The law of little changes

September25

A basic rule of editing or approving copy is to read the piece through before you pick up a pencil.

Hidden in that sensible rule is a powerful sub-rule: when you must make a change, make sure it’s an important change; niggling little changes, sometimes even just one little change, can create a web of confusion.

The rule extends beyond copy to any form of communication, any action, really.

Consider Southwest Airlines’ new commercial about the curved up wingtips (winglets) on its planes. The commercial’s so new that it doesn’t seem to be on Youtube yet.

Apparently winglets help save a lot of fuel, something like 54,000,000 gallons last year. Winglets are great, we infer. One little thing Southwest overlooked is that the commercial closes with the company’s logo which features a jet with no winglets.

If you drink bottled water, you’ve undoubtedly held a bottle of a Nestle Waters brand.

Down here in Florida, the brand is Zephyrhills, named after a suburb of Tampa. Up in the northeast, the brand is Poland Spring, named after a town in Maine. In Texas, it’s Ozarka and there are three or four others in the US.

Like all bottled water companies, Nestle is under relentless attack from environmentalists for its plastic bottles. So the company shrank the amount of plastic in its bottles, most notably with a much smaller cap which is a real pain to open. Hard to get a decent grip.

On at least some of its labels, the company touts the smaller cap with copy that reads: “Smaller Cap = Less Plastic Did you notice this bottle has an Eco-Slim cap? This is part of our ongoing effort to reduce our impact on the environment. This bottle and cap contain an average of 20% less plastic than our original 500 mL Eco-Shape® bottle and cap. Be Green.

You barely have time to shake your head at the eco-babble or take umbrage at the imperative command to Be Green before your eye drifts down to a hairline box with this little item: “WARNING: Cap is a small part and poses a CHOKING HAZARD, particularly for children.

So we have a pain in the butt bottle cap that does nobody any good whatsoever but it annoys customers and might kill children. Amazing. Little things really do mean a lot sometimes.

Both Southwest and Nestle have demonstrated that each change in anything creates a ripple effect that’s sometimes hard to notice in the enthusiasm about making changes.

That ripple effect can appear to be a little thing but, as Kitty Kallen told us back in 1954, Little Things Mean A Lot!

Takeaway? Before we carve little changes in stone, let’s think them through because changes always have consequences. And the law of unintended consequences can be brutal.

Brilliant commercials aimed at arrogant drivers

September16

A couple of years ago, Alamo screwed up my reservation for a plain old car and I wound up driving a Lincoln Continental pickup truck. It was okay but it was ridiculous.

The Humvee is ridiculous, too. So are the Cadillac Escalade, Porsche Cayenne, Lincoln Navigator and Aviator. All ridiculous.

The business of luxury cars, as opposed to trucks, is ridiculous but in another way. The vehicles are fine but the advertising seems nuts. Watching the commercials, I scratch my head wondering: a) what they’re actually selling and b) if it’s possible that their target audience is juvenile.

Assuming car makers and their agencies know what they’re doing, the flaw, if there is one, must lie with the audience.

What is actually being sold in nearly all luxury car spots is fantasy bordering on the delirious lunacy of a perfume commercial.

The oddest thing is that the commercials are all so much alike that they blend. “Was that a spot for a Beemer or a Benz? Neither, an Audi? You don’t say.

The one fantasy they all have in common is the empty road. Or street, because quite often the uber-hip must drive through the mean streets to prove their cool. Beautiful people in beautiful cars racing along empty streets and highways. If that’s not fantasy, nothing is.

Most commercials pile at least one more fantasy on top of the common core fantasy.

A spot for the Lexus IS 350 starts off with a crowd at some kind of show. The conceit is that “some things are designed to draw crowds.” In this crowd, two blue eyed blondes dressed all in white stand out. The guy has a beard so we can tell he’s the guy. They make their way through the crowd to each other and then to the car. Ta da.

A Mercedes Benz CLA, driven by a bearded guy in a suit, races with a wolf. The wolf can go cross country but the Mercedes has to stick to the road (empty, of course), until it runs, briefly, into traffic – actually just one truck, which is a prop to help demonstrate the car’s ability to brake itself in case the bearded guy’s not paying attention which he’s not because he’s looking around for the wolf. When the guy gets home, just ahead of the wolf, we see the car’s ability to help the guy park in a driveway big enough for five cars. The wolf walks by the car and snarls as the word “Untamed” appears on screen. Lame might have been a more appropriate word.

