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The Marketers' Challenges
The marketing and advertising industries are feeling the pressure more than ever to change and innovate. Commenting on what the persuasion industries are confronting today are Kevin Roberts, CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide; Douglas Atkin,chief strategy officer for Merkley+Partners; Bob Garfield, columnist for Advertising Age; Andy Spade, Song Airlines' creative consultant; Naomi Klein, author of No Logo; and Mark Crispin Miller, media critic. These excerpts are drawn from their extended FRONTLINE interviews.

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Kevin Roberts
CEO, Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide.

…You see a landscape where the power shift is enormous. It has moved from manufacturers, where we held power until probably the '80s, to retailers. We now live in a Wal-Mart world. But that's all about to change. Power is about to go completely to the consumer. The Internet's been the most fantastic thing for consumers, because it has moved power away from manufacturers, away from distributors, away from retailers, into the hands of the consumer. There is now no place to hide. The consumer can find everything she wants about you. You've got to be true, authentic, open, and you've got to connect with her.

Remember, we're living in the attention economy. You are bombarded with messages left, right and center. Wherever you go, you're surrounded by brands and media. You've got about three seconds to connect with a consumer emotionally and then to interest her. And that's what we're trying to do with Lovemarks: We're trying to entertain, interest and bond.

Do you think most advertisers understand the stakes today?

I think a lot of companies are struggling to figure it out. And they have certainly started to embrace the idea that retailers have more power than they thought. Procter & Gamble believes the consumer is boss. Toyota understand that the consumer is at the heart of everything that they do. General Mills believe that the consumer sits at the head of their table. So I think that the enlightened leading companies are getting it. What they're now struggling with is, how do we affect that bond? The media landscape's changing; context is changing; content's changing. What's the role of television? What's the role of the Internet? What's the role of in-store? All these questions are now being asked.

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I think what transcends this, though, is that the way you relate to a consumer has to change. You can no longer talk at her or "educate" her or yell at her. If you look at most of the television advertising in the U.S., you wouldn't want to see any of it again. It's junk, right? It treats the housewife as a moron, or it tries to entice the teenagers in a very manipulative way. I find it very manipulative.

What you've got to do now, I think, is to find empathy, not with the consumers as they used to be or as you'd like them to be, but with consumers as they truly are. And you won't find that out by endless focus groups, because people don't tell the truth in focus groups; they're not themselves. You've got to go in home. You've got to understand not what they say or what they do, but how they feel. So I think that's what big companies wrestle with, because they hire a lot of marketing people who are by nature rational, left-brain, analytical people, with MBAs and so on. We need to be getting more anthropologists and sociologists and psychologists involved in trying to find out where the consumer's heading.

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Douglas atkin

…Why are some marketers so desperate now?

Because they have a bankruptcy of ideas, I think. There's no need to be desperate; there's just the need to be smart and respectful about what you do. The smarter marketers have an alliance with their consumers. They're not trying to do things to consumers; they're trying to do things with consumers. In fact, there are examples of brands now where the brand manager has to just let go. When I worked at Procter & Gamble, the organigram, if you like, of brand marketing was definitely one of command and control. If you think about it, the terms they use in marketing are all about military campaigns. You run a campaign; you have a target; you try and penetrate a particular category. It's a very aggressive, very controlling vocabulary. Nowadays, many brands have a life of their own, and a brand manager has to just learn to let go, allow the consumers themselves to create meaning and communities around their brands.

The consumer is shutting off to advertising campaigns.

Yes. Certainly television tries to "yell and sell," as I call it. That era is over. The era of word-of-mouth is much more important, and it has arrived. Advertising should be used to get people to tell others about the brand, not necessarily to have a one-way relationship with the consumer. The Saturn ads in the early '90s actually stimulated word-of-mouth. They didn't necessarily convince people by watching the ads; they got people to talk about the brand to their friends and colleagues, and in turn they went into the dealerships.

Is advertising dead, as such?

No, I don't think so, but I think that it's being used in a different way. For example, BMW cars constructed commercials simply for their Web site which I thought was very smart. They used an old medium for a new purpose. And those ads were passed on, through the medium of the Internet, from person to person. So they became a vehicle, literally, of word-of-mouth.

What about embedded advertising?

Many of our clients are now looking at either sponsoring shows or product placement within shows. And of course you can't do that in a very heavy-handed manner. As a consumer of the last Austin Powers movie, I resented the Taco Bell, the Heineken, all the other product placements. I felt they were intrusive in my enjoyment of the film. The strategy was showing.

Consumers are very media-literate, and I think that's a good thing. It means that we have to be as clever as they are in communicating with them. But no, there's no possible way you can ever pull the wool over the eyes of any consumer. They've become too educated in what we do. 20 percent of undergraduates took a marketing option last year, so they know the techniques we use; they use our vocabulary.

Is there a danger, in letting them see the techniques, that you won't be effective anymore?

