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Waste or Value: Some Thoughts on Corporate Advertising Effectiveness

Corporate advertising is sometimes portrayed as a wasteful use of corporate resources. Critics say it is self-indulgent ego-stroking by management that often backfires to reflect negatively on the company and/or is seen by consumers who don’t like or understand it. (See typical talking points with a good example of how not to do corporate advertising here.) Some go further and suggest it is subversive. (See this classic 1970 essay by Milton Friedman.) When done right, though, corporate advertising is a valuable tool for facilitating corporate survival.

Successful corporate advertising helps companies shape a coherent umbrella identity for their disparate products and activities and, for companies with contentious public relations issues, advance viewpoints and mitigate image problems. It does this through messaging that builds positive perceptions among the company’s many capital providers, including customers, public opinion leaders, employees, and shareholders. It differs from traditional brand advertising in that it is centered on the company and the benefits of the corporation to society, rather than an individual product produced by the company and simply increasing profits by acquiring and retaining customers.

Like all advertising campaigns, good corporate advertising is effective on different levels. Its value is always a function of its objectives and the quality of its content. Continue Reading →

Game Time: DICK’S versus Scotts

Spring has arrived and with it major league baseball, game broadcasts, and warm weather advertisements. It’s a great time for baseball fans and for advertising fans. The contrasts between the commercials that air between innings and pitching changes are almost as compelling as games between teams dominated by Moneyball influences versus those driven by old school beliefs.

DICKS Sporting Goods - Every Pitch - Screen Grab

This year’s commercial equivalent of Moneyball might be the “Every Pitch” spot from DICK’S Sporting Goods which opens with a batter swinging and missing at a pitch and then takes the viewer on a tour of the field to experience the “dead time” between pitches. We watch the third baseman feint to keep the runner on third close to the bag. The shortstop turns to the outfield, tells them, “no doubles,” and gestures with his hand not to let a ball get hit over their heads. An outfielder jumps in place to keep his muscles loose. The pitcher throws to first to keep that runner close. Meanwhile the camera moves onto the field itself, taking all this activity in before honing in on the pitcher as he prepares to release the next pitch. We are enveloped in the inner world of a game in progress, the dynamic that occurs between pitches that immediately connects with every athlete who has ever played the game at any level. It’s as atmospheric as any commercial in recent memory. The closing billboards simply take us from the game through “Every Pitch. Every Game. Every Season starts at DICK’S.” to form an indelible connection to the brand.

Scott - SNAP spreader - Screen CaptureThe pleasant reverie created by the Dick’s spot rarely lasts long thanks to the Scotts Lawn Care advertising, which has been as subtle as a Nolan Ryan “bowtie.” Few commercial breaks occur during games on the MLB network or ESPN that do not have a Scotts commercial. Each commercial features Scott, the Scot spokesman for Scotts. Get it? Are you sure you GET IT??? Scott the Scot from Scotts lectures unknowledgeable homeowners on the virtues of Scotts fertilizer, grass seed and spreader, ending not just with an encouragement to “Feed your lawn” but with an insistent follow-up to “Feed it!” In the advertising world of Scott’s Lawn Care, you cannot belabor a point too much. Kudos to the rational voice in the copy review meeting that talked the team out of putting Scott the Scot from Scotts in a kilt and tam o’shanter. But it’s a shame he or she could not have encouraged a little more subtlety in the media schedule, the tagline, or the actor’s intended-to-be-friendly smile that has all the sincerity of a ravenous wolf seeing you as dinner.

Usually, we are proponents of the “old school” rationally oriented commercials that present a USP to create brand distinction and provide consumers with a reason to buy. The Scotts commercials all present strong appeals and it’s often the case that well-visualized product advantages will outweigh grating presentational aspects in the consumer’s mind. Plus there is always the concern that risking a media budget on something as elusive as forming an emotional connection with consumers for a brand through something as fundamentally and recognizably commercial as an advertising spot is a high stakes gamble. But when one connects, as does the DICK’S commercial, arching home runs have more glory than grunted-out singles.

This weekend I had planned to stop by my local Home Depot to load up on my yard care needs for the season but I think instead I’ll just head on over to the nearby DICK’S for some Neatsfoot. My glove needs oiling. And maybe I’ll pick up a few other things while I am there.

