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TV ads during the World Series: the good, the bad, the strange

For somebody who works in marketing, I don’t watch all that much commercial television. This changed during the recently concluded World Series, where I was following the fabulous Giants in a hotel room without a DVR while attending the Direct Marketing Association’s conference and so giving a lot of thought to advertising.

Certain ads played over and over again, making me the beneficiary or victim of frequency. An ad I never tired of was Budweiser’s “Friends Are Waiting” spot. A young guy bids farewell to his dog as he heads out the door with a suitcase of beer; later it’s night and we hear ominous music and the dog is sulking, making us guess something bad happened; then it’s morning and the guy comes home after all because he decided not to drive after drinking. The punch line: “Some never make it home. But we can change that.” A bit cryptic, yet absolutely perfect.

The Matthew McConaghey ad was another winner in a fine series, which equates driving a Lincoln to being an American success. It gets a special mention for this line: “I’ve been driving Lincolns since… long before they paid me to do it.” As copywriters we struggle to include the mandatory compensation disclosure in spokesperson ads. This is a beautiful solution.

Bad was everything from T-Mobile, and especially the ad with a Pirates outfielder making a last minute catch. The rather obscure message of this campaign is that they have better broadband coverage than some competitors (maybe because they have so few customers?) so if you want to capture the moment with a video at the event you won’t get timed out. The problem was we were already at the event, watching the game. The incredibly high production values/expense to create something that look like a high definition tweak of reality was wasted and ultimately annoying.

And just peculiar was the Bank of America ad featuring the dad Rafael Feliz who’s bopping around making strange purchases with the money he’s earned with a cash back card until finally it’s revealed he is putting together a night sitting on the beach watching a surfing video with his family on a portable projector—presumably all bought or rented with points. Rafael looks hapless throughout this spot and his kids, the beneficiaries of his largess, look like they’d rather be somewhere else.

Since “responsibility” is the theme of most of BofA’s commercials these days, one wonders how this even made it off the storyboard. It’s just tone deaf instead of whimsical or charming and one also wonders if they test this stuff against real audiences. A presenter at the DMA shared some car ads and results—one for Audi (as I recall) where the car helps avoid accidents just as a parent does with kids, and another spy vs spy for Hyundai with a lot of chases through tunnels, helicopters and other James Bond silliness. The sweet one dramatically increased “intent to buy” while the spy themed ad actually reduced intent to buy, so maybe not.

Boredom banished at DMA 2014

The Direct Marketing Association’s annual conference is happening this week in San Diego, and I’ll shortly get on a plane to join my colleagues. I will be on a panel Tuesday morning October 28, called “Creative Slamdown: How world-class creatives successfully sell strange, obscure, boring or even the most mundane products” put together by estimable designer and freelance creative director Carol Worthington Levy. Panelists Kathy Lemmon and Michelle LaPointe and I will vie to present the most interesting case history of a dry, difficult or tedious assignment which was executed in an interesting and hopefully effective (since this is a direct marketing conference, after all) way.

My centerpiece is a print ad for Rovi’s advertising in the guide (the ads the appear on your TV channel guide while you are looking for a show to watch) aimed at media buyers. Come see how we turned a straightforward and complex pitch/explanation into something memorable, or at least unexpected.

The session is at 11 am, just before the “Hall of Fame” luncheon which is traditionally a barn burner, so this is a great way to get all fired up and ready to go.

Southwest’s new ad campaign fixes what ain’t broke

I love Southwest Airlines, especially since I moved to a remote corner of the world where SWA is my only conduit to the large markets where I need to travel. I set my alarm to exactly 24 hours before flight time to check in for the best seat (EarlyBird check in? That’s for amateurs) and I happily puddle jump my way across the country, paying little mind to the multiple stops.

As a marketer, I have also loved Southwest for their advertising, which has remained amazingly consistent for many years. A few years back, I visited a local history museum in downtown Dallas. Therein were displayed photos of early Southwest uniforms that were amusingly outdated—and Southwest planes that looked identical to the one I’d just arrived on.

But now all that’s changed. Southwest has a new logo, a new color scheme, new advertising and new skins on the planes—because, as CEO Gary Kelly joked, any Dallas woman over 40 is ready for a facelift.

I am very troubled. The “old Southwest” used humor to deflect and deal with the serious nature of its business. Flying is a technical challenge, and it requires some personal adaption from passengers and crew, so we might as well have as much fun as we can. I remember fondly the “Sick of your job?” recruiting message on the vomit bags, as well as my favorite among the many scripted flight attendant jokes: “We have someone on board who’s just celebrated his 100th birthday by taking his first airplane flight. On the way out, we hope you’ll say congratulations to… our pilot.”