BMW has an all models spot with different cars driving along empty streets and empty country roads and across empty bridges while a cello plays funereal music. There’s an SUV tearing up a beach, which is annoying just to watch. It must have been infuriating to the people in the nearby houses.

Audi takes the cake with a super-weird spot that has over 10,000,000 hits on the Internet (the others have a few thousand.) Kids must love this nonsense. A kid takes the family Audi to the prom. He’s dateless and friendless, but, apparently, a rebel. He parks in the principal’s spot, stomps determinedly through the crowd (which looks and acts just like the Lexus crowd) straight to the prom queen. He kisses her. The prom king shouts “Hey” and races over. Next thing, the kid has a black eye and he’s driving home, howling. Up come the words “Bravery. It’s what defines us.” Bravery? Sheesh, on Earth he’d get busted for assault.

None of these commercials make any sense at all to normal people for one simple reason. Apparently Lexus, Mercedes, BMW and Audi don’t make cars for the real world. They make cars for self-centered, rude people, ridiculous people, the kind who actually buy into the fantasy nonsense.

And it might pay off.

A survey in the UK by the DailyMail, tells us that the rudest drivers drive BMWs. Research by the University of California published this study, indicts drivers of “fancy” cars, especially drivers of Beemers.

I suspect that commercials for “fancy cars” are designed specifically to appeal to the pathetic souls we know as narcissists, the kind of people who act as if the streets and highways really are traffic free except for them.

The difference between great and mediocre print ads

September4

Or why a horse can be more relevant than Jennifer Lopez

I can’t remember why they were on my desk but there they were: a 1969 Life and a 2013 Fortune. One a consumer magazine and one for business people.

I thumbed through them and noticed that while both magazines have good ads and bad ads the proportion has switched over the years. About 70% of the ads in the 1969 Life are pretty good and about 70% of the ads in the 2013 Fortune are pretty bad. Did we learn nothing in 44 years?

I’m thinking a couple of things happened, both bad. One is that the cult of creativity-for-its-own-sake now has a stranglehold on the throat of advertising; the other is that print has been relegated to the back burner; electronic/digital and TV are where it’s at these days, (although I’m beginning to wonder about TV.)

The creativity problem is worse than ever. If writers and designers want to be creative, they should take up haiku or origami. Our job is selling. A sales pro who’s never written anything would make a better copywriter than a writer who’s never sold anything.

Apparently, 1969 agencies had a few more sales pros writing and designing for print. They came up with ads that accomplished things you hardly ever see anymore: salesmanship, charm, common sense, legibility, relevance and memorability. And they did it with the simplest of tools: understanding the target audience, understanding their brands, thinking, common sense and talent.

Strategically, they did it with one crucial idea in mind: they communicated to the audience rather than to themselves. Here are few examples from the 1969 Life:

Maytag’s focus has pretty well always been the reliability of its appliances. Sister Charity Marie brought it home with a charming and very real, readable and persuasive story.

Renault intrigued and challenged readers in a funny ad with a perfect visual and bang on copy. I can’t help comparing this ad to Fiat’s current campaign with the irrelevant Jennifer Lopez. The problem is, I don’t think Renault’s horse idea was actually a campaign in which case it was probably a waste of time.

Westclox’s claim seems silly now but $50 in 1969 is about $300 today. This no nonsense ad makes a clear case for a value claim of quality for less. The claim is not buried in tiny type, not couched in ultra-hip language. It’s in the headline and clear as a bell.

The headline in the Johnnie Walker Red ad gets your attention immediately. It’s charming, funny, arresting and relevant. Body copy would be superfluous.

Let’s look at a few ads in the April 8, 2013 Fortune

The headline tells us that the Rackspace ad is about open-source cloud computing. More details? I’m sure they’re there somewhere but, with the body copy set in super-wide, sans serif, reverse type, very few people are going to be able to read about them.

Old Dominion is a Virginia tucking company. The headline is a little more obtuse than Rackspace’s; it fits with the company’s overall campaign but an ad should stand by itself. The ad would probably be better with a much smaller photo and much larger headline type. The body copy doesn’t have much of a point to make which is just as well because it’s set in very hard to read type. The logo’s so small that a lot of people who saw the ad have no idea who paid for it.

