Friday, September 22, 2023

Is Everything the Same?

Advertising in a funhouse mirror.
We're looking at ourselves, talking to ourselves and meaningful only to ourselves.

Almost 50 years ago, way back in 1975, I understood some things about advertising that it seems no one today understands anymore.

Back then I had no desire to be in advertising. When I was a little boy my father was in advertising and I saw him almost die twice from ad-business-related heart attacks. I blamed his infarctions on the business--I didn't know any better then. So, I wanted what I perceived as a milder way of making a living. 

As I said, I didn't know any better then.

But even though I wanted to be an English professor, teaching Baldwin or Wright or Hardy or Melville in a leafy New England college, I knew that whatever career I chose to pursue, I'd have to differentiate myself from others going for the same job.

That seemed and seems fairly obvious to me.

Life is full of choices. And if you're going to choose something actively, rather than by default, you have to have reasons why you're choosing it. 

Even the famous "Think Small" ad for Volkswagen out of Doyle Dane Bernbach, wasn't about an emotional connection to the Beetle. It was about differentiated features. In fact, I counted 140 words of copy in the ad, and tucked among those words, these features were enumerated. 

*32 mpg
* Less oil needed (five pints, not quarts)
* No anti-freeze needed
* 42,000 miles on a set of tires
* Easy to park
* Low insurance costs
* Low operating costs
* High resale value

Somehow, if I did get a job teaching Moby Dick, I'd want my students to say, "Professor Tannenbaum knows more about whaleships, or scrimshaw, and 19th-century chowder shops than anyone. He brings Moby Dick to life.”

"There are a lot of people who teach Moby Dick. But I want to get into Dr. Tannenbaum's class."


Now, back to 1975.

Everyone was jettisoning their old