"Customers need a rational excuse to justify their emotional decisions. So always include one."
The new headquarters of Wells BDDP still smelled like paint, glaze, and putty. The advertising agency, formerly known as Wells, Rich, Greene, had just moved in the fall of 1997 to the twelfth floor of a landmark building at the base of Madison Avenue, and no expense was being spared to bring the firm's image into the highly competitive twenty-first century.
The walls were adorned with the latest high-concept art. Frosted-glass doors discreetly hid rows of conference rooms outfitted with racks of high-end video gear and flat-screen displays. Long corridors opened into huge atriums furnished with bright leather couches, hefty wooden end tables, and boldly upholstered chairs—no two the same.
At the same time, this manic obsession with detail and design struck me as just one clue that the agency, and perhaps the entire industry, was in trouble. Caught between a desire to look hip and a need to appear authoritative, advertising seemed in the midst of an identity crisis.
"We call this `The Well,'" explained Douglas Atkin, the agency's debonair head of planning as he escorted me through a colossal, loftlike gallery overlooking downtown. This part of the office space was the architect's accommodation to the firm's creative function and image. A grand piano and a butcher-block coffee bar served as bookends to an area where Wells executives hoped that young copywriters and graphic designers could brainstorm their latest campaigns in a social, freeform atmosphere. Flexible spaces like these came into vogue in the eighties as firms used kindergarten-style floor plans to lead their employees (and their clients) to believe in the playful, spontaneous intellectual process this untraditional architecture was supposed to engender. Now they were an expected feature of an agency's floor plan. If you didn't have at least one such open space, it meant you were behind the times. BDDP's plans also called for a curved wall to be built around one side of The Well to separate the greater space from the agency's main conference room. Originally, this wall was to be transparent, but management decided that a more opaque surface would allow for greater discretion.
On this early autumn afternoon, no one could have imagined that by the time that wall's construction would be finished, the firm would be, too. Who would believe that such a fate would befall what had once been New York's vanguard agency? With Mary Wells at the agency's helm through the 1960s and 1970s, Wells, Rich, Greene had been responsible for some of the most innovative advertising that Madison Avenue had ever seen. The agency once enlisted surrealist Salvador Dali for a daring Alka-Seltzer television commercial in which the artist painted the effervescent medicine's passage through the human body directly onto the skin of a female model.
Although Wells had retired long ago to an island chateau in Europe, and the agency had subsequently suffered an embarrassing bout of setbacks, by the late nineties Wells BDDP—the added letters signifying a merger with a respected European network—was back on the fast track to an altogether new run of glory days. And their newest partner, Douglas Atkin, was widely held to be a man who could not only revitalize this agency but whose techniques could help stimulate the creative energy of an entire industry.
He had his work cut out for him. For two decades, cable television had been drawing viewers away from broadcast programs and the commercials that sponsored them. Network television ratings were down, even though the cost of advertising minutes had gone up. As a result, big business had started to sour on advertising in general. Many companies were turning instead to direct marketing, special promotions, in-store displays, sports sponsorships, and tie-ins with other products. To make matters worse, budget cuts and heavy competition had led many companies to bring their advertising in-house. They could no longer justify the huge sums Madison Avenue charged to conduct esoteric research and devise sophisticated ad campaigns. Besides, what could an advertising agency possibly tell Nike it didn't already know about sport shoes and their wearers?
Atkin, a tall, bald British man in his early forties with a regal countenance, was imported by Wells to the United States in the hope that his new discipline of account planning would systematize the process by which market and consumer research is converted into an actual campaign. In traditional advertising, the account executives deal with clients, while the creatives develop the copy. Account planners arose to serve as an interface between the two disciplines, translating the clients' needs into specific propositions for the agency's creatives, and then backing the agency's resulting proposals with research from the field. Although copywriters and graphic designers execute the creative work, the account planners are responsible for igniting the initial spark and, of course, convincing clients that their agency's insights will translate into market leadership.
To Atkin, account planning means coming up with a set of reusable tools that can be applied to any number of different campaigns. By developing a language to codify the creative process in a series of off-the-shelf advertising strategies, Atkin hoped to arm Wells BDDP with the resources it needed to compete effectively in a shrinking marketplace and, perhaps, even restore the role of the advertising agency as the preeminent source of consumer research and media know-how. His success would be an affirmation of the effectiveness of advertising above all other kinds of marketing.
To this end, Atkin brought in high-priced experts from fields normally considered tangential to the advertising arts. Young account planners flocked to the agency, both to work with Atkin and to take part in the graduate-school-like atmosphere he created. He hired anthropologist Bob Deutsch to conduct focus groups and share new methods of analysis, a systems theorist named Sally Goerner to teach his staff about the wonders of chaos math, and, in the fall of 1997, me, to reverse-engineer the concept of the media virus (as I'd outlined it in a book by the same name) into a step-by-step procedure for disseminating ideas through the mediaspace.
As I strolled through the unfinished offices of Wells BDDP with Atkin, advertising no longer seemed to me like a coercive attack on an unsuspecting public, but more like an art form struggling for its life. Atkin didn't appear to me to have a coercive bone in his body. By joining his ranks, I felt I would be participating in the evolution of an ongoing dialogue between brands and consumers.
What I didn't realize was that Atkin had been shielding those of us who worked with him from the harsh realities of his industry. The research we were having so much fun conducting—how people get into a cult, or the psychology of ordering a beer—also needed to yield results. In the short term, this meant convincing clients that the millions of dollars being spent on their behalfs would result in breakthrough campaigns capable of reaching consumers on an entirely new level. In the long term, it meant either generating noticeably higher sales or losing accounts to other agencies.
On my first real consulting day at Wells, I attended a crisis meeting for the Amstel Beers account. The campaign that Atkin had conceived for the company's new line of non-"light" products wasn't working. Atkin's Garrison Boyd campaign was theresult of months of research. Costly focus groups had revealed that most Americans associate Amsterdam, the city where Amstel is produced, with open-mindedness. The problem with marketing a brand on the open-mindedness platform, however, was that everyone has a different idea of what it means. About ninety percent of those polled like to think of themselves as open-minded, but each respondent saw his own open-mindedness asreflecting a different set of social values. One man's open-mindedness was another's conservatism, and vice-versa.