I have no idea what Avigilon is and neither will anyone who sees this ad.

The idea behind the Regions bank ad isn’t horrible. It’s the same basic idea of the 1969 Maytag ad. The difference is that you knew what Sister Charity Marie’s values were. You have to be told what this guy’s values are and they are … irrelevant. Nonetheless, with the lack of a headline and the body copy set in that incredibly hard to read type, it’s not a good ad.

I’ve never watched Mad Men but maybe I should. I’d probably feel right at home.

If magazines are dying, they’re taking their time about it

August21

It’s never been easy to figure out the true circulation numbers for print magazines and it’s even trickier nowadays. For example: Is Costco Connection a magazine or an extended ad/PR thing that looks like a magazine? If it’s a magazine, it’s got the 3rd largest circulation in the country. I say it’s a quilted ad so to heck with it.

This morning, I was idly wading through various circulation lists and settled on a rough consensus to reach a few simple conclusions.

The two magazines with the largest circulations in the world (over 40MM each) are religious publications from The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. Numbers 3 and 4 worldwide, over 20MM each just in the US, are from AARP, a political organization.

I don’t think of Watchtower and AARP as magazine publishers so I ignored them and magazines like them (NRA’s First Freedom, for example) along with online editions of regular magazines and newspaper inserts such as Parade and the WSJ’s outlandish every-now-and-then Magazine.

Counting American circulation only and ignoring Watchtower and AARP, 9 of the top 13 (70%) are more than 75 years old. Two of them, Good Housekeeping and National Geographic, were founded in the 1880s! The oldest magazine in the top 100 is Popular Science which has been around since 1872. Vogue is only 20 years younger.

Wired is way down the list but its numbers would be good enough to make it #2 if it was in Russia and #3 in India.

Worldwide, there are some real oddities. In Russia, for instance, nearly all the top magazines have familiar English names: National Geographic, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Vogue and so on. Sweden, at first glance, seems to have a lot of magazines with decent circ numbers, but about half of them are put out by associations or unions.

There are at least three obvious lessons here. One: The death notice for print is, apparently, premature. Two: Content matters. Three: Brand names matter, but not without great content. Combined, brand name and content are very powerful.

Digging deeper, actually reading magazines, you sense a subtler lesson.

Most advertising in print, except in women’s magazines, is just bad: blind headlines, weak fonts, reverse type or type on tone (unreadable).

There’s an opportunity here for smart companies with sharp ad agencies.

What’s happening with newspapers?

August15

The Koch brothers have been trying to buy the Los Angeles Times. Lefties are in a tizzy, of course. John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox, bought the Boston Globe from the hapless New York Times. Henry paid $70 million. The Times had bought it for $1.1 billion. And Jeff Bezos of Amazon just bought The Washington Post. Why are these smart guys spending money on “dead” media outlets? Maybe because print will soon be where the money is, especially print “brand names” with extensions into the electronic world.

The key to newspapers’ future may be the 60+ crowd with pushes from a few fairly recent phenomena.

Older folks actually like print and it’s not just because it’s a habit. They were educated differently and even the dumbest of them can actually read. They’re also curious and open-minded because when they were in school the focus was on actual education and not on social engineering.

They pay more attention to details so sound bites just make them ask questions; they want more. Print can give them more and newspapers in particular can do that every day. Find a need and fill it and as soon as newspapers wake up, they just might.

One recent phenomenon that’s going to matter is financial. Older folks have more money to spend than younger folks and it is looking more and more unlikely that the current cadre of youngsters will ever catch up.

Another phenomenon is that television has become much, much worse than the famous “vast wasteland” Newton Minow, then Chairman of the FCC, described in a speech 52 years ago. A few examples should make the point: politically correct speech and themes that, not surprisingly, have resulted in programming that makes viewers feel like they’ve been dragged through a sewer; the disgraceful news departments of the major networks; “reality” shows. There’s a reason the Hallmark Channel is the fastest growing cable programmer.