The Transportation of “Mean” Joe Greene: A good tell is a good sell

Quietly tucked away, in the moments before kick-off, “Mean” Joe Greene returned to the Super Bowl this year. In a new ad for Downy, the former football pro reprised his role from the classic Coca-Cola commercial that originally aired in 1980. Only this time, Greene is sniffing fabric freshener instead of gulping Coke.

Created for the Coca-Cola Company, the first “Mean” Joe Greene spot appeared in Super Bowl XIV in 1980. In that commercial, a starry-eyed boy offers his Coke to the injured defensive tackle, “Mean” Joe Greene. The refreshing Coke prompts a smile from the intimidating Steeler and he tosses the boy his game jersey.

The Downy spot is also charming and witty. Using strong story-telling that includes celebrity and humor, it maintains its freshness by an engaging “twist” that has Greene’s fan played by funny gal Amy Sedaris, who says thanks- but-no-thanks to his sweaty, stinky game jersey.

Regardless of whether people know who Greene was, when he played, or how he earned his nickname, the powerful story-telling framework lends itself to continuous adaption and successive callbacks. The host of “Mean Joe Greene” remakes over the years has ranged from adaptations in which other countries’ star athletes play Greene’s role to references in popular television to a number of parodies.

In one of the most unexpected, Coca-Cola competitor, Pepsi, offered up its own twist. David Beckham, then with Manchester United, trudges off the field following a particularly rough match. He requests a sip from a young fan’s Pepsi. Before David walks off, the boy requests his game jersey. As it turns out, the young boy just needs to wipe off the rim of his can before continuing to enjoy the drink himself!

In another charming take, the Coca-Cola Company revisited “Mean Joe Greene” in Pittsburgh Steeler, Troy Palomalu. This time, a young fan tries to offer Palomalu his Coke Zero, only to have it intercepted by Coke brand managers who claim the newest addition to the Coca-Cola family has stolen Coke’s taste.

The Coke, Downy, Pepsi, and Coke Zero reincarnations of the original “Mean” Joe Greene spot show that a well-told story can be a powerful means of strengthening brand meaning with consumers. Effective story-telling influences underlying beliefs through a process called Transportation. “Stories sell,” not only through well-known recall and persuasion devices like benefit-centric messaging, creditable support, and news, which target cognitive processing, but also through transportation devices like character identification, empathizing, and narrative flow, which target deep seated beliefs towards the featured brand or promoted behavior. What makes “Mean” Joe Greene so special, both as a commercial and as the model for so many successful progeny, is that it accomplishes all of those things, achieving both short- and long-term effects.

To learn more about about measuring audience response to narrative advertising, visit G&R’s Transportation Research page.

Michael Imperioli is onto Something

Every year, an instructor at a large state university acquaints students to the Criminal Justice degree program. In the midst of the talk, a student enters the room, whispers a few words to the instructor and leaves, whereupon the instructor resumes his talk. After a while, he asks his audience to take a sheet of paper and write down the answers to a few questions. What color shirt had the student who had entered the room a few moments before been wearing? Had he been carrying anything in his hand? What color and length of hair did he have? Was he wearing eyewear?

The point of the exercise, in fact the point of the staged “exposure,” is to illustrate that eyewitnesses to events are unreliable and just how few details we recall from events that occur in our daily lives.

This point is well taken for the criminal justice system and for marketers. As we go through each day, we are bombarded with stimuli that we instinctively sift through, retaining what has meaning for us and discarding what does not. Whether we are sitting in a classroom listening to an instructor talk, driving along a city street listening to the radio and keeping an eye on signs, pedestrians, and other drivers, or sitting at home watching a favorite TV program, a plenitude of stimuli are there for our attention yet we internally process what to attend to and what to disregard, what to retain and what to dismiss: we focus our attention on an instructor and dismiss the message bearer; we stop for a school crossing guard and lose track of the radio program; we watch a TV program and divert attention when commercials come on.