I don't think there's any danger in them seeing the techniques that are used to elicit their devotion. It should be as transparent as it possibly can be, because one way or another, they'll find out. If there's any attempt to hide something from the consumer, then that shows an essential disrespect for the consumer, and that will be sniffed out and exposed. The Internet nowadays is such a pervasive and fast-moving medium that any hint of hypocrisy and manipulation is going to be exposed and communicated to everyone.

But then how to sustain the mystery you need for effective marketing?

I think the sense of mystery happens with people's experience of a brand, just as someone's experience of religion is often very personal in that sense of mystery. When someone is "born again" as a Christian, that is an acutely personal, very, very transcendent, mysterious moment. When I talk to Harley-Davidson riders, they would talk about their experience of riding a motorcycle in the same terms as someone describing the transcendent moments of their religion. It took them out of the everyday. Their experience was on the edge. They felt transported to a different place. That's where the mystery lies. There can be no mystery in how we communicate to consumers. The mystery has to come from the experience of the brand.

And brands can do this?

Absolutely. I think brands have to do it for Americans today, because Americans today are requiring brands to fulfill the roles that religions and cults have performed in the past. …

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bob garfield
Columnist, Advertising Age.

…Do you think consumers are ultimately knowable?

There are some things that are predictable, yeah, but the annals of failed product introductions are ample proof that consumer behavior is not all-knowable, and it's not all-predictable. I think the people who came up with Touch Of Yogurt shampoo thought they knew what they were doing in whatever it was, 1980, but it turns out the public wasn't all that interested in Touch of Yogurt shampoo. And yet these people invested many millions of dollars with all the sheaves of data in their hands, thinking that, well, yogurt seems to be a trend, and hair-care products are a trend, and we've got market research that [says] people are looking for something. And it's one of the giant jokes in the history of product introductions.

There's this idea that advertising people and marketers are these Svengalis who not only know everything about us but can manipulate us to act out their will. Well, they can't. They've never been able to. They're no better at it now than they ever were before. It's really, really hard to make anybody buy anything. In fact, not only is advertising not very good -- and historically, actually, quite bad -- at getting you to buy goods and services that you don't want or need; advertising and marketing historically aren't all that good at getting you to buy their brand of good or service that you've demonstrated that you do want and need.

They can't just pull the strings and make you jump. There is 90 percent failure and 10 percent success with new products, for example. And you use toothpaste all the time, but there's a multibillion-dollar fight to get you to choose one brand or another every time you go to a store. But tell me, how manipulated are you in that purchase? I can tell you categorically, not very much. …

What do you think of the job America has done selling itself abroad, especially in the Muslim world, using advertising and marketing techniques?

We were talking about Svengali, pulling strings, and the whole idea of manipulating people into doing something that they're not apt to do. They say that under hypnosis even, you cannot get someone to do what they morally would not do. Well, if hypnosis can't get people to do something that they don't in the core of their psyches wish to do, you think advertising can? Well, I can answer that question; it's rhetorical, but the answer is no.

It's [an axiom] in the marketing business that nothing kills a bad product better than good advertising. Because the advertising's clever, it makes the product look fabulous, people try it, they find out it doesn't help them, it doesn't do what it was advertised to do, it doesn't make their life simpler. For whatever reason, they don't like it, and these customers never come back. Nothing kills a bad product better than good advertising.

The American government's problem in the Muslim, and especially Arab, world is not how it presents itself; it's the product. Our product is of no interest to the Muslim and Arab world. I'm not saying the Muslim and Arab worlds are right, but I'm saying from their point of view, American support of Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the American propping up of these authoritarian regimes all over the Middle East, and American unilateralism, especially military unilateralism, has made this a bad product.

We decide to create a softer image [of] America by showing [on television] happy Muslims living and working in this perfectly integrated, pluralistic society where they're free to express their religion. And they wear headscarves at their jobs, and everybody holds hands, and it's "Ebony and Ivory." Do you think that makes any difference to somebody who has no hope of getting to America, someone who hates America for its position in their eyes? Do you think that an advertising campaign is going to change their perceptions? No. It just calls their attention to everything that they don't like about the product. Once again, you think you're a puppet master pulling strings, but you're not. You're just calling attention to something that people are in their own minds deciding ever more that they don't want any part of.

You can put all the pictures of Muslims happily living and working in the United States on TV in the Arab world that you desire, but it is not relevant to the discussion. What do they care? They like Britney Spears, but they don't like America's policy in Israel. So how does some woman who's happily teaching in Detroit with a headscarf on have any bearing on the existential realities of life in the Middle East? The answer is, it doesn't. So, in fact, America's failure to be able to use advertising and marketing techniques to soften the image of America around the world is just the ultimate, quintessential proof of what I've been saying all along, which is that advertising is a tool, but it's not a poison gas, and it does not alter substance for the most part. It doesn't change conceptual structures. It just gives some information and puts a little burnish on the product. It cannot perform miracles. So there you go. Sure, let the government try to embrace the magical techniques of consumer advertising, because if they do, they're going to find out that they failed right alongside of Touch Of Yogurt shampoo. …

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andy spade
Creative consultant for Song Airlines

…It's a very crowded media space that the commercials are being released into.