TV advertising is even worse than the programming. There’s more of it in seemingly endless strings; ambulance-chasing lawyers and prescription drug manufacturers are regulars. Who can watch that stuff? Thanks to the clicker and 500 channels, nobody has to.

Online advertising has a lot of problems but the one that matters here is that reading online is annoying. Intrusive ads pop up, random links take you far from where you want to be, emails keep coming in. It’s like trying to read a book while someone turns the pages before you’re ready and the mailman keeps dropping letters onto your lap.

So, maybe, newspapers are looking more attractive. But there is a potential problem. If owners and editors want to appeal to older and wealthier people, they’d better get the politics right.

If the Kochs manage to get their hands on the L.A. Times, despite the objections of local politicians, the paper will get a lot more conservative in a hurry. It will be one of the very few conservative dailies in a major market. (Offhand, I can think of only three or four others including the New York Post, Reverend Moon’s Washington Times, and the Dallas Morning News, plus the Op-Ed pages of the Wall Street Journal.) Older folks in southern California, naturally more conservative, will read the Kochs’ Times and advertisers will climb aboard.

I know nothing of the politics of John Henry in Boston. If he’s a (so called) Progressive, his $70 million investment will surely dwindle.

Jeff Bezos is a Progressive but he’s a very smart businessman and my guess is that he’ll hire a few more conservative writers and editors and do very well, despite the squawks of his leftie buddies. If the Kochs, John Henry and Jeff Bezos succeed, a lot of shareholders will start squawking, too, and they’ll drown out the opposition.

The Surprising Value of Stalker-Brands

June20

Being an old-school guy, I’m not at all sensitive to brand pressure. My clothes are basically the grown up versions of whatever I wore when I was 12: cotton everywhere, button down oxford shirts (long-sleeved only), khakis or light grey slacks, penny loafers and a blue blazer.

Once guys like me find something we like, we wear it, eat it, drink it, drive it or use it in the bathroom until we accidentally find something better.

A few years ago, I accidentally found Kirkland brand products at Costco and Equate brands at WalMart. We used to call them store-brands but Kirkland and Equate are something different. With a few exceptions (e.g. 8 O’Clock Coffee at A&P), store brands were just not as good as national brands. Kirkland and Equate are better than a lot of national brands, and a lot cheaper.

Most Equate products are for the bathroom: mouthwash, contact lens stuff, shave cream and so on. Kirkland brands are all over the place: coffee, bottled water, lox and God knows what else. Reasonable quality at a low price.

Both companies use their brands to stalk the big brands. For instance, Kirkland’s coffee is right beside Folger’s on the shelves and Equate’s mouthwash is beside Scope. The price contrast is immediate.

Where store brands were once created for the price-conscious shopper, Kirkland and Equate appeal to the quality-conscious as well, assuming they’re not sensitive to brand pressure.

We all have friends who care about the brands they use (or, at least, are seen using) because of brand image. They’ll spend more on their brands even if there’s no logical reason to fork over the extra $$.

House brands are stalking in a whole new area these days. They double as magnets. The only place I can buy Kirkland products is at Costco, so I go to Costco, I wouldn’t bother otherwise, and I buy a lot of other stuff when I’m there. Ditto Equate and WalMart.

Both companies, as you already knew, are run by very smart people.

P.S. I tried a Kirkland wine last week. Nobody’s perfect.

Tweeting with a leftie about guns.

June20

It started when a leftie I follow retweeted this: “Why is it that it’s always some crazy whiteboy with a military style weapon killing innocent women & children?

Not wishing to pick nits by mentioning, oh, the (black) Washington snipers, the (black)LIRR racist loonie or the (Korean) Virginia Tech shooter, I replied semi-coherently, I’m afraid: “Yes, in the mass murders. One or two it’s another bunch & there’s a lot more of ‘em. Ask that question.

My correspondent knew what I meant. Back came a non sequitur: “Bottom line, whoever pulls the trigger: it’s a gun they’re using! We Need Sensible Gun Controls!

I suggested: “We do and we need thug control, idiot control and lunatic control… and to define Sensible, clearly.

She added: “Personally, sensible gun control to me is No Guns. But that’s just me. I’ll settle 4 stringent background chks

I upped the ante: “No guns would be great. Never happen. Bad guys will always have them (by definition they don’t obey laws).

