Walt Whitman
First it was Abraham Lincoln in the new television campaign for the Lincoln Motor Company (the founder of that firm was a fan of the president, back when the company was started in 1917).

Lincoln Motor Company

Now Walt Whitman, the father of modern American poetry and, coincidentally, a big fan of Lincoln himself, is helping to launch this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (January 8-11).

Whitman will probably not be seen emerging from a mysterious fog as Lincoln does in the commercial, although that would be unspeakably cool.

Instead, Whitman’s most famous line of poetry is quoted (without attribution) in the official description of the very first CES SuperSession

The Digital Health Revolution: Body, Mind and Soul
January 8, 2013, 9:30-10:30 a.m.

“I sing the body electric” takes on new meaning in our brave new digital world, where devices let us monitor everything from our stress levels to our genetic sequences, and devices with 100 real-time biosensors loom on the horizon. Join moderator Arianna Huffington as she leads four digital health leaders in conversation — on the latest innovations in the field, how those innovations have the potential to change lives, and what the digital revolution means for the body, mind, and soul.

The literarily perspicacious will notice that the first line of copy includes allusions to two groundbreaking writers—not just Whitman, but also Aldous Huxley. Huxley’s Brave New World vision is actually much closer to what is going on at CES than Whitman’s. Unfortunately, Huxley will not be coming out of the mist either, though the thought of his joining up with Whitman in Las Vegas to look at the latest gadgets is mind-blowing—even without Huxley’s Soma or LSD. Add Lincoln, and it is the stuff that dream movies are made of (Steven Spielberg, are you listening?).

Back to Whitman, I Sing The Body Electric is included in his Leaves of Grass (1855). Whitman’s work was a sensation, in part because of his unabashed celebration of the splendor and wonder of the human body and sexuality. The poem is just such a celebration, a spiritual anatomy lesson that is like a painting, whose message is: be not ashamed.

It isn’t clear that is what the CES copywriter had in mind, though writers generally deserve much more credit than they get. If the point is that digital pioneers plan to touch every part of our bodies, that works too.

Meanwhile, Whitman—whose use of the term “electric” was itself quite pioneering—would probably be happy to see his poem alive and well in the context of keeping and making people healthy, head to toe, organ to organ. See you in Vegas, Walt.

For the digiterati and literati, here is the closing section of the poem:

O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and that they are my poems,
Man’s, woman’s, child’s, youth’s, wife’s, husband’s, mother’s, father’s, young man’s, young woman’s poems,
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges,
Nose, nostrils of the nose, and the partition,
Cheeks, temples, forehead, chin, throat, back of the neck, neck-slue,
Strong shoulders, manly beard, scapula, hind-shoulders, and the ample side-round of the chest,
Upper-arm, armpit, elbow-socket, lower-arm, arm-sinews, arm-bones,
Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails,
Broad breast-front, curling hair of the breast, breast-bone, breast-side,
Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,
Hips, hip-sockets, hip-strength, inward and outward round, man-balls, man-root,
Strong set of thighs, well carrying the trunk above,
Leg fibres, knee, knee-pan, upper-leg, under-leg,
Ankles, instep, foot-ball, toes, toe-joints, the heel;
All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one’s body, male or female,
The lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean,
The brain in its folds inside the skull-frame,
Sympathies, heart-valves, palate-valves, sexuality, maternity,
Womanhood, and all that is a woman, and the man that comes from woman,
The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk, tears, laughter, weeping, love-looks, love-perturbations and risings,
The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,
Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,
Poise on the hips, leaping, reclining, embracing, arm-curving and tightening,
The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

Do Republicans Have A Death Wish?

Sigmund Freud
In the first episode of Mad Men, psychologist Dr. Greta Guttman explains how the health dangers of cigarettes might be used to the advertiser’s advantage:

“I believe my most recent surveys have provided a solution. We can still suggest that cigarettes are “part of American life,” or “Too good to give up,” and most appealing “an assertion of independence”….Before the war, when I studied with Adler in Vienna, we postulated that what Freud called “the Death Wish” is as powerful a drive as those for sexual reproduction and physical sustenance.”

Even though this seems preposterous, account executive Pete Campbell tries it out later at a client meeting:

“At Sterling Cooper, we’ve been pioneering the burgeoning field of research. And our analysis shows that the health risks associated with your products is not the end of the world. People get in their cars everyday to go to work, and some of them die. Cars are dangerous. There’s nothing you can do about it. You still have to get where you’re going. Cigarettes are exactly the same. Why don’t we simply say, “So what if cigarettes are dangerous?” You’re a man. The world is dangerous. Smoke your cigarette—You still have to get where you’re going.”

To which the patriarch of the tobacco company replies:

“Is that your slogan? “You’re going to die anyway. Die with us.””