How different our experiences would be if someone were directing our attention to aspects of our lives we might not otherwise consider important. What if someone in on the instructor’s ploy was sitting next to us and said, “Pay attention to this person.” With our focus honed in on the student, details we might not notice or might quickly dismiss would become items of scrutiny. We might not only remember the shirt color, but note whether it is a t-shirt, pullover, or a button-down type. We might notice not only that he had a few pages of paper in his hand but also that they were covered in notes written on yellow legal paper. Ordinary details that would otherwise be of no particular importance would attract our attention, worthy of some notice and perhaps consideration.

The story of the university lecturer came to mind when thinking about Michael Imperioli asking in a recent 1800 Tequila commercial, “Whatever happened to commercials? So many of them don’t make any sense and you can hardly tell what anyone’s selling.” Mr. Imperioli could be onto something because over the past few years, a sea change has occurred in the way companies evaluate the content of their advertising which embodies the contrast between how we normally observe events and how we might see things if our attention were abnormally directed to things we would otherwise dismiss.

Historically, companies relied heavily on day-after recall (DAR) methodologies to evaluate their advertising. DAR tests are designed to replicate, as closely as possible, the real-world environment in which people are exposed to an advertising message. In a DAR test, respondents watch a television program or read a magazine in their own homes, under natural conditions. The following day, a research interviewer contacts them and asks about the content of the program or publication, including the advertising. A DAR test provides insight into what people attend to and what is sufficiently important and meaningful to them that they retain it for at least 24 hours, despite all the other events going on in their lives that demand attention and occupy their minds.

In recent years the trend has been away from DAR testing toward more expedient diagnostic designs as marketers look to save money and time. In a diagnostic test, respondents are shown advertising, usually in a clutter environment of a few other advertisements and occasionally in a faux media environment. Testing is done in an unnatural viewing/reading context, often via the internet or occasionally in a research facility such as those located in shopping malls. Respondents are directed to look over the advertisements and often the test advertisement is shown more than once to provide respondents with an opportunity for further study and scrutiny. Interviewing about respondents’ thoughts about the ad takes place immediately after exposure.

The differences between these methodologies are dramatic.

  • In a DAR test, respondents experience media in a normal environment under typical viewing/reading conditions. They are in their own homes, in the company of family members, in their favorite armchair by the lamp they typically use when reading or watching TV. A diagnostic test, by contrast, occurs in an environment in which the advertising appears out of context and in an artificial setting, either over the internet or in a research facility.
  • In DAR tests, respondents see advertising in real time, as it occurs when media is purchased, within the context of other messages competing for attention and against normal household distractions. In some DAR tests, respondents know only that they have been asked to watch a TV program or read a magazine. In others, they are not pre-contacted to participate in research; the recruitment will not occur until the following day so that their viewing/reading behavior is entirely normal. In diagnostic tests respondents are recruited from a shopping mall or from an Internet panel and are fully aware they are participating in an advertising test. They are usually re-exposed to a test advertisement more than once and have the opportunity to focus their full attention on the message in a manner they may never do normally since they are anticipating that they are about to be interviewed about it and wish to appear knowledgeable.
  • Respondents in a DAR test attend to media as they normally would, focusing upon things that interest them and ignoring or dismissing things that do not. In this regard, they are very much like the audience watching the university instructor who may or may not attend closely to an interruption (the instructor interrupted by a student is in some regards similar to the way an advertisement interrupts a program or a magazine feature). People in a diagnostic test have their focus deliberately directed to the advertising, just as though someone told them to what they should pay attention. If only companies had someone telling consumers to pay attention to the upcoming advertisement!
  • About 24 hours pass before respondents are interviewed in a DAR test, allowing time for inconsequential events to fade from memory and for more lasting impressions that remain to inform buying inclinations. Diagnostic interviews occur immediately after exposure determining less what people retain and more what is recognized.

As a consequence, the perspective that respondents have of advertising based on their participation in DAR tests and diagnostic tests is as vastly different as how the student in the lecture hall is normally regarded and how he is seen when people are tipped off beforehand. It’s like the difference between seeing the world as it is and looking through a distorting lens. The lens changes the way people see things and these differences distort what companies learn about their advertising from the type of testing they do.