She had an interesting take on that: “Honestly, I’m not worried bout bad guys w/ guns. Just worried bout tons of weapons unaccounted for…Loose among us!

(… not worried about bad guys with guns?) I continued with: “Plus, they’ll always have knives, baseball bats, fertilizer bombs, poison, fists, and on and on and on.

She signed off with this:“You R sounding more & more like a troll with every tweet you make. Nit-picking at zip, resorting to RWNJ arguments. Bye!

I have no idea what a troll is in this context. RWNJ means Right Wing Nut Job Sooner or later, usually sooner, lefties descend to the lowest level of thought and drag up the ad hominem argument, often with a helping of straw man.

Does your slogan (tag line) work against you?

June12

Perhaps the best all time slogan is Maxwell House’s “Good to the last drop”. Either that or Nike’s “Just do it.

My personal all time fave bad slogan came from a camera company, Minolta, I think. In order to make it perfectly clear where their innovative products came from, they tagged ads and commercials with “Out of our minds”. Eventually they realized what they’d done and scrapped it. 2nd place in the dunce category goes to 7Up’s “Make 7Up Yours.

Match.com is an up and comer, though. Right now, their commercials sign off with this beauty: “People who join Match are three times more likely to find a relationship than those who don’t.” I guess they hope that nobody will realize that “those who don’t” includes everybody not looking for a relationship.

Contenders include Corona Light which shows us a sheep leaving its comrades to drink the beer. Tag line? “Ditch the herd.” Ummm, it’s a flock, not a herd. Florida Power & Light closes all its spots with the confusing “Changing the Current.” Is current an adjective here? If it is, the current what, billing practices? Is it a noun? FPL already changes from DC to AC, so are they going to change it back? Are they going to reduce the current? Should we worry? Who knows?

Sometimes a great slogan can be the near opposite of what you really want to say, Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” for instance.

Sometimes it’s okay to go with a lame tag line. Texas is poaching businesses in CA, IL, NY, NJ, and CT (high tax, high regulation leftie states) backed by a boring but bang on tag line “Texas is calling. Your future awaits.

Terrific tag lines usually just pop up out of nowhere. Nobody really understands how to sit down and write one but I know how not to. Start by keeping committees out of it. End by making sure you don’t step on your own foot.

Perhaps the strangest slogan I ever saw was in Toronto years ago. The kind of people who think it’s a good idea to get folks riding bicycles in heavy-commuter, long-winter cities came up with a campaign called “Bicycles Belong.

What’s wrong with it?

For starters, most sane people have the same immediate reaction when they find out that the “where” is out in the traffic on city streets. The reaction is “No they don’t!”

The whole campaign with its emphatic nanny state voice insisted on something that is demonstrably not true.

At roughly the same time, the Province of Ontario ran a campaign with the slogan “equal pay for work of equal value”. That may or may not be a bad idea but the creative execution was abominable. It showed a man running a 500 pound drill press and a woman running a 300 pound press and stated that they should be paid the same. “Fine,” millions thought, “if that’s true, switch their jobs.

Politics-driven ads are easy to dump on because they’re nearly always 100% baloney. But they make nice simple and obvious examples of what not to do.

Say something sensible, short, and memorable and don’t let committees or politics make you step on your foot. Just to make sure, show your new line to your mother before you publish it. If nothing works, relax. You need a huge budget and a lot of exposure to make a tag line work, anyway.

Does Direct Mail Work?

June4

The headline on the Guts post just before this one read: Does anyone know how direct mail works, anymore?

A colleague tweeted it with a link and back came this response: “It doesn’t work.

I laughed. All those financial companies with their credit card mailings, all those charities, causes, politicians, car companies, and catalogers must be completely insane because they keep mailing and mailing and mailing.

Once I thought about it, I assumed the “It doesn’t work” guy meant something else, like maybe it doesn’t work for certain audience segments (which is true), or for low cost one-off products and services (also true – for the most part). It’s possible that he really meant that Direct Mail shouldn’t work because it’s not cool, hip and happening.

If I had to hazard a guess, though, it’d be that he tried Direct Mail once or twice and it didn’t work for him. That’s actually very common. Direct mail doesn’t work for a lot of companies for the simple reason that they have no idea how to do it. If that’s the case, he was right. It doesn’t work. What else is going to say?

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