The Republican Party does not, as far as we know, have a psychoanalyst. And Freud’s so-called “death drive” remains one of his most controversial principles.

But there is no question that individuals and institutions exhibit behavior that surpasses our understanding of what is rational and adaptive. From the outside, it looks like a path that leads nowhere good. Sometimes it is our own shortcoming in not being able to see the complex and sophisticated strategy underneath. Sometimes people are too clever for their own good. And sometimes, there is no conclusion left other than a Freudian one, that there is an instinct not just to fail or epic fail, but to go all the way down. “You’re going to die anyway. Die with us.”

Think the Same: Apple as IBM, Android as Apple

Think Different.

That was the theme of Apple’s award-winning and successful ad campaign that ran from 1997 to 2002. Among other creative inspirations, the concept played off of the even more famous one-word IBM slogan “Think”, which had been in use since the 1920’s, when it was devised by IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr.

To make the point, Apple created a series of commercials and posters featuring those who had thought differently, including Albert Einstein.

The ad copy included this:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

Keep this in mind as thousands line up—camp out in tents on the street—to be one of the first to own an iPhone 5. Even many self-aware tech pundits have had to admit it: in the current state-of-the-art, the iPhone 5 is not all that cutting edge. But even knowing that, they too are craving it. Resistance is futile.

Apple began as the “other” personal computer. The IBM/Microsoft-based paradigm relentlessly rolled on and over the market. The hardware technology was almost universally licensed and adopted as a standard. Microsoft dominated the operating system, and software was developed for it. PCs were available at every price point and capability, and the market exploded.

Apple thought differently. From the beginning, and with only one brief foray into third-party licensing, Apple decided it would control everything. Quality and style could not be left to the vagaries of the market and to the poor judgment and penny-pinching ways of third party vendors. The result in personal computing was that while Apple won only a minority share of market, its products were not only different but (in the view of some) better, and adopted by creative and thought leaders.

The turning point came when Apple went mobile with the iPod. There had been portable music players for years, beginning with Sony’s revolutionary Walkman. By applying its computing model to this device, Apple did something just as revolutionary. Unlike having a minority position in computing, Apple took the lead in digital music players and never looked back. It not only owned the device, it owned the store for feeding the device. Apple was no longer the other; Apple was it.

Apple took the same tack as it always had when it entered the mobile phone market: superior technology plus superior style. And as with its earliest computers, it maintained complete ownership and control. This was more than just a matter of not sharing the rewards with third-parties. As a consumer, you could be sure that any application would run flawlessly with the Apple OS on an Apple device.

The iPhone is now a standard, one embraced by millions with a fanaticism that approaches a cult. Henry Ford’s famous message to car buyers of the original Model T was that you could have any color, as long as it was black. Steve Jobs may have never quoted this, but this is the experience of the iPhone buyer. And they are ecstatic at the lack of choice.

The iPhone is a standard, but not the standard. The other force in mobile phones is Android.

The metaphorical differences between Apple and Android are infinite. If Apple makes the trains run on time, Android has powerful trains still looking for the conductor, the schedules and even the track. If Apple is a tightly produced Broadway show, Android is a three-ring circus with the ringmaster on acid. If Apple is Singapore, Android is the Wild West.

And yet, Android is the dominant mobile platform in the world, and its lead over Apple is widening.

The Android system—if you can call it that—works like this. The operating system is developed and upgrades. Each version goes out to device makers, who adopt it to their own needs, including overlaying it with proprietary additions, and test its integrity and compatibility. These devices are then sent to carriers and service providers who add their own proprietary touches and do further testing. It is a lengthy process that is fraught with missteps, and explains why new versions and upgrades can take months to reach consumers.

Then there are the applications and developers. Quality and qualified developers face the challenge of making sure that their applications work properly on all permutations of Android versions and device-specific overlays. Developing for Apple iOS, on the other hand, is as simple as developing for Apple iOS: if it works, it will work for everyone. And anyone can and does develop for Android. With the exception of malicious apps kept out of the Android market, anything goes. There are thousands of Android apps that are dysfunctional, sometimes comically so.

For some of us who appreciate the excellent and forward-thinking devices in the Android world, even the weirdos and app pranksters are part of the charm. Yes, it can take far too long to get Android upgrades, and even then things may not work perfectly. But most of the time, the results are spectacular. If that is the price to pay for not enlisting in the Apple Army, we’ll pay it.

In the final analysis, that is the irony. Apple has become the world’s leading tech company the way IBM did in the 1950s and 1960s: by telling the world how computing should be done and making them accept it. IBM salesmen—in fact everyone in the company—was required to wear a uniform white shirt and tie. One of the legendary mantras of that period was recited by corporate purchasing agents: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”

Android is an adventure. It might say of itself, as one corporate iconoclast used to:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.

