Saturday, January 30, 2010

Diesel Jeans are Wicked Stupid

We’ve spent much time discussing advertising that is either rational/intellectual in its orientation, meaning that it contains useful information that is intended to help consumers make purchase decisions, or advertising that is emotional, meaning that it tugs on your heart strings in order to make a connection to the consumer with the idea that consumers are likely to purchase products and services to which they feel the closest and with which they identify themselves e.g. “I’m a PC or I’m a Mac.”

Now comes Diesel, best known for their jeans, with an ad campaign that beckons the consumer to be stupid. In fact, that’s the tag line: “Be Stupid.” The idea behind the campaign is summed up in a copy line from one of the ads: “Smart listens to the head. Stupid listens to the heart.” The implication, I think, is that listening to the head, isn’t much fun. Listening to the heart, however, can be. In other words, feeling is much easier than thinking. The campaign continuously plays on this theme by developing constructs for us: brains vs. balls; what is vs. what could be; plans vs. stories; and no vs. yes. Each of these suggests the same thing – decisions are better left to the emotions. Not a particularly original message, but one that upon review of the campaign you might find engaging.

If advertisers can dislodge us from our rational selves (if you even believe there is one?) they are better able to manipulate our emotions. Feelings are fickle, but rational thought is not. Nudging consumers into an emotional corner is, if fact, the goal of much advertising that seeks to contain and control the consumer.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Toyota and Tylenol Are Not the Same

A classic case study in the history of public relations is the handling by Johnson and Johnson of the Tylenol tragedy in which capsules laced with cyanide were discovered to be the cause of death of seven people in the Chicago area. Because of J&J’s swift action, pulling Tylenol off the shelves of the nation’s retailers, the company in time was able to bring the product back to market and restore the brand’s image. In other words, they utilized a recall and continuous communication from top management to turn a tragedy into a public relations success story. That was 1983.

Fast forward to 2010 and Toyota, by some accounts, is employing similar tactics in halting production and sales of eight of its vehicles. That action is in addition to the massive recall of several million vehicles. According to one pr case book I consulted, the lessons of the Tylenol incident include: candor with the public, integrity of the brand, proactive leadership by management, and effective feedback mechanisms. So, many companies, including GM, Firestone, Johns Manville and Proctor and Gamble, chose in years past not to follow what in retrospect seems like the commonsense public relations practiced by J&J.

But I don’t think the problem that J&J faced and the one Toyota faces are as parallel as some seem to think. First, J&J’s problem was domestic;  Toyota’s is global. Communication media are vastly different now, especially with regard to the ways in which consumers participate in the process. Just do a Twitter search on the word “Toyota” to see what people are saying about the recall. Or go to YouTube and view some of the myriad videos that have been posted regarding this issue. J&J was better able to control the output of their communication, to offer up their corporate leader as chief spokesperson, and to time their communication efforts to their advantage. With Toyota, the media environment is 24/7. And, everyone is or can be a spokesperson on the issue: the president of Toyota doesn’t command any more presence or authority than Joe the Blogger. In an age of participatory media, it will be interesting to see how this issue unfolds and whether or not it will become a model for a world enveloped by social media, and whether like Tylenol, it will find a place in the annals of future public relations textbooks. 

Monday, January 25, 2010

Voting and the Super Bowl

Super Bowl advertising continues to evolve both in terms of who is advertising and the nature of the ads themselves. To the first point, it appears that at least to some extent the old guard is out, as venerable Super Bowl advertisers like Pepsi are out this year. The event is becoming a place where lesser-known brands, well, like Hyundai are choosing to make a big splash. In fact that may be what super bowl advertising is all about – creating an impact that otherwise would be difficult to achieve. Aligning a brand with such an important cultural ritual like watching the super bowl can skyrocket brand awareness. is one such brand that comes to mind. But for products like Pepsi, where awareness levels are already quite high, there isn’t much the Super Bowl can do for the brand. Pepsi has, this year, opted for a different route to brand building. To the second point, I’ve noticed the continuation of a trend in Super Bowl advertising that relates to this blog’s title – participatory advertising. There appears to be several if not many opportunities for consumers to vote in and around Super Bowl advertising. For example, in a previous blog post I pointed to as a website where one could vote for their favorite commercial, the winner will air on the Super Bowl. Doritos has been employing this technique for three years and continues with its “Crash the Super Bowl” promotion. Voting is a cultural ritual that we usually think of when considering the election of political candidates. As advertising can also be considered a social practice--another term for ritual which I write about in my book Advertising in Everyday Life--it is perhaps understandable why advertisers want consumers to participate in advertising in a somewhat similar way as another cultural ritual – voting. The ability to step into the polling booth and cast your vote for a political candidate is a form of personal empowerment. This practice – voting – also works in the world of advertising where marketers want to empower consumers, at least on the symbolic level. So, the Super Bowl represents a unique opportunity to step into the polling booth, metaphorically, and vote for your favorite advertisement, becoming an empowered consumer. But to what end, I ask?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Caught with your pants down follow-up