Atkin's challenge was to help the Amstel brand claim the concept of open-mindedness—the way Nike had claimed individual achievement or Levi's had taken authenticity—without ever defining precisely what open-mindedness is. Research had determined that the beer's target market is college-educated adults between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-four, with incomes of more than $40,000, who enjoy active lifestyles. According to the agency's original written proposal to Amstel, the target was "the kind of person who would say, `I don't necessarily want to cross-dress, but if someone else does, it's fine with me.' They are somewhat rebellious and dislike being told what to do. They like to do the opposite of what authority figures tell them to do."
How to communicate open-mindedness to such a group? They don't want to be lectured to—they are too sophisticated for that. Besides, they are a rebellious bunch. There lay the account planner's creative spark: Convince by contrast. Use reverse psychology.
Atkin's staff came up with the curmudgeonly character of Garrison Boyd—a bespectacled old man in a plain gray suit who despises open-mindedness as well as everything else from Amsterdam. As founder of the fictitious organization Americans for Disciplined Behavior, Boyd took it on himself to combat Amstel's recent "attacks" on American decency by placing bumper stickers and posters on top of regular Amstel billboards, with slogans like: "Resist the Amstels from Amsterdam" and "Shield your eyes!"
Meanwhile, this campaign would exploit the new, mutant media of which Atkin was such a fan. Familiar with the rules I had set out in Media Virus, Atkin understood that advertising that has the seeds of a media story within it will generate interest and, in turn, more media. Who was Garrison Boyd? Why was he attacking Amstel's billboards? About thirty percent of the people who saw the advertisements thought they were real and that Garrison Boyd represented a legitimate but misguided group of ultra-conservatives attacking an imported beer. But the ads generated even more excitement among those who "got" it. Who paid to advertise against one's own brand? The New York Times and MSNBC ran stories about the bizarre campaign, which in turn led to more media coverage, and so on.
What Wells BDDP counted on was that creating a story "with legs," as public-relations people like to say, would be the most efficient way to spread its message. The news media can carry your campaign along for you if it's novel enough, and the Amstel campaign would cost only about a fifth of what most competitors were spending on new-product launches. But although TV awareness of the brand had quadrupled, and radio awareness grew by a factor of eighteen, all this awareness hadn't yet translated into sales—which is why the Amstel campaign was now in a crisis.
The account executive who had worked with Amstel parent Heineken's brand manager for years claimed he never liked the Garrison Boyd strategy to begin with. The adman was a relic from an earlier age and saw in Atkin everything that was destroying his business: research and creativity at the expense of schmoozing and salesmanship.
I was invited to the meeting to help refine the Garrison Boyd campaign. I made a lengthy presentation to the agency that morning about media viruses and chaotic systems. How would I put this idea into practice more effectively with Boyd? I was asked. I was intrigued that a real campaign had made use of my abstract theories, and I strove to explain why it hadn't yet sold more beer.
"Boyd is a great viral shell," I explained, "but there's no content inside him." Wrapped around any great media virus, there is a provocative outer casing or "shell" of media. For the Rodney King media virus, it was the camcorder tape of the man being beaten. The story spread because the camcorder had been used in a brand new way. The videocassette was the initial story. The Boyd campaign's mock-guerilla style certainly satisfied the shell requirement. By breaking the rules of media, they had caused a sensation. But unlike the Rodney King virus, Boyd had no ideas—no ideological "code" within his shell. The Rodney King tape, once disseminated, released potent images of police brutality and provoked discussions and rage. By avoiding the specific kinds of open-mindedness that Boyd was protesting—marijuana use? free sex? cross-dressing?—the Garrison Boyd virus had no ability to stir people up once they had taken notice. I suggested the agency take a gamble and instill its virus with some real content.
Atkin seemed interested in my proposal, but before we could even discuss it, the surly account executive stopped the conversation dead.
"We have to kill Boyd," he insisted. "I agreed to him before," he admitted as if he had been convinced against his better judgment, "but we have to kill him now or we'll lose this account."
Atkin was incensed. This was not a problem of advertising but of distribution. His senior vice president presented an extensively researched flip chart that showed how successfully the Garrison Boyd campaign had increased consumer awareness of the new Amstel brands. The only obstacle to increasing sales was the fact that the beer was still unavailable in most bars and grocery stores. Although advertising could create demand, it couldn't stock the shelves.
These were the kinds of excuses that old-timers had come to expect from vanguard creatives, who they believed were more interested in developing their craft than in serving the client's bottom line. Sure, they had done the research to back up their claims, but ultimately they just passed the buck to one of the client's other departments. The account executive cited his relationship with the brand manager at Heineken to suggest that he had the power to break rank. He was the only one who understood how this man thought and how far he could be pushed. They had reached their limit with Garrison Boyd, and he wasn't about to report back to the client without something more traditional, something that promised a real increase in sales.
Unable to agree on a single strategy, Wells BDDP eventually lost the account, along with the rest of Heineken's business. Atkin soon decided to seek a position elsewhere, and shortly after his own and other key departures, Procter & Gamble, a company known for its slow and methodical decisions, suddenly pulled all of its business from the agency in a dramatic and unprecedented move. Taking away about seventy percent of Wells's revenues, the defection made the headlines and sank the agency.
The forces leading to the collapse of Wells BDDP are the same ones threatening the rest of the advertising industry. Traditional advertising executives depend on the nontraditional ingenuity of people like Atkin to reach increasingly rebellious target markets. The vanguard young creatives, however, refuse to develop campaigns that don't break new conceptual or artistic ground. They don't want to create advertising merely to sell things; they want to have fun. Firms like Wells struggle to straddle the divide, simultaneously peddling their campaigns to both disgruntled clients and cynical target audiences. Fueling this crisis most of all are the media-savvy consumers who, like bacteria treated with antibiotics, grow ever more resistant to the machinations of this fractious industry.
Most of us know by now that they don't call the stuff on TV "programming" for nothing. The people making television are programming not just their fall lineups; they're programming us. Or at least they're trying to. Over the past few decades, however, the sophistication with which advertisers package and deliver their messages has been matched only by the sophistication with which we, their audience, deconstruct them.