You just have to do something that people want to watch. When you're looking at television, looking at things, initially you see something that reminds you of something you've seen before, I think generally you get bored. But if it's something that I like -- the music, or I kind of like the way it looks visually, or something about it I like, I get intrigued and I stay with it.

People have so many options now, they can do so many things. If you can't live up to what's happening on MTV or VH1, if it's not working on that level, I think that you're going to be ignored. You're competing with entertainment, with things going on outside. You're competing with what's going on in the kitchen, with all these things, it's not just other ads. So I just think you have to make it somewhat unique, otherwise I think that, unless you have a billion dollars to spend -- that way they can't hide, you know you can't miss them -- you have to try to do something that's unique. …

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naomi klein
Author, No Logo.

…How has marketing moved away from traditional outlets like the 30-second television ad?

If everybody is doing the same thing, we develop immunities, so it's not so much that we're demanding this escalation; it's just that we've become immune to older advertising methods, and sometimes we just become immune psychologically. Sometimes we use technology to become immune, and as soon as an ad comes on, we change the channel. So that's why the advertising as interruption falls out of favor and in favor of the full integration, for instance.

Reality TV has proven to be an incredible platform for marketing seamlessly woven into the whole concept of the show. Ford Explorers are part of Fear Factor. This is not that we are asking for this as consumers; it's the opposite. We are changing the channel because we don't want the advertisements. So that's why it becomes more integrated.

This is very much related to brand, to the idea that you're selling an idea as opposed to a product. Once you decide that you're selling an idea as opposed to a product, you need to find a way to express that idea. You have your corporate epiphany, and you decide that you really stand for community or democracy or peace or love. Well, how do you express that? Well, it's hard to really express that through a running shoe or a computer. You have to somehow bring that idea to life.

And there's a few ways that you can do that. You can look out into the culture and say, "Who's actually embodying that?" Well, maybe it's a sports team; maybe it's a jazz festival; maybe it's a school. So you try to merge with that. You tag onto it through corporate sponsorship, but that's not enough, because it keeps ramping up. So the trend in branding is for the brand to become the infrastructure, not to tag onto our culture, [but] to sort of associate with the culture that it wants to be associated with -- whether it's music, theater, sports, young people. It's to actually sort of supercede it and become the actual cultural infrastructure, and then we sort of live inside the brand.

Brands tend to be competitive. This is what all of this is about. And they're not just competitive with their competitors in the marketplace. If a brand is sponsoring a rock concert or a hip-hop show, they're competitive with the bands themselves and want to make sure that they are actually the star of the show. …

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Mark Crispin miller
Media critic.

…[Clutter] is a problem for all of us. It's a special problem for the advertisers themselves. They are the ones who make clutter. They are, therefore, also the ones who are always trying desperately to break through the clutter. That's the line you always hear in ad agencies: "We can break through the clutter with this." Well, every effort to break through the clutter is just more clutter. Ultimately, if you don't have clean, plain borders and backdrops for your ads, if you don't have that blank space, that commons, that virgin territory, you have a very hard time making yourself heard. The most obvious metaphor is a room full of people, all screaming to be heard.

What this really means, finally, is that advertising is asphyxiating itself and really has been doing so for a couple of decades now. Some years ago, one advertising professor suggested in Advertising Age, in all seriousness, that advertisers generally would probably make more money by ceasing to advertise on TV entirely. TV had become so crowded, it had become so hard to break through the clutter of TV -- with more clutter -- that it was not even worth the investment, he argued. This was an argument that people in advertising took very seriously. Of course, many of them passionately resented it, but he did have a point, and the point only becomes more and more relevant as time goes on.

Should advertisers stop advertising?

Well, some advertisers actually have, in a sense, begun to stop advertising per se. When we talk about advertising, you usually mean "white propaganda"; that is to say, ads that are obviously ads. They announce themselves as ads. Beyond that, you get into a much subtler realm of propagandizing where people aren't quite aware, or aware at all, that they're being solicited, where the world you move through is an ad.

As advertising per se has come to encounter more and more sales resistance -- which is understandable, as people become more and more distrustful of these messages and harder and harder to stimulate, more and more blasé -- the advertisers have tried ever stealthier means to implant in your mind, in your soul, the urge to drink this or eat that or whatever it is. So you've got all kinds of methods that border on what people [in] spycraft call "black propaganda"; for example, folks who are paid to go to bars and chat up a new cigarette brand or brand of beer as if they were real people spontaneously celebrating this thing. You've got TV shows that are ostensibly ad-free, but they have logos and buildings and so on worked into the story so that the whole thing is really a commercial.

So we're moving away from advertising per se towards a more fundamental kind of pitch, which is what propaganda, generally speaking, always wants to do anyway. Advertising is just a commercial form of propaganda. What propaganda has always wanted to do is not simply to suffuse the atmosphere, but to become the atmosphere. It wants to become the air we breathe. It wants us not to be able to find a way outside of the world that it creates for us. …


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posted nov. 9, 2004

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