The new messages do away with all this Texas-style horseplay. They’re all about People. Extreme close ups of people’s faces, Southwest team members, with “hit me hard” lighting and a band of color that echoes (but slightly changes) the classic SWA palette across the bottom. On TV, we have these talking heads making inspiring but very generic statements, often followed by a jump cut to a “candid” in which they are celebrating their own awesomeness.

SWA’s old marketing was unique and appropriate to its image. The new campaign, with a logo and palette change, could be switched to a rental car or hotel firm or most any can-do corporation. Who approved this mess and what were they thinking? (Here’s a straight-up comparison: watch the launch video for the new campaign above, then this one from a year ago. Tell me which does a better job of bringing a lump to your throat.)

Well, here’s a clue. notes that the new campaign says nothing about “bags fly free” which was a cornerstone of Southwest’s marketing and became ever more prominent as other airlines started to charge for bags. The new Southwest doesn’t have a clear identity so I guess they can do anything they want including charge for bags. Sigh. I miss that “sick off your job” vomit bag.

Persado is not going to put copywriters out of business. (Whew.)

Persado Try It Page

Persado “Try It” page; click the image to try it for yourself

A recent article on artificial intelligence in the Wall Street Journal had me trembling with fear. It described a technology called Persado which writes emails and landing pages for multivariate testing, stating each component of the message in an infinite number of ways which can be mixed-and-matched through AI to surface the result that gets the best response.

“A creative person is good but random,” according to Lawrence Whittle, head of sales at Persado. (Note that the reporter relies on the sales department, rather than talking to a technologist.) “We’ve taken the randomness out by building an ontology of language.” The article goes on to explain how Persado deconstructs each ad into five components including “emotion words”, product descriptors, the CTA, text position and images and then offers up every conceivable option. (Actually I guess it does not offer them up but simply inserts them into an automated test.)

I experimented with the “play with the technology” page today (after taking over a month to get up the courage to visit the site) and am greatly relieved. The static page is shown here; you can click through to the site and try it for yourself. The “free storage” subhead, button and the text in between will dance around as you mouse over them showing all the options Persado has come up with.

However, there’s one thing that’s obviously wrong with this example landing page that Persado doesn’t address, at least in the demo. Any cub copywriter can tell you the biggest problem with the ad, which is that the company’s logo is used as the headline and the true head, a benefit statement about free storage, becomes the subhead. The logo head is actually completely unnecessary since the logo is repeated in the screen shot of the smartphone. (To be fair, Persado lists “image” as one of the things it tests, but it’s not happening here. It would be embarrassing if they put up a demo which does not properly represent the product.)

What Persado is going to kill is not copywriters, but boredom. I’ll certainly experiment with headlines and different button text, and if there’s more than one way to express a key selling point I’ll give my client options. But I don’t have the patience, and you’re not going to pay me, for micro-experimenting with every word in the copy. Persado, be my guest.

NetSuite vs. SAP: using competitive advertising to reposition your company

NewtSuite SAP Fired

NetSuite “Fire SAP” ad in Wall Street Journal; click the picture to see it larger

We’ve talked in the past (and you can read in my book) about strategies for competitive advertising—promotions in which you talk about a competitor as much or more as yourself. It’s a good strategy for smaller companies because, by positioning themselves against the bigger competitor, they can gain instant credibility. It’s probably not so smart for the bigger guy, who would be better off pretending the little guy doesn’t even exist.

There’s a third reason to do competitive advertising: to position yourself in a new way, for a new audience, even if you are a big and established company. That’s what is happening with the NetSuite campaign currently running. Both NetSuite and SAP handle the back office “plumbing” of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and other large-scale data management. The difference is that SAP is an established and somewhat stodgy company, while NetSuite is Software-as-a-Service. They operate in the cloud.

Notice, however, that cloud is never mentioned in this ad. NetSuite is a company that does the same thing as SAP but is more agile. Maybe the idea is to position them with IT executives who are suspicious of abstracting their key functions and think that important data should never leave the premises. This ad gives NetSuite an opening to talk to them before that objection comes up. They use the reader’s built-in perceptions of SAP, bad and good, as a springboard they can use to say “we do that too” and then differentiate themselves.

I do wonder about the creative execution that seems a little casual and slangy when a stodgy, white-paper approach would have been the obvious way to go. I doubt this target does a lot of text messaging. On the other hand, this is the kind of sophomoric humor that appeals to engineers.

I’ll be keeping my eye on this campaign to see how successful it is (which you can generally judge by how long it keeps running) and what this first foray leads to next. Stay tuned.