Currently, marketers appear to be in a race with their customers. New media and the youth culture raised within it have demystified most of the traditional methods of marketing. Many members of today's television audience are armchair media theorists, confident in the language of programming and capable of decoding the messages coming into their homes. Advertisers are scrambling to understand the postmodern mediascape as thoroughly as their audiences do, and to develop new sorts of programming tricks that work in the new environment.
But advertisers are in a bind. While some viewers are busy deconstructing every image and evaluating its semiotic components, others are simply watching the TV and trying to figure out what's going on. Marketers whose advertising depends on inside jokes and discreet winks may elicit a chuckle out of a college kid but at the same time alienate his mom. Advertisers who overcompensate for the cynicism of one group find that their adjusted tactics then fail to speak to a different segment of the population. As a result, major corporations reevaluate their marketing plans weekly, and change advertising agencies almost as frequently as the agencies fire (or lose) their creative directors. In this age of new media, the programmers are the visitors, and we, for once, have the home-field advantage.
Branding Products, Branding People
It wasn't always this way. Not so long ago, before marketing became a branch of psychology, branding and advertising were simply ways to publicize and identify one's products.
The brand began, quite literally, as a method for ranchers to identify their cattle. By burning a distinct symbol into the hide of a baby calf, the owner could insure that if it one day wandered off his property or was stolen by a competitor, he'd be able to point to that logo and claim the animal as his rightful property.
When the manufacturers of products adopted the brand as a way of guaranteeing the quality of their goods, its function remained pretty much the same. Buying a package of oats with the Quaker label meant the customer could trace back these otherwise generic oats to their source. If there was a problem, he knew where he could turn. More important, if the oats were of satisfactory or superior quality, he knew where he could get them again. Trademarking a brand meant that no one else could call his oats Quaker.
Advertising in this innocent age simply meant publicizing the existence of one's brand. The sole objective was to increase consumers' awareness of the product or company that made it. Those who even thought to employ specialists for the exclusive purpose of writing ad copy hired newspaper reporters and traveling salesmen, who knew how to explain the attributes of an item in words that people tended to remember.
It wasn't until 1922 that a preacher and traveling "medicine show" salesman-turned-copywriter named Claude Hopkins decided that advertising should be systematized into a science. His short but groundbreaking book Scientific Advertising proposed that the advertisement is merely a printed extension of the salesman's pitch and should follow the same rules. Hopkins believed in using hard descriptions over hype, and text over image: "The more you tell, the more you sell" and "White space is wasted space" were his mantras. Hopkins believed that any illustrations used in an ad should be directly relevant to the product itself—not just a loose or emotional association. He insisted on avoiding "frivolity" at all costs, arguing that "no one ever bought from a clown."
Although some images did appear in advertisements and on packaging as early as the 1800s—the Quaker Oats man showed up in 1877—these weren't consciously crafted to induce psychological states in customers. They were meant just to help people remember one brand over another. How better to recall the brand Quaker than to see a picture of one?
It wasn't until the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, as Americans turned toward movies and television and away from newspapers and radio, that advertisers' focus shifted away from describing their brands and to creating images for them. During these decades, Midwestern adman Leo Burnett concocted what is often called the Chicago school of advertising, in which lovable characters are used to represent products.
Green Giant, which was originally just the Minnesota Valley Canning Company's code name for an experimental pea, became the Jolly Green Giant in young Burnett's world of animated characters. He understood that the figure would make a perfect and enticing brand image for an otherwise boring product and could also serve as a mnemonic device for consumers. As he watched his character grow in popularity, Burnett discoveredthat the mythical figure of a green giant had resonance in many different cultures around the world. It became a kind of archetype and managed to penetrate the psyche in more ways than one.
Burnett was responsible for dozens of character-based brand images, including Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna, Morris the Cat, and the Marlboro Man. In each case, the character creates a sense of drama, which engages the audience in the pitch. This was Burnett's great insight. He still wanted to sell a product based on its attributes, but he knew he had to draw in his audience using characters.
Brand images were also based on places, like Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing, or on recognizable situations, such as the significant childhood memories labeled "Kodak moments," or a mother nurturing her son on a cold day, a defining image for Campbell's soup.
In all these cases, however, the moment, location, or character went only so far as to draw the audience into the ad, after which they would be subjected to a standard pitch: "Soup is good food," or "Sorry, Charlie, only the best tuna get to be Starkist." Burnett saw himself as a homespun Midwesterner who was contributing to American folklore while speaking in the plain language of the people. He took pride in the fact that his ads used words like "ain't"—not because they had some calculated psychological effect on the audience, but because they communicated in a natural, plainspoken style.
As these methods found their way to Madison Avenue and came to be practiced much more self-consciously, Burnett's love for American values and his focus on brand attributes were left behind. Branding became much more ethereal and image-based, and ads only occasionally nodded to a product's attributes.
In the 1960s, advertising gurus like David Ogilvy came up with rules about television advertising that would have made Claude Hopkins shudder. "Food in motion" dictated that food should always be shot by a moving camera. "Open with fire" meant that ads should start in a very exciting and captivating way. Ogilvy told his creatives to "use supers"—text superimposed on the screen to emphasize important phrases and taglines.
All these techniques were devised to promote brand image, not the product. Ogilvy didn't believe consumers could distinguish between products were it not for their images. In Ogilvy on Advertising, he explains that most people cannot tell the difference between their own "favorite" whiskey and the closest two competitors': "Have they tried all three and compared the taste? Don't make me laugh. The reality is that these three brands have different images which appeal to different kinds of people. It isn't the whiskey they choose, it's the image. The brand image is ninety percent of what the distiller has to sell."1
Thus, we learned to "trust our car to the man who wears the star" not because Texaco had better gasoline than Shell, but because the company's advertisers had created a better brand image.
While Burnett and his disciples were building brand myths, another school of advertisers was busy learning about its audience. Back in the 1920s, Raymond Rubicam, who eventually founded the agency Young and Rubicam, thought it might be interesting to hire a pollster named Dr. Gallup from Northwestern University to see what could be gleaned about consumers from a little market research. The advertising industry's version of cultural anthropology, or demographics, was born.