Apple is now IBM. Android is now Apple. It doesn’t take a genius to see that.

Elizabeth Warren And Native American Lending

Elizabeth Warren is a figure of considerable talent and successful public service. On the heels of a controversy that has been dogging her, though, an irony has cropped up that is worth a note in passing.

Even in a political season where the bizarre has become the everyday, Elizabeth Warren’s run for a U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts has taken some strange turns. While her claim to Native American heritage is entirely legitimate, her handling of the politics surrounding it has been less than smooth. And now there is an unremarked upon twist to it.

You’ve probably seen television ads for the Internet lender Western Sky Financial. A pretty woman in braids looks you straight in the eye and offers you a personal loan. “Yes, the money is expensive,” she admits, “but it is a lot cheaper than a payday advance.” All the while, the Western Sky three-tipi logo is emblazoned onscreen, as a drum beats softly in the background.

The Western Sky site explains:

Western Sky Financial is owned wholly by an individual Tribal Member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and is not owned or operated by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe or any of its political subdivisions. Western Sky Financial is a Native American business operating within the exterior boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, a sovereign nation located within the United States of America.

In an earnest section on Responsible Lending, Western Sky outlines its philosophy:

Fair Dealing among people is a Lakota Tradition, and a concept that is fully embraced by Western Sky. Fair Dealing requires parties to be open and honest and to treat others with respect. Western Sky believes Fair Dealing to be an important aspect of being a responsible Lender.

Western Sky seeks to employ the concept of Fair Dealing at all levels of customer relations, from the application process to the details of loan repayment. This page outlines our approach and what we ask you in return. If you have any questions regarding our commitment to Fair Dealing or our expectations of you, please feel free to ask.

Here are some of the loan rates:

Loan Product Borrower Proceeds Loan Fee  APR   Number of Payments Payment Amount
$10,000 Loan      $9,925          $75   89.68%        84              $743.49
$5,075 Loan       $5,000          $75   116.73%       84              $486.58
$2,600 Loan       $2,525          $75   139.22%       47              $294.46
$1,500 Loan       $1,000          $500  234.25%       24              $198.19
$850 Loan         $500            $350  342.86%       12              $150.72

Demand for easy but high-interest loans has skyrocketed in these hard times. In response to possible overreaching, a number of states that had previously kept their legislative hands off have jumped in to try and set some limits.

It appears that hundreds of Native American-related lending companies, including Western Sky, have cropped up to meet consumer demand. Despite state efforts to weigh in on this development, tribal sovereignty in the face of state laws has prevailed. In 2011 the Native American Lending Alliance  was formed to establish best practices and to make sure that sovereignty in this area remains intact and unassaied.

The only entity empowered to take on any question of tribal-related lending is the federal government. In recent years the federal government did generally take on consumer lending and related  issues with the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But Native American lending is a legally complex and sensitive matter, and neither the federal government nor the CFPB is currently addressing it as frontline cause.

And that’s where the irony comes in. The CFPB is to a great extent the creation of Elizabeth Warren. She conceived it and helped build it. So at a time when Native American interests are operating just outside the purview and the spirit of the CFPB, Elizabeth Warren’s own Native American heritage has become a bit of a campaign issue.

The two have no direct connection, and all we know tells us that Elizabeth Warren always stands squarely on the side of consumers. But it is ironic: not a big irony, but certainly a curious twist in an endlessly curious and twisted political season.

Cleveland Clinic’s Power of Today Ad

The new Cleveland Clinic commercial campaign, The Power of Today, is a model of TV advertising, showing the value of good basic messaging combined with a tactical twist.

Cleveland Clinic is one of the best-known and most-respected health care providers in the nation. More than just a hospital with world-class specialty care, it operates facilities and clinics covering a range of needs, from the everyday to the most sophisticated.

The clear and appealing messages of the 60-second commercial are:

  1. Cleveland Clinic is a world-class provider.
  2. Despite being world-class, it is also approachable, accessible, and patient-centric. It is for everybody. It is for you.
  3. You don’t have to wait for that level of care. You can get an appointment with one of our doctors today.

The master commercial says this:

Today is a big day. Today we greet you, treat you, care for you. Today you can come to us for anything, everything or just to get that thing checked out. Big, small and yes. The best heart care in the nation. It’s here everyday for everyone. That’s the power of Today. Call Today. We’re here for you.

That’s where the twist comes in. To emphasize and realize this point about today, versions have been produced and are running each day of the week (“Today is Monday” and so on).

Even knowing how the magic trick is done (“How does that commercial know that today is Monday?”), the effect is arresting and supportive of the core message. With great straightforward copy (check out the number of one syllable words above) and solid but unfussy visuals, this is how it should be done.