The problem with Scottish focus groups

So the dust has settled, and Scotland will be a member of the United Kingdom for a wee bit longer. This may come as a relief or disappointment to partisans who saw the polls dead even up till last week’s election. But it’s not surprising to the bookies, who use another metric to predict results.

We last looked at this phenomenon during the 2012 U.S. presidential elections. (WordPress is not cooperating at the moment; there should be a hyperlink to ) Obama vs. Romney was predicted to be neck and neck, but four days before the election I said Obama would win easily and explained why. When they asked how they plan to vote, voters become cheerleaders. They endorse a position even if they have no plan to make it to the polls—or they have a secret prejudice or preference which can be exercised in the privacy of the voting booth.

But ask voters who they think will win, and you get a much more accurate result: the voter as pundit. They’re happy to trade in their personal baggage for the chance to speculate based on their circle of friend and acquaintances.

Which brings me to focus groups as they are used in evaluating direct marketing creative or messaging. Every direct marketer has had the experience of a focus group rejecting a creative platform because “I’d never fall for that” or some such, when we well know, and will subsequently prove, that those very same newly-minted marketing mavens will behave completely differently in the privacy of their web browser or mail pack.

Polls, and focus groups, don’t lie. The moderators and analysts make adjustments to equalize those who are trying to game the system. But they’re not reliable either, and the Scottish referendum result shows why.

Why Words Matter… in bank marketing

We work hard to make banking easy.

How about…”We work hard to make banking easy”?

A regional bank has invested in an image campaign, and the results are visible in the window of their local branch. Unfortunately, the copywriter has a tin ear. Let’s take a look at three sequential pieces of signage to see what I mean.

“We strive to make banking simple.” Making something simple is a benefit, but strive is a word that implies difficulty. It’s also a little bit above the average person’s everyday vocabulary. “We work hard to make banking easy” would have been better, especially because hard/easy balance each other in a way that strive/simple don’t.

We'll give your money a good home

“We’ll give your money a good home”?

“Feel good about your finances.” Another five dollar word. “Finances” is not a word in the average person’s vocabulary or, if it is, it’s not something you feel good about. “Feel good about your money” would be better but it doesn’t really tie back to the bank. (Neither does the original line, of course.) How about “We’ll give your money a good home”?

The convenience you want, with the security you need

“The convenience you want, with the security you need”?

“The convenience you need with the expertise you trust.” The copywriter was running on empty when s/he got to this one. Convenience isn’t something you need. Want, crave but not need. Expertise is another of those high falutin’ words. What’s wrong with “experience”? Again, we have two concepts strung together so thought should be given to how they balance. Is it news that you can have expertise/experience AND convenience? Not really because they’re two unrelated benefits.

For that matter “need” and “trust” aren’t very well balanced either, are they? Let’s choose something you wouldn’t really expect to get with convenience, and use verbs of equal weight. “The convenience you want, with the security you need.” Because usually the more secure things are the, less convenient, right?Vestibule

So there we are. Didn’t take that long, did it? But I have the feeling the copywriter’s not wholly at fault. I say that because of what’s written over the ATM entrance. “Vestibule”? How about “lobby”? The client probably got the big words because that’s what the client demanded. It reminds me of David Ogilvy’s maxim, “don’t keep a dog and bark yourself.”

Turn your cat’s ashes into a tree!

Catster hijinks

“Fur-ever” tree grown from your pet’s ashes

I’m definitely not a cat person, but even I found this email heartless and cruel. wants me to cremate my pet and use “her” (why always feminine for cats?) ashes to fertilize a tree. And, if I have an elderly animal I’m thinking of euthanizing, there’s a sweepstakes to push the process along.

Long time readers may remember that I once did battle in the Google search rankings with a cat named Otis. This should be schadenfreude yet I find it repulsive. The linked web page has a nonsensical title tag, suggesting this may be the work of hackers. If so, get a life.

Mumblecore Marketing

We Boomers have a bug up our rear for Millennials, much as the “Greatest Generation” probably felt about us back in the day. Wall Street Journal reported on how they don’t like to use the telephone (probably because it intrudes too much on their personal space), and there’s now an app that allows them to hire household help without the awkwardness of meeting face to face and giving instructions.

In short, Millennials are self absorbed. Just look at them: walking with their heads down, obsessed with their iPhones, as they board their Google buses with the dark windows that will swoop them up to earn big bucks at whatever it they do. Goddam kids…

I have noticed a consequence of this in what I’ll call Mumblecore Marketing: emails that are deliberately casual and slouching, as if it’s almost too much trouble to get around to selling you something. As a side benefit these emails seem like they were written by somebody you know, though you can’t remember exactly how you know them.