Like the public-relations experts who study their target populations in order to manipulate them later, marketers began conducting polls, market surveys, and focus groups on the segments of the population they hoped to influence. And to draw clear, clean lines between demographic groups, researchers must almost always base distinctions on four factors: race, age, sex, and wages. Demographic research is reductionist by design. I once consulted to an FM radio station whose station manager wanted to know, "Who is our listener?" Asking such a question reduces an entire listenership down to one fictional person. It's possible that no single individual will ever match the "customer profile" meant to apply to all customers, which is why so much targeted marketing often borders on classist, racist, and sexist pandering.
Billboards for most menthol cigarettes, for example, picture African-Americans because, according to demographic research, black people prefer them to regular cigarettes. Microsoft chose Rolling Stones songs to launch Windows 95, a product targeted at wealthy baby boomers. "The Women's Global Challenge" was an advertising-industry-created Olympics for women, with no purpose other than to market to active females.
By the 1970s, the two strands of advertising theory—demographic research and brand image—were combined to develop campaigns that work on both levels. To this day, we know to associate Volvos with safety, Dr. Pepper with individuality, and Harley-Davidson with American heritage. Each of these brand images is crafted to appeal to the target consumer's underlying psychological needs: Volvo ads are aimed at upper-middle-class white parents who fear for their children's health and security, Dr. Pepper is directed to young nonconformists, and the Harley-Davidson image supports its riders' self-perception as renegades.
Today's modern (or perhaps postmodern) brands don't invent a corporate image on their own; they appropriate one from the media itself, such as MetLife did with Snoopy, Butterfinger did with Bart Simpson, or Kmart did by hiring Penny Marshall and Rosie O'Donnell. These mascots were selected because their perceived characteristics match the values of their target consumers—not the products themselves. In the language of today's marketers, brand images do not reflect on products but on advertisers' perceptions of their audiences' psychology.
This focus on audience composition and values has become the standard operating procedure in all of broadcasting. When Fox TV executives learned that their animated series "King of the Hill," about a Texan propane distributor, was not faring well with certain demographics, for example, they took a targeted approach to their character's rehabilitation. The Brandweek piece on Fox's ethnic campaign uncomfortably dances around the issue.
Hank Hill is the proverbial everyman, and Fox wants viewers to get comfortable with him; especially viewers in New York, where "King of the Hill"s homespun humor hasn't quite caught on with the young urbanites. So far this season, the show has pulled in a 10.1 rating/15 share in households nationally, while garnering a 7.9 rating/12 share in New York.
As far as Fox was concerned, while regular people could identify with the network's new "everyman" character, New Yorkers weren't buying his middle-American patter. The television show's ratings proved what TV executives had known all along: that New York City's Jewish demographic doesn't see itself as part of the rest of America.
Fox's strategy for "humanizing" the character to those irascible urbanites was to target the group's ethnographic self-image. Fox put ads for the show on the panels of sidewalk coffee wagons throughout Manhattan, with the tagline "Have a bagel with Hank." In an appeal to the target market's well-developed (and well-researched) cynicism, Hank himself is shown saying, "May I suggest you have that with a schmear."
The disarmingly ethnic humor here is meant to underscore the absurdity of a Texas propane salesman using a Jewish insider's word like "schmear." In another Upper West Side billboard, Hank's son appeals to the passing traffic: "Hey yo! Somebody toss me up a knish!" As far as the New York demographic is concerned, these jokes transform the characters from potentially threatening Southern rednecks into loveable hicks bending over backward to appeal to Jewish sensibilities, and doing so with a comic and, most important, nonthreatening inadequacy.
Today, the most intensely targeted demographic is the baby—the future consumer. Before an average American child is twenty months old, he can recognize the McDonald's logo and many other branded icons. Nearly everything a toddler encounters—from Band-Aids to underpants—features the trademarked characters of Disney or other marketing empires. Although this target market may not be in a position to exercise its preferences for many years, it pays for marketers to imprint their brands early. General Motors bought a two-page ad in Sports Illustrated for Kids for its Chevy Venture minivan. Their brand manager rationalized that the eight-to-fourteen-year-old demographic consists of "back-seat consumers."
The real intention of target marketing to children and babies, however, goes deeper. The fresh neurons of young brains are valuable mental real estate to admen. By seeding their products and images early, the marketers can do more than just develop brand recognition; they can literally cultivate a demographic's sensibilities as they are formed. A nine-year-old child who can recognize the Budweiser frogs and recite their slogan (Bud-weis-er) is more likely to start drinking beer than one who can remember only Tony the Tiger yelling, "They're great!" (Currently, more children recognize the frogs than Tony.) This indicates a long-term coercive strategy.
The abstraction of brand images from the products they represent, combined with an increasing assault on our demographically targeted psychological profiles, led to some justifiable consumer paranoia by the 1970s. Advertising was working on us in ways we couldn't fully understand, and people began to look for an explanation.
In 1973, Wilson Bryan Key, a communications researcher, wrote the first of four books about "subliminal advertising," in which he accused advertisers of hiding sexual imagery in ice cubes, and psychoactive words like "sex" onto the airbrushed surfaces of fashion photographs. Having worked on many advertising campaigns from start to finish, in close proximity to everyone from copywriters and art directors to printers, I can comfortably put to rest any rumors that major advertising agencies are engaging in subliminal campaigns. How do images that could be interpreted as "sexual" show up in ice cubes or elbows? The final photographs chosen for ads are selected by committee out of hundreds that are actually shot. After hours or days of consideration, the group eventually feels drawn to one or two photos out of the batch. Not surprising, these photos tend to have more evocative compositions and details, but no penises, breasts, or skulls are ever superimposed onto the images. In fact, the man who claims to have developed subliminal persuasion, James Vicary, admitted to Advertising Age in 1984 that he had fabricated his evidence that the technique worked in order to drum up business for his failing research company. But this confession has not assuaged Key and others who relentlessly, perhaps obsessively, continue to pursue those they feel are planting secret visual messages in advertisements.
To be fair to Key, advertisers have left themselves open to suspicion by relegating their work to the abstract world of the image and then targeting consumer psychology so deliberately. According to research by the Roper Organization in 1992, fifty-seven percent of American consumers still believe that subliminal advertising is practiced on a regular basis, and only one in twelve think it "almost never" happens. To protect themselves from the techniques they believe are being used against them, the advertising audience has adopted a stance of cynical suspicion.