  • Communication of the strategic message is usually much higher among those who prove recall of an advertisement in a DAR test than among participants of a diagnostic test despite the fact that respondents in a diagnostic test have just seen the advertisement. In a DAR test, those who recall the commercial have done so because the message has engaged them. When the advertisement’s message resonates among consumers, that advertisement has a better chance of forming a connection with the individual and of being remembered. Consumers for whom the message has little relevance dismiss the message and are not as likely to remember it. The DAR test effectively identifies the prospects most likely to be affected by an advertisement because recallers connect with the message. Communications effectiveness is being measured among this select group. The diagnostic test, by contrast, determines how well an advertisement’s message can be recognized and reiterated by a sample of consumers who have just seen the message and can only report on what they recognize the message to be. Since some proportion of respondents included in the diagnostic test are those for whom the ad has little meaning and who would ignore or dismiss it in a DAR test, they often fail to connect with the key message, leading to lower levels of message registration. While message communication levels in a diagnostic test has value, particularly during early message development phases, it tells marketers less about how well the message forms a connection with the reader since consumers are responding with what they have just seen, not describing an impression that has connected with them that they have chosen to retain.
  • Measures of intrusiveness between the systems are very different and generally do not correlate. Aided brand recall levels in a diagnostic test approach 100%. Respondents have just seen the advertisements so the task of identifying what appeared in clutter is a snap. Recalling an ad in a DAR test of respondents is tougher since an ad must connect with the consumer in a meaningful and lasting manner. Claimed recall to an aided brand prompt is often in the 20-40% range, depending on the DAR methodology, and the percent that can accurately “prove” that they have seen the advertisement that actually appeared is somewhat less than that. Respondents in a DAR test do not know that they are participating in a test of advertising and yet must recall the ad and accurately describe it 24 hours later despite the tens of thousands of other stimuli that have clamored for attention in the meantime. For an ad to be accurately recalled in a DAR test, it must truly “break through.” In a diagnostic test, it must only be identified as something seen a few moments earlier.
  • Not surprisingly, ads that recall well in a small diagnostic clutter environment may not do well in a rigorous DAR test. Some research has indicated that established, familiar brands are more highly recalled in diagnostic tests while no such pattern has been detected in the 60+ years DAR tests have been used and studied. While branding may be recognized in a diagnostic test, the linkage between a brand and the ad concept may not be sufficiently strong for respondents to recall the ad in the name of the advertiser after 24 hours have passed.

There is a place in communications evaluations for both DAR tests and diagnostic evaluations. Diagnostic tests help spot when key messages fail to communicate or when an ad’s tonality is not consistent with a brand’s image. These tests are useful for screening and refining alternative concepts early in the developmental process. But diagnostic tests do not assess how the ad will perform in a real world environment nor do they provide essential insight into whether the advertisement is capable of breaking through sufficiently with consumers that a meaningful impression has been formed that can last until some action can be taken. One research expert has estimated that close to 70% of CPG advertising plays out with near-zero ad effects and blames this largely on advertising that has failed to break through.

Advertisers have opted for diagnostic tests in recent years for a variety of reasons – low cost and quick turnaround prominent among them. By saving money and time, many have risked multi-million dollar media budgets on messages that leave both Michael Imperioli as well as their target customers wondering what that advertising was all about.

To learn more about G&R’s real-world testing solutions, go to Real-World Testing, and, to learn more about G&R’s better online system for measuring breakthrough, go to Web24.

A Target Worth Watching

Some think that Target has lost its cachet.  A June WSJ article says that the star retailer’s recession-driven strategy to focus on food and low prices works at the expense of its chic image.  This, they say, has confused its audience and put pressure on the company’s large, high-margin fashion and home décor business.   After you look at this ad from the September issue of House Beautiful, what do you think?

When we first saw the colorful ad, we were impressed by Target’s bold strategy and sharp focus (and not a little surprised by how broad the Missoni product line has grown).  Going well beyond Missoni’s roots as an upscale Italian fashion house, the ad shows many home products such as drinking glasses, plates, bowls, even wall hangings, all with the iconic chevron design.   In a magazine aimed at interests other than clothing and for a store interested in clothing and more, Target highlights the upcoming promotion with showing newly added accessories such as kitchenware, home décor, bikes, handbags and shoes, in addition to their flagship look in clothes.  Target plans to spotlight the Missoni products between September 13 and October 22, or “as long as supplies last”, many of which will be sold within the startling price range of $2.99 to $54.99.  Further, the ad features Margharita Missoni, the third generation family member and model involved in developing the Missoni line, differentiating and personalizing the brand from other design icons now part of large conglomerates.