Nicole Marshall of DMNews—by definition a direct marketing best practitioner and careful tester—is a great mumblecore marketer as far as subject lines go. “Did you see this email” “Re: 2 weeks left” “Are you free at 1 PM ET?” and “Log in now!” are a few that made me look. The body content is fairly straightforward, but the casual subject lines get my attention which is what they’re supposed to do.

Peter Coates of starts with the subject line “Following up” and begins,

Hi Otis,

I sent you an email the other day… if your inbox looks like mine, you may have missed it. Just wanted to let you know Inside Out is holding a Performance Coaching workshop at the Fremont Marriott Silicon Valley on March 11.

It’s designed to help more leaders coach more often, for more business impact. Would you or your colleagues like to attend the training? There are a couple of discounts available if you are in a position to evaluate for your company or if you would like to bring your colleagues with you.

I’m happy to set up a call. Let me know a few times this week when you are available for a conversation.

Warm regards,

This is a very hard sell situation—a paid seminar—but the casual tone is disarming. Mentioning a previous email I didn’t read—a classic direct response no-no—makes it fresh and personal. And referring to “a couple of discounts” without getting into the details of pricing raises curiosity rather than objections. Once I get this far, there’s more straightforward content (including the price) below his signature.

Mumblecore, as you no doubt know, has its roots in independent film, usually low budget and featuring actors who try to appear non professional in order to create a realistic, slice-of-life storyline (though often there isn’t a storyline) including Greta Gerwig taking off her clothes. The term was coined by a sound editor, who was probably frustrated that he could not always understand what the actors were saying.

In mumblecore movies and in mumblecore marketing, the illusion of authenticity is absolutely essential. Make one false step and you turn yourself into a laughingstock. Such was the case with this email, which arrived with the subject line: “Young entrepreneurs… disrupting the food industry – Fancy Food Show 2014”.


My name is Blake & I’m the Founder at eatKeenwa. We’re a bunch of mid-to-late 20 year old entrepreneurs disrupting the status quo in the food industry and re-pioneering American manufacturing. We’re doing something different for once.

We make a stellar snack out of quinoa. It’s robust in flavor, full of functional benefits and packaged with commanding presence.

Please stop by our booth, #5126. I would love to share our story with you. It will leave you engaged and will resonate with your audience.

Please check us out at

Thanks & Be Well,

Blake Niemann

The casual tone is there, but it’s disrupted by jargon and hype: “resonate” “engaged” and “commanding presence” are meaningless and overused and instantly tip off the reader. Kudos, though, for inventing a new word, “re-pioneering”. That truly is “doing something different for once”.

I hear often from Peter and Nicole, suggesting their marketing works; Blake was a one-shot wonder. I have the feeling the mumblecore marketing for eatkeenwa was suggested by a consultant, probably an elderly wretch with tobacco-stained fingers, who then couldn’t resist adding a few time-tested zingers. Blake, if you’re reading, try writing your own copy next time. After all, you and your fellow rambunctious twentysomethings are the real deal.

Home Depot, where’s your ALT tags?

Home Depot without graphics

(Click the thumbnails to see the emails in readable size.)

Home Depot graphic loaded

Aha! load the graphics, and see the special.

Home Depot sends me an enticing daily email: one special item, on sale for one day only! But I have no idea what they’re offering because my email reader (Outlook for Mac 2011) does not load graphics without permission and Home Depot does not use ALT tags.

ALT tags are text that appear in the space reserved for graphics, when for some reason the graphics don’t load. In many email readers graphics are turned off by default, and the user has to make the decision to turn them on. It was only very recently that Gmail started loading graphics by default. And many security conscious companies still refuse to allow network users to open graphics.

Hootsuite no graphics

Who is this email from?

Hootsuite no graphics

Oh, look, it’s my friends from Hootsuite!

Forgetting to put in an ALT tag (or being clueless) can lead to some peculiar effects. Like the message that I got from Hootsuite that said I needed to give them permission to keep contacting me, but I didn’t know who they were because their name was in the graphic. And the cookbook publisher which invited me to a launch event, but the date and venue were in the graphic. If I don’t recognize the sender and nothing appeals to me in the text I can see, how likely am I to investigate further? (Emails like Home Depot’s, with no text at all, are the worst offenders.)

Belcour no graphixs

I‘m invited to an event, but where and when?

Belcour with graphics on

Looks like a nice party! Sorry I missed it.

In each of these cases it would have been a trivial task to code an ALT tag which conveys the day’s special, the sender’s identity and the venue. Even if the no-graphics group is 5% or 10% of your audience, why give those folks a reason to ignore your email?

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