To combat our increasing awareness and suspicion of demographic targeting, marketers have developed a more camouflaged form of categorization based on psychological profiles instead of race and age. Jim Schroer, the executive director of new marketing strategy at Ford explains his abandonment of broad-demographic targeting: "It's smarter to think about emotions and attitudes, which all go under the term `psychographics'—those things that can transcend demographic groups." Instead, he now appeals to what he calls "consumers' images of themselves."
Unlike broad demographics, the psychographic is developed using more narrowly structured qualitative-analysis techniques, like focus groups, in-depth interviews, and even home surveillance. Marketing analysts observe the behaviors of volunteer subjects, ask questions, and try to draw causal links between feelings, self-image, and purchases.
A company called Strategic Directions Group provides just such analysis of the human psyche. In their study of the car-buying habits of the "forty-plus baby boomers and their elders," they sought to define the main psychological predilections that human beings in this age group have regarding car purchases. Although they began with a demographic subset of the overall population, their analysis led them to segment the group into psychographic types.
For example, members of one psychographic segment, called the "Reliables," think of driving as a way to "get from point A to point B." The "Everyday People" campaign for Toyota is aimed at this group and features people depending on their reliable and efficient little Toyotas. A convertible Saab, on the other hand, appeals to the "Stylish Fun" category, who like trendy and fun-to-drive imports. One of the company's commercials shows a woman at a boring party fantasizing herself into an oil painting, where she drives along the canvas in a sporty yellow Saab.
Psychographic targeting is more effective than demographic targeting because it reaches for an individual customer more directly—like a fly fisherman who sets bait and jiggles his rod in a prescribed pattern for a particular kind of fish. It's as if a marketing campaign has singled you out and recognizes your core values and aspirations, without having lumped you into a racial or economic stereotype.
It amounts to a game of cat-and-mouse between advertisers and their target psychographic groups. The more effort we expend to escape categorization, the more ruthlessly the marketers pursue us. In some cases, in fact, our psychographic profiles are based more on the extent to which we try to avoid marketers than on our fundamental goals or values.
The so-called "Generation X" adopted the anti-chic aesthetic of thrift-store grunge in an effort to find a style that could not be so easily identified and exploited. Grunge was so self-consciously lowbrow and nonaspirational that it seemed, at first, impervious to the hype and glamor normally applied swiftly to any emerging trend. But sure enough, grunge anthems found their way onto the soundtracks of television commercials, and Dodge Neons were hawked by kids in flannel shirts saying "Whatever."
The members of Generation X are putting up a good fight. Having already developed an awareness of how marketers attempt to target their hearts and wallets, they use their insight into programming to resist these attacks. Unlike the adult marketers pursuing them, young people have grown up immersed in the language of advertising and public relations. They speak it like natives. As a result, they are more than aware when a commercial or billboard is targeting them. In conscious defiance of demographic-based pandering, they adopt a stance of self-protective irony—distancing themselves from the emotional ploys of the advertisers.
Lorraine Ketch, the director of planning in charge of Levi's trendy Silvertab line, explained, "This audience hates marketing that's in your face. It eyeballs it a mile away, chews it up and spits it out." Chiat/Day, one of the world's best-known and experimental advertising agencies, found the answer to the crisis was simply to break up the Gen-X demographic into separate "tribes" or subdemographics—and include subtle visual references to each one of them in the ads they produce for the brand. According to Levi's director of consumer marketing, the campaign meant to communicate, "We really understand them, but we are not trying too hard."
Probably unintentionally, Ms. Ketch has revealed the new, even more highly abstract plane on which advertising is now being communicated. Instead of creating and marketing a brand image, advertisers are creating marketing campaigns about the advertising itself. Silvertab's target market is supposed to feel good about being understood, but even better about understanding the way they are being marketed to.
The "drama" invented by Leo Burnett and refined by David Ogilvy and others has become a play within a play. The scene itself has shifted. The dramatic action no longer occurs between the audience and the product, the brand, or the brand image,but between the audience and the brand marketers. As audiences gain even more control over the media in which these interactive stories unfold, advertising evolves ever closer to a theater of the absurd.
Story: The Play's the Thing Wherein I'll Catch the Conscience of the King
The dramatic story has served for centuries, perhaps millennia, as our civilization's chief method of imprinting and perpetuating value systems on large target audiences. The Bible stories, fairy tales, and moral fables we were told as children stick with us for the rest of our lives. They become the resonant elements, or central myths, on which we base our perception of the world. The stories we are told account for our understanding of creation, existence, and even death.
Television commercials are stories, too, and they are designed to impress brand values upon us with the force of cultural mythology, securing and extending our most deeply held beliefs.
Most stories work by generating tension. The plot moves up an inclined plane of increasing stakes and danger, and the audience experiences the agonizing thrill of going along for the ride. The further into danger the character goes, the higher our own level of tension will become. The good storyteller slowly and consistently builds our anxiety—careful not to push so hard that we run out of the theater. As the level of tension increases, we are drawn deeper into the storyteller's spell. The worse it gets, the more dependent we are on the storyteller for a way out. It's all worth the pain, though, because eventually the conflict will be resolved and the audience will be released into delightful catharsis.
Because the audience is willing to accept any reasonable escape from their own state of unbearable tension, the storyteller has the power to concoct whatever solution he wishes. And embedded in that solution can be an agenda. The more intense an audience's level of anxiety, the more preposterous a release it will accept.
The thirty-second advertisement can use narrative tension to influence through catharsis, too. The story just has to generate its anxiety more quickly. I was disturbed as a child by an ad in which a midlevel executive is seated behind his desk. He looks like a nice enough guy—a lot like us, in fact. But something's wrong. His phone is ringing noisily. His boss is angry. He's lost an account. His wife crashed the car. We see he is in great pain. What's he going to do? He opens the drawer of his desk and smiles. What does he see? A brand of pain reliever, of course. He swallows the pills, and we watch as a psychedelic swirl of colors fills the outline of his body, soothing every painful area. He is happy, and his problems seem diminished. I can remember wishing my problems would manifest themselves as a headache so that they could be cured as easily.