If you haven’t heard of Missoni, mention the name to a few of your style-conscious friends or check out the 20-page Missoni for Target blockbuster in the September issue of Vogue.

As interesting as the ad was to us as an example of how to add excitement in a usually been-there-done-that product category, it was even more so as an example of high-risk-high-reward advertising.  What do you think?  Ennui or excitement?  Risk or reward?  Bonus question: Do you think the TV commercial is as strong as the print ad?

Postscript: Advertising Proof of Life

Added October 14, 2011

Target’s Missoni offer proved so successful that the Target website crashed on the first day. And in “an unusual fumble for the large retailer, Target was unprepared for online shoppers’ hunger for the items. The Target.com site was wiped out for most of the day; the company said that demand for items was higher than it was on a typical day after Thanksgiving, and that is usually the biggest shopping day of the year.” (New York Times) For the month, Target’s same-store sales were up a better than expected 5.3%.

Uncommonly Good Advertising

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbO7fR7eLEc?rel=0&w=480&h=270]

Did you catch the most recent Keebler commercial featuring two sisters returning home after school?  It’s saporous.  After a cursory greeting to their Mom on their way straight to the kitchen, the older sister, maybe 11- or 12-years-old, reaches for the last yummy-looking cookie in the pack.  The scene shifts to the younger sister, maybe 6-years-old, watching her older sister’s actions with a puppy-dog expression that says, “Can I have one, too?”  Then, the two girls’ eyes meet and the older girl, in a moment of decisive hesitation, selflessly gives the cookie to her sister.  As the older sister turns back to the package, lo-and-behold, there’s one more cookie left – goodness rewarded – with the help of head elf Ernie and the Hollow Tree Factory.  All are winners, even the viewers, who will be drawn into the mini-drama and feel like standing up and cheering when it is over.  Quite a sensitive use of narrative, emotion and viewer involvement on both the parent and child levels.  The chronology, climax/resolution, character, context and a :30 dash of imagery/detail all contribute to an emotional intensity that may vary based on the audience, but will create a few positive emotional moments for the target.  And, very importantly, all while still keeping the product center-stage.  Look for it if you dare…because if you do you’ll want some Keebler cookies.

Very Pretty, General. Very Pretty. But, Can they Fight?

According to Carl von Clausewitz, the best strategy in war is always to be very strong, first generally then at the decisive point.  It is also the best strategy in advertising.  For us, being generally strong is about branding and the decisive point is about belief change.  Simply, effective advertising should brand well and present meaning that changes beliefs.

These IBM ads from the August 11, 2011 Wall Street Journal present an interesting case in point.  Ads that are colorful, marshaled in large force and well-positioned (each on the back page of a different section of the newspaper) make them and the brand name more likely to be noticed.  But ads that talk meaningfully to a small proportion of the audience, lack visualization of the benefit (including the execution that is about visualization), and are hard-to-read in places (some body copy support) make them less likely to be strong at the decisive point of changing beliefs.   What would advertising disciples of Clausewitz and Pinkley say about them?

Ads appearing in the 8/11/11 WSJ

* Memorably asked by Vernon Pinkley (Donald Sutherland), prisoner 2 in “The Dirty Dozen,” as he inspects Number 1 Company of Col. Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan).

Battle of the Brand(Manager)s

Two juice pouch ads from Kraft exemplify the classic struggle advertisers and parents face when talking with kids – fun vs. sensibleness.  The Kool-Aid ad definitely brings the fun with the bright purple tongue while the Capri Sun ad touches on both fun and sensible choice.  On the one hand, fun is important, but ads that are only about fun are generally less persuasive and make a less long-lasting appeal.  On the other hand, it is hard to do both fun and sensibility well in the same ad.

Bonus: does the location of the package cut influence ad performance and, if it does, which is the better placement?