Who would have thought that guys caught with their pants down or conversely being encouraged to “wear the pants” would be such a vital trend in advertising. As pointed out in my previous blog post, I have kept track of nearly three-dozen commercials over a period of years that depict guys caught in public with their pants down. And, I have described the use of this technique in my academic research as a way of debasing masculinity: masculine gender identity becomes like raw skin irritated by a dull razor and no shave cream. Just as the trend looked like it was picking up steam again—see the two ads in the previous post—Dockers comes along with an about to be launched Super Bowl campaign that encourages men to simply “wear the pants.” So what is a man to do: wear the pants or take them off in public? Metaphorically, wearing the pants is aligned with traditional masculinity as in the male “wears the pants in the family.” Wearing the pants would assign the male the role of breadwinner; chief wage earner. But we know that is not based on fact given what the recession in the late-eighties/early nineties did to men’s ability to obtain gainful employment; same for this current recession where men have been displaced from their jobs at a greater rate than women. In fact a recent Pew report says 22 percent of men with "some college" are now outearned by their wives. So the message expressed in the Dockers ad campaign in based on a myth. But much advertising is mythic in quality; myth being another word for a lie. The Dockers ad theme is based on a male fantasy and the idea is consistent with what Susan Faludi wrote in her book Stiffed about men becoming “ornaments.” No longer are many men the sole or even major breadwinner in their families, so the only way they can recoup their virility is to, in this case, wear Dockers. While the phrase “wear the pants” may be strong in tone, it is offered to a weakened male consumer. The advertisement in this way offers recompense for the male consumer’s lost status in society. Advertising, and in that purchasing Dockers, in this instance becomes the solution to his personal problem – loss of status. Furthermore, the counter messages offered by the sum total of all this advertising—pants off/pants on—is to send a message of confusion to males – which is it? In this way masculinity becomes problematic for the consumer as these and other advertisements raise the question: who am I? The only way to answer is to purchase the product. As Faludi might suggest: men have become mere ornaments.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Caught with their pants down: Men in advertising

This blog is titled Participatory Advertising because consumers are taking a more active role in the advertising process as demonstrated by consumer generated advertising (CGA) and myriad opportunities via dedicated web sites and social networking sites to interact directly with brands. Careerbuilder is one company that is “pre-gaming” the Super Bowl with a campaign that asks consumers to view three commercials and vote for the one they like the best, which will appear on the Super Bowl. In this way, the company empowers consumers, allowing them to participate in the construction of meaning and experience. This is a direction that advertising has been following for a short while and one that I have been documenting in my blog. But I also want to point out Careerbuilder commercials that represents a trend that I have been following for several years; that is, commercials that literally depict men in public without their pants.

Careerbuilder is the latest brand to join use this tactic. I wrote an academic paper on this subject in which I deconstructed more than two-dozen commercials that depicted men in public without their pants. I concluded that the tactic was an opportunity to strip men of their masculinity—literally and figuratively—and rebuild them (metaphorically) into the consumers advertisers wish them to be. In my paper I write critically of this approach, which I think serves as an irritant that diminishes masculinity and makes it problematic. When you look at the commercial, I’m certain you’ll think it’s humorous. But if you can get past the humor, consider that commercials like this one are aired several if not many times, and if you consider the number of commercials that utilize this among other emasculating tactics (see the Identity Guard commercial below), perhaps you’ll understand where my criticism comes from.

Oh, and to reinforce the issue check out this American Idol audition. As we begin our course this semester, we will be considering issues regarding the depiction of gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality in advertising. The treatment of males is as good a place as any to begin.

Friday, January 8, 2010

As the Domino's fall, so goes advertising

I have to admit that I was absolutely appalled by this advertisement for Domino’s pizza in which members of a “focus group” talk about the shortcomings of the product. Of course, the commercial resolves this dilemma by declaring that Domino’s has changed for the better. But whatever happened to the logic of “don’t ever let them see you sweat”? In other words, why would any company air their dirty laundry—in particular the shortcomings of their product—on national television and beyond? But in the new world of advertising there is no place for logic. While some advertising is interested in creating meaning for consumers, other advertising is simply interested in creating a visceral reaction – an experience. Whether or not that visceral reaction is positive or negative doesn’t seem to matter, because in this age of distraction, you first have to get the attention of consumers by whatever means you can muster. In my book Advertising in Everyday Life, I write about a three-step process--wonder leads to consent, which leads to participation--that extends beyond the kind of cause and effect reasoning of earlier advertising processes, sometimes referred to as the hierarchy of effects. What interests me about the Domino’s advertising campaign isn’t just the television commercial, the 897 comments (to date) the ad received and the 200,000 hits the commercial received on YouTube have to be considered as a form of engagement. And, beyond the commercial and the buzz it created through “new media,” we must consider the almost five minute segment that the campaign received on The Colbert Report.

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Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Alpha Dog of the Week - Domino's Pizza

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Even though Colbert’s segment is a snarky attack on the logic of the ad campaign, I don’t think that offended Domino’s executives in the least. Having said that, I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the advertising agency convinced the Domino’s brand manager that this was a good way to go. The approach simply defies logic, but the new advertising dictates that logic be thrown out the window, replaced by attention getting ploys that are intended to engage consumers through their own participation with the ad campaign. That's the way the new advertising works.