As long as an influence professional can build his idea—be it a product, candidate, or lifestyle—into the fabric of a story, he can successfully program an audience to accept it. The better his story—the more profoundly we identify with his character's dilemma—the more fully and permanently we will accept the underlying agenda.
The word "entertainment" means literally "to hold within." The more entertaining a story, the more captivated we are by its teller and the more vulnerable we are to his influence if he chooses to exercise it. Television, theater, and film had better be entertaining, for only a captive viewer will sit and bear the tension of the rising dramatic action.
That's how my grandfather used to watch TV movies back in the 1970s. He'd lean back in his La-Z-Boy recliner with a bowl of pretzels in his lap. The heroine in one of these movies—I think it was Suzanne Pleshette—walks into an apartment where we know a murderer is hiding. She tries the light switch, but it's broken. She ventures into the apartment anyway, and into danger.
If my grandpa likes Suzanne Pleshette as much as most older men of the period did, he will experience anxiety on her behalf. He is being put into a state of tension. At this moment, some part of his brain makes a calculation. He could change the channel to avoid the tension, but that would require taking the bowl of pretzels off his lap, pulling up the lever on his recliner, rising, crossing to the TV set, and manually changing the channel to another station. But jumping up like this whenever he felt himself in the grip of the action on the screen would defeat the purpose of the entertainment he has come to expect from television. He's been trained to be a well-behaved, attentive viewer. He has what programmers like to call a "long attention span," and he is used to suffering through moments like these. On the other hand, enduring the tension will mean a heightened level of anxiety until someone rescues poor Suzanne.
In an appeal to the La-Z-Boy viewer, television manufacturers developed the remote control. Little did they realize it would thwart the efforts of the people programming television content.A person armed with a remote control makes a completely different set of internal calculations when confronted with an anxiety-producing narrative. With very little effort, he can push a button and release himself from the rise in tension. Young people today pride themselves more on their channel-surfing capabilities than on the lengths of their attention spans. Watch yourself or your child operate a remote control; the impulse to change channels arises more often out of disgust at being made to feel tense than out of simple boredom.
A person with a remote control doesn't need to be sucked into the aspirin commercial any more than he is into the Suzanne Pleshette movie. The businessman in the commercial is obviously having a bad day. Why watch? Click. Easy as that.
The television remote allows for easy escape, fundamentally changing the viewing audience's relationship to television. Young people and remote-control-capable adults no longer sit back and watch a television program; they watch the TV set and put it through its paces. They are literally watching and deconstructing styles of programming. Just as journalists and the public watched Marv Albert work his spin control, viewers now watch television programmers and advertisers attempt to draw them into coercive stories.
Skilled remote-control viewers can keep track of five or six different programs at a time. The most practiced of us—usually the youngsters—flip from channel to channel, catching the most important moments of each show or sporting event with uncanny precision. Watching TV this way has become almost a form of postmodern art unto itself, where the action and values of one program are suddenly juxtaposed against another's. An altogether new kind of entertainment emerges from the formerly passive viewing experience: the joy of recombining images, creating our own edit points, and comparing and contrasting different programs, often thwarting their creators' original purposes in the process.
By marketing the tools of media to its consumers, the electronics industry has unwittingly undermined the efforts of advertisers. For many decades, the television screen was an exclusive territory. Only programmers and sponsors had the magic ability to manipulate the images on the screen. The act of broadcasting television was as mysterious and awe-inspiring as transubstantiation, and it was regarded with equivalent reverence. The information that the networks piped into our homes was accepted as if it were the gospel truth. Back in the 1960s, Walter Cronkite had the privilege of ending his evening broadcast with the tagline "And that's the way it is."
The home video game was the first interactive medium to challenge this authority. Just as the remote control deconstructed television, the joystick demystified it. Think back to the first time you ever played a video game. It was probably the primitive black-and-white arcade game called Pong. You felt excitement not just because you had finally found a way to play table tennis without a real table, but because, for the very first time, you had gained the ability to alter the pixels on the television screen. A space that formerly had been off-limits was now absolutely accessible through a simple knob. The pixels, and the screen they composed, had been demystified.
The video camera took this demystification a step further, as amateur photographers came to understand the language of film editing and the ways to "lie" about time and space by splicing together images that may not have actually been shot in sequence. The computer keyboard and mouse turned the monitor into a communications center. Today, the cathode-ray tube is no longer a receive-only device but, through the Internet and commercial online services, a portal to self-expression. Media has become a two-way street.
The proliferation of all these devices, plus the advent of fax machines, VCRs, modems, and cellular telephones, has fundamentally altered the shape and function of the mass media. It is now an open system—a mediaspace. Anyone can contribute, and no one can be sure how what he throws in there will be deconstructed, repurposed, and distributed. A top-forty song might be sampled and recycled by a rapper. A news report may be deconstructed and exposed as propaganda by a public-access show or Internet newsgroup. A rock video may be mocked by commentators like Beavis and Butt-head. A commercial can be satirized by a late-night comedy show for its clumsy efforts at manipulation—and the audience will get the joke.
The media is a chaotic place. Like an ocean or a weather system, it no longer respects authority. In fact, those who attempt to impose their authority are ridiculed, while brilliant and valuable tidbits emerge from the most remote and seemingly inconsequential sources. Advertisements attempting to associate a brand with a celebrity or lifestyle aren't nearly as effective as they once were. No sooner are they broadcast than they are deconstructed into their component parts. Younger, media-savvy viewers instinctively reject authoritative voices and laugh at commercials in which people try to act "cool."
Advertisers are well aware of our changing viewing habits. Now that an increasingly large proportion of the public has adopted this self-protective stance toward the media, marketers have turned to what might best be called postmodern techniques of persuasion.
Consider the microbrand. As consumers became weary of major beer brands and their relentless over-the-top media campaigns, they turned to local breweries and brands for a sense of authenticity. Like do-it-yourself media, these tiny companies gave their customers a sense of local control and connection. No longer content with supporting a national brand devoid of character, consumers sought the distinction and individuality that came with buying a bottle of beer that may well have been brewed around the corner.