Capri Sun versus Kool-Aid

Trust, But Verify

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOwJOcp-Mxk?rel=0&w=480&h=300]

For a cool $5 million, maybe more, Groupon became this year’s poster child for how not to advertise. And it did so on America’s largest television stage, the Super Bowl.

The company’s commercials, which included an in-program parody about Tibet featuring Timothy Hutton, and similarly-toned pre- and post-game spots about saving the whales with Cuba Gooding and deforestation with Elizabeth Hurley, were met with widespread negativity. Many called the communications offensive. G&R’s own research placed audience reaction near the bottom of all Super Bowl ads, below perennial whipping boy GoDaddy.com, but above HomeAway.com’s “Ministry of Detourism” (Test Baby), which was also pulled by the advertiser and merited another CEO apology.

At first, Groupon defended its efforts. Then, it pulled the ads. Then, CEO Andrew Mason further distanced the company from the criticism by saying that he put too much trust in the ad agency charged with developing the creative (BusinessWeek).

Whether an ad airs on the Super Bowl or elsewhere, the fallout from faulty creative can be significant. The costs go well beyond wasted production and airtime, and red-faced CEOs. Even when it is masked by otherwise strong marketing and business results, poor advertising damages brand and agency reputations, just as if someone had taken a hammer to them. The damage is most obvious when the advertising appears on high visibility programming like the Super Bowl, but can happen with any campaign.

As the many Super Bowl examples of it demonstrate, poor advertising is surprisingly common. Before its current “talking baby” campaign, E*Trade spent $2mm to show a monkey and two men wasting $2mm. Within its better-received monkeys campaign, CareerBuilder.com spent $2.7mm to tell the story of an unhappy employee’s heart bursting out of her body and running to tell her boss that she quits. Outpost.com spent $2.6mm to shoot gerbils at its name for most of its 30 seconds and was not heard from again. And Apple, just one year after running what many people consider to have been the best Super Bowl ad of all time, “1984,” ran what some people consider to be the worst Super Bowl commercial of all time, “Lemmings.” The company didn’t return to the Super Bowl stage until 14 years and one Steven Jobs hiatus later.

Flawed creative hurts agencies as well. Even Super Bowl agencies with strong creative pedigrees see accounts head to the door and their statures suffer. The work for Groupon  was done by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, an agency that is well-known for edgy advertising (Coke Zero) that can be controversial and produce significant PR value (Burger King) and also advertising that is heartfelt and empowering (AmEx Open). The initial E*Trade work was the work of Goodby Silverstein & Partners (Doritos; Sprint; Netflix). Sandwiched in between their more familiar monkey motif, CareerBuilder.com tried out a Wieden+Kennedy (Coca-Cola; Nike; Old Spice) idea. The Outpost.com commercial was created by Cliff Freeman and Partners (Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef”). None of the agencies is still involved with its Super Bowl client and Cliff Freeman is no longer in business.

With so much at stake, why does poor advertising end up getting run at all? The simple answer is that all of us – even writers, producers, directors, experienced marketers and ad agencies – have trouble when it comes to telling whether something that we’ve created is good or not. Here’s why.

  1. Ads are deceptively complex stimuli to characterize. Although simpler than movies and TV shows, commercials present the same analytical challenges when anyone attempts to assess how well their many moving parts work or don’t work in isolation and together. That’s because kinetic stimuli contain more variables than the human mind is capable of processing; the brain is limited and selective in the number of items that it perceives, remembers and thinks about. No matter how experienced a movie, network or advertising professional is, he or she is not mentally equipped to weigh all the combinations of content variables and syntaxes that influence response. As evidenced by the number of box office busts, TV cancellations, and advertising failures, simply judging whether a movie is good, a TV show engaging, or a commercial effective will only meet limited success.
  2. We are not very good at inferring the relative responses of others. Ninety percent of drivers feel that the quality of their driving is in the top 50 percent of drivers. Sixty-eight percent of professors rate themselves in the top 25 percent for teaching ability. The bottom 25 percent of students think they do better than 65 percent of their class. Ninety percent of entrepreneurs think that their new business will be a success when most new businesses fail. Forecasting whether an ad will be a success or failure in the minds of others is even more uncertain when the stimulus is new and different, which Super Bowl commercials (and all good creative) should be.
  3. We are reluctant to use the best means we have for understanding what others will think, which is to ask them. According to Dan Gilbert, this is because we tend to overvalue our own uniqueness. Dan’s thinking may explain why the best opinion-seeking method we have in the advertising world, copy testing,[1] is often left undone. This is unfortunate because the more someone knows about how others will react to a stimulus, the better he or she will be at avoiding the inherent error in affective forecasting and ad approval.

