Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Stop me if you've heard this one.

Years and years ago I was asked to help out and I did a little bit of work around introducing a new Jaguar to the United States. It was a new, smaller Jag. It was slated to compete with the BMW 3-series, the Mercedes C-class and the Audi A4—probably three of the best and most-popular cars in the US market.

To compete against these cars, you’d have to be good. To steal share, you’d have to be excellent.

With that notion in mind, with the belief that advertising’s highest purpose is not to say, stop the refugee crisis, but to elevate the companies you work for by imparting to consumers useful information, I examined the inner working of the Jaguar.

Looking at the actual product we sell cuts against the grain in advertising today. But I happen to hold the hoary belief that an accumulation of important rational facts can add up to an important emotional connection. As it did when Volkswagen or Volvo or BMW or Apple ads were great not so long ago.

In short order I came up with work for Jaguar and a “place to sit” that I thought would make the brand stand out.

I was quickly slapped down by both the agency and the client.

“The car is gorgeous,” I was told. “You didn’t say the car is gorgeous.”

Tell them Jaguars are gorgeous.
“Everyone knows the car is gorgeous,” I replied. “You can see that. Jaguars have always been gorgeous. That’s never been the issue with Jaguars. The issue is, do they run?”

[I had read an article that when Jaguars were first introduced into the US and as recently as 1983, particularly into the high-elevation western states, the carburetor had to be manually adjusted when you drove in the mountains. The fuel/air ratio was calibrated for conditions in the UK, where the highest peak is just 4,400 feet. A foothill in, say, Colorado.]

The work I was trying to do posited Jaguar’s style and tried to talk about their new-found engineering prowess. It was all shredded like a pound of mozzarella at a dollar-a-slice pizza joint.

Today with the onslaught of an aggressive virus made more lethal and widespread by republican and Trumpian lies, ignorance and science-and-fact-denialism, we are also being besieged by a 24-hour news cycle and a president who feels the compulsion to dominate the airwaves by holding a press-conference a day at which he propagates more lies, unsupported suppositions, unfounded hunches and half-truths.

Most people I know tune into these fests; there’s a limbic quality to them, like watching a housefly die. It's almost gladiatorial--animal and atavistic. These people immediately turn to social media and post statements like, “he’s off the rails,” or “did he really just say that,” or “25th Amendment…”

My question today is not about Trump however. It’s a larger question and it’s about the purpose of communications.

If a communication doesn’t tell you anything new—even the news today seems to be a rehashing of unverified statistics, speculations, suppositions, accusations and defenses—why tune in?

What is the purpose of a communication if not to do one of three things. 1) Tell you something you need to know no matter how often you’ve heard it before (I love you, honey) or 2) Tell you something you don’t know (we’ve found a cure) or 3) Tell you something you do know but in a new way so you hear it afresh and take note.

To my eyes and ears so much of modern marketing is execution-driven. It suffers (or fails) because of a paucity of communication.

It looks good and says nothing. If it does say something, it gives me nothing to hold onto, no permission to believe.

In the words of Shakespeare (back when he was an ACD at Benton and Bowles) advertising is "a tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot, signifying nothing."

Some of this has been caused by the rise of the Insight-Industrial-Complex. Where planners (who can be hackneyed just as creatives can be) say things like “Moms are busy.” Or “People want a soft toilet tissue.” In today’s lazy parlance, they’re called insights but they’re really obviousights.

I think a lot of the rules of good communication go back to a basic human precept. A Judeo-idea: Do unto others. Or in David Ogilvy’s language, “The consumer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.”

Respect people’s time; why tell them what they already know?

Give them something of value; a new way of looking at an old problem.

Let the reader or viewer or listener add two plus two.

I'm tired of hearing the same old song. Tell me something new or in a new way. 


Here's how Franklin Roosevelt explained a complicated treaty, Lend-Lease to a public that was against it. It was language like this, fresh, vivid, intelligent and common-sensical that carried the day.

"Suppose my neighbor's home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. 

"Now, what do I do? I don't say to him before that operation, 'Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.' What is the transaction that goes on? I don't want $15--I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. 

"But suppose it gets smashed up--holes in it--during the fire; we don't have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, 'I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can't use it any more, it's all smashed up.' He says, 'How many feet of it were there?' I tell him, 'There were 150 feet of it.' He says, 'All right, I will replace it.' Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape."

I can't imagine an explanation done today--by a politician or an ad agency--with such elegant simplicity and respect for the viewer.

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