The major breweries were quick to respond to the microbrewery phenomenon. Miller Brewing Company released a fake microbrew beer called Red Dog, whose label advertised that it was brewed at the charmingly remote-sounding Plank Road Brewery. There is no such place as the Plank Road Brewery. Anheuser-Busch bought a quiet interest in Seattle's Redhook Ale Brewery, and Coors launched its own line of imitation microbrews from the Blue Moon Brewing Company, whose marketing campaign touted the beer as "handcrafted once in a blue moon."
Fake microbrands are created for a new population of consumers who have learned to resist the pressures of conformity imposed by well-known brand images. Airwalk sports shoes are worn by millions of young people who resent the overwhelming marketing campaigns and widely criticized labor practices of Nike, and American Spirit cigarettes sell to smokers who want to believe they are circumventing the notoriously manipulative cigarette industry. In the end, they are simply succumbing to the counteroffensives of shrewd marketers who have predicted and capitalized on their rebellion.
Advertisers are learning to stay one step ahead in the chaotic mediaspace. If today's consumer will instantly separate a product from its spokesperson, then the answer is to make advertisements that are more difficult to deconstruct. Many billboards and magazine ads have resorted to showing isolated body parts rather than full-body portraits of models using or wearing products. This style of photography, known in the industry as abstract representation, allows the viewer to see himself in the advertisement, rather than the model. Instead of having to identify with a character, he can watch the commercial as if it were from his own point of view. All of our hands and legs are pretty much the same. Ads for Kool cigarettes show only the hand of the lucky man who holds a pack, and the beautiful girl who has turned in his direction. A hugely successful Dockers trousers campaign showed a group of men from the waist down only, as they spoke in random, disconnected sentences.
The less specific or more iconic a representation, the harder it becomes for an audience to resist identifying with it. As a result, icons have become the new unit of communication in a mediaspace characterized by deconstruction. Wary of stories, slogans, and other emotional traps, young people in particular have been drawn to icons as a way of expressing who they are and what they believe in. Kids paste iconic stickers on their skateboards, attach iconic key chains to their backpacks, and collect trading cards and Pogs with simple iconic representations. Because they seem universal and disconnected, they are perceived as somehow safe from the influence of authority.
Advertisers exploiting this same principle have moved toward more iconic ways of representing their products. The simpler and less descriptive the icon, the more universal its appeal. Ask a group of teenagers what the Nike swoosh icon means, and each one will most likely tell you something different—but all the responses will probably have something to do with challenging authority, excelling in sports, being an individual, or "just doingit." The swoosh is a universal icon, capable of representing any number of youthful ideals. Some young people identify so fully with the Nike symbol that they have tattooed it onto their bodies.
Part of an icon's power comes from its indivisibility. The swoosh cannot be further deconstructed into its component parts. Just as golden arches mean McDonald's, and the little red tab means Levi's, the swoosh is Nike. The product is its icon, inseparably and without exception. To buy a pair of Nike shoes is to buy the Nike swoosh. By adopting the postlinguistic currency of an iconic culture, marketers can reposition themselves and their brands in a manner consistent with the operating system of today's point-and-click marketplace.
Nowhere to Hide
Media-savvy television viewers pride themselves on their ability to watch programming from the safe distance of their own ironic detachment. Young people delight in watching "Melrose Place" in groups so they can make fun of the characters and their values by talking back to the screen throughout the show. Others turn to shows like "Beavis and Butt-head," whose characters' constant commentary on the MTV videos they watch serves as a built-in distancing device. The wisecracks keep the audience emotionally removed from the seductive charms of the images on the screen.
In addition to using icons, marketers have come to recognize the way irony makes a wary viewer feel safe, and now they regularly employ irony in the commercials targeted at these more difficult demographic groups. "Wink" advertising acknowledges the cynical stance of resistant viewers: Sprite commercials satirize the values espoused by "cool" brands, sometimes even parodying their competitors' obvious image-based tactics, and then go on to insist, "Image is nothing. Thirst is everything." A brand of shoes called Simple developed a magazine campaign with the copy "Advertisement: blah blah blah...name of company."
By letting the audience in on the hollowness of the marketing process, advertisers hope to be rewarded by the appreciative viewer. Energizer batteries launched a television campaign where a fake commercial for another product would be interrupted by the pink bunny marching across the screen. The audience was rescued from the bad commercial by the battery company's tiny mascot. The message: The Energizer bunny can keep on going, even in a world of relentless hype.
Of course marketers haven't really surrendered anything. What's really going on here is a new style of marketing through exclusivity. Advertisers know that their viewership prides itself on being able to deconstruct and understand the coercive tactics of television commercials. By winking at the audience, the advertiser is acknowledging that there's someone special out there—someone smart enough not to be fooled by the traditional tricks of the influence professional. If you're smart enough to get the joke, then you're smart enough to know to buy our product.
Like all advertisements, these self-conscious commercials help the viewer define his own identity. The strategy is not as overt as showing Michael Jordan in a pair of Nikes so that young athletes will identify with their hero. Instead, a person's notion of "self" is defined by how sophisticated he feels in relation to the images on his TV set. If he has grown up deluged by coercive advertising and expended effort to break free, then he will identify himself as a media-savvy individual. Wink advertising gives him a chance to confirm his own intelligence.
In the advertising wars between long-distance carriers, underdog MCI attempted to show how they were friendly and perky, especially compared to industry leader AT&T. A beautiful young operator mischievously whispered to us that AT&T doesn't want their customers to hear about MCI's low rates, or their discount Friends & Family plan. She ridiculed AT&T's ads begging people to "come home," and implied that they revealed Ma Bell's desperation. AT&T fought back with their own ads, highlighting the coercive nature of MCI's marketing: that people were fooled into writing lists of their friends and relatives so that MCI could make annoying phone calls trying to enlist them. The advertisements were no longer about quality or service. They were about the advertising campaigns themselves.
Wink advertisements very often borrow imagery from another company's advertisements as a way of eliciting viewer approval. After Lexus made the ball bearing famous by rolling it seductively over the precision engineered lines of its luxury sedan, Nissan did the same thing in their ad to demonstrate how a much less expensive car could exhibit the same qualities. BMW sought to rise above the whole affair, demonstrating their car's unmatched turning radius by putting the whole vehicle through the same tight turns as the ball bearing went through in the other brands' meaningless test. Finally, in an irreverent spoof of the automobile advertising wars, Roy Rogers rolled a ball bearing around the edge of a roast beef sandwich. Get it? Wink wink.