Poor commercials are the consequence of the limitations we run up against when we rely on intuition and logic to analyze complex stimuli and predict how others are going to react to it. They are not the result of too much agency trust as Groupon’s Andrew Mason put it. Independent, quantitative research by expert providers mitigates the considerable downside in high risk/high reward advertising and protects the company’s most important asset – the brand.  Trust, but verify.


[1] Quantitative testing should not be confused with focus group research, which is good for development work, but not good for evaluative work. The ambiguity of focus group responses is impossible to reliably interpret and the error rate that results from small samples sizes and variable group dynamics is no better than chance alone.

Lil Jon Knows How to Sell Advertising

In Season 11, Episode 4 of Celebrity Apprentice, Teams Backbone and A.S.A.P. were given the challenge to come up with a :30 commercial to showcase a new videophone product from the company, ACN. The two commercials were evaluated by ACN representatives. Did ACN get it right with their final selection?

The teams were charged with creating a commercial that would be judged for creativity and originality, company brand messaging, and product integration.  Additionally, ACN explained to each team that they were looking for a commercial that would make an emotional appeal.

The men’s team, Team Backbone, went with an edgier commercial that they called “Tommy Gets Engaged.”  In the commercial, parents, one of whom is played by Gary Busey, open a Christmas gift from their son, Tommy; it is a videophone with instructions to plug it in and call.  They do, and Tommy then uses the phone to introduce his fiancé, Pablo, a mascara-wearing José Canseco.

The women’s team, Team A.S.A.P., produced a vintage AT&T-style, high-touch commercial that showed a daughter in France as an exchange student phoning her parents back in the U.S.  After talking to the father, and introducing him to her host mother, played by Dionne Warwick, she connects with her mother, played by actress Marlee Matlin, who speaks and signs her deep love to her.

Each commercial was introduced to 450 ACN sales leaders by their Celebrity Apprentice Project Managers. After seeing both spots, the ACN participants were asked to vote on the one they “wanted.” The A.S.A.P. spot received 47% of the votes, while the Backbone spot received 53% of the votes and was declared the winner. By going with “Tommy,” did ACN correctly pick the stronger commercial?

The ACN team does a good job at kicking off the assignment by specifying the success criteria for the commercial.  Creativity and originality are not always necessary, and rarely are they enough by themselves, but coupling them with even vague objectives for brand messaging and product integration provides a good roadmap for brand building advertising. The additional directive that the advertising be emotionally connected helps clarify expectations, but not by much. All effective advertising makes an emotional connection with its audience. Based on the ACN criteria, the Backbone commercial wins on originality, but the A.S.A.P. commercial wins on brand messaging and product integration and so to us is the stronger commercial.

The close 53% to 47% vote in favor of “Tommy Gets Engaged” by the ACN employees/participants shouldn’t move us off that conclusion. Input from the company’s sales organization on an advertising campaign can be useful, but it is the opinion of customers and prospects that will cound. What sales team really “wants” is advertising that will help them sell the most.

Credit, though goes to Lil Jon, the Backbone Project Manager, who was brilliant in “selling” his commercial to the ACN viewers.  He fired them up before and after they watched it. He astutely and credibly pulled them in via emotionally appealing ideas that the commercial was cool, could go viral, and even would be airworthy for Super Bowl telecast. For his efforts, Lil Jon deservedly received $40,000 for his charity, United Methodist Children’s Home.  But in our view, the A.S.A.P. entry better met the ACN communications objectives of originality, brand messaging and product integration and would be the more effective brand building commercial for ACN. In the words of David Ogilvy, “If it doesn’t sell, it’s not creative.”