In a similar campaign, Levi's made fun of Calvin Klein's heroin-chic, ultra-skinny supermodels. The company pictured healthy models wearing Levi's under the caption, "Our models can beat up their models."
As the techniques of self-consciousness and parody become more recognizable and, accordingly, less effective, advertisers have been forced to go yet a step further, taking the media reflexivity of advertising into the realm of the nonsensical. It's as if by overwhelming us with irony, they hope to blow out the circuits we use to make critical judgments.
The Diesel jeans company ran a series of billboard and magazine ads designed to critique the whole discipline of advertising. One showed a sexy but downtrodden young couple, dressed in stylish jeans and arguing with each other in what looked like the messy, 1960s-era kitchen of a dysfunctional white-trash family. The ad meant to reveal the illusory quality of the hip retro fashion exploited by other advertisers. Diesel would not try to convince anyone that those were the "good old days." We were meant to identify with the proposition that the enlightened values of the sixties, as represented by the media, are a crock. But the meaning is never made explicit. Another Diesel campaign consisted of advertisements which themselves were photos of garish billboards placed in ridiculous locations. One showed a sexy young couple, dressed in Diesel jeans, in an advertisement for an imported brand of ice cream. The billboard, however, was pictured in a dirty, crowded neighborhood filled with poor Communist Chinese workers.
Benetton and The Body Shop ran similar ads, but at least theirs made some sense. One Benetton campaign pictured Queen Elizabeth as a black woman and Michael Jackson as a caucasian to comment on racial prejudice. A series of Body Shop ads featured giant photos of marijuana leaves, presumably to call attention to drug and agriculture laws. These are appeals to a target market that feels hip for agreeing with the sentiments expressed and for grasping the underlying logic. There is, indeed, something to "get."
We are supposed to believe that Diesel's ads also make sociopolitical statements, but we never know quite what they are. In fact, the ads work in a highly sophisticated disassociative way: They make us feel as tense and uneasy as we do after a good scary story—but we refuse to admit to our anxiety lest we reveal we are not media-savvy enough to get the joke. The campaign is designed to lead the audience to the conclusion that they understand the ironic gesture, while the irony is left intentionally unclear. No one is meant to get the joke. In that moment of confusion—like the car buyer subjected to a disassociative hypnotic technique—the consumer absorbs the image within the image: two sexy kids in Diesel jeans. Thinking of yourself as hip enough to "get" it—no matter what "it" may be—means being susceptible to lying to yourself, and to being programmed as a result.
That's all coercion really is, after all: convincing a person to lie to himself by any means necessary. The stance of ironic detachment, while great for protecting ourselves from straightforward linear stories and associations, nonetheless makes us vulnerable to more sophisticated forms of influence. After a while, even a detached person begins to long for a sense of meaning or some value, any value, to accept completely and genuinely. In spite of their well-publicized cynicism, so-called Generation Xers reveal in numerous studies that they often feel lost and without purpose. Disillusioned with role models, the political process, and media hype, they are nonetheless seeking something to believe in.
As people search for a sense of authenticity in their increasingly disconnected "virtual" experience, advertisers seize on the opportunity to help us delude ourselves into thinking we haven't really lost touch. A shrewd advertisement for an airphone service shows a businessman stuck on a jet flight while his young daughter dances in a recital at her elementary school. He has foregone his family obligations in the name of business. But in the airphone commercial, he calls his daughter from the plane after her recital, and, basked in golden light, she is as delighted to hear his telephonic voice as she would have been to see him in the flesh. The television viewer who is searching for meaning in his life will accept the faulty premise of the advertisement: that the airplane telephone can actually connect him with a life he has left behind.
The back-to-basics authenticity of such advertisements capitalizes on a growing sense that we are no longer in touch with who we really are. In the past, advertisers worked to generate this sense of disconnection. In the 1950s and 1960s, a marketer would present an image, personality, or story with which we were meant to identify, and then stretch that image in order to make us feel unworthy, to give us something to aspire to: The girl in the hair-color advertisement looks just like me—when I was twenty years younger and five shades less gray; the woman in the commercial has a dirty kitchen and noisy children just like me...but she is confident enough in her rug cleaner to throw a dinner party for her husband's business partners that night. The viewer identified with the character, only to be made to feel unworthy by comparison.
Today, however, a deep sense of disconnection and unworthiness is just the starting point for the detached viewer. As a result, the opposite effect takes place: We welcome the opportunity to let down our guard, even for a moment. Having grown to resent all the striving toward the ideals represented in commercials, we yearn to get off the treadmill of yearning altogether. We yearn not to yearn—to be still and content. To just be.
The newest approach to the antiyearning urge capitalizes on these feelings. The Calvin Klein CK Be perfume advertisements offer the media-fatigued sophisticate a chance to relax and literally "just be." Uniquely beautiful and detached-looking young people stare confidently into the lens. Beneath them are captions like "Be hot. Be cool. Just be." The slogans in companion ads all stress that people should have the ability to express their individuality and be who they really are. "CK Be fragrance is about who you are...it's about the freedom to express your individuality...it's about the freedom to be yourself."
The astonishing supposition of these ads is that the young audience for whom they are intended does not feel they already have permission to just be. Unlike the models in the advertisements, who appear to have earned their cool resolve by draining the life out of themselves through dedicated heroin abuse, the audience must expend effort to maintain a sense of self against the onslaught of commercials and other coercive messages. The CK Be ads suggest that if we just buy one thing—a single bottle of perfume—we can finally be who we really are with no further effort.
Like all of the image-based advertising that went before it, the CK Be campaign once again capitalizes on its audience's undetermined sense of self. A person who is striving not to strive is striving nonetheless—perhaps even more desperately than those who are simply yearning for a better lifestyle. Our aspiration toward a simpler, less taxing way of relating to the world around us makes us no less vulnerable to the suggestions of others on how best to get there. Being "in" is a booby prize, since it depends on a false and further self-defeating claim to exclusivity. The emergence of a protective, ironic stance, though temporarily immunizing, only contributes to our longing for ways to feel genuine and connected—and will likely turn out to be just one more chapter in the greater narrative of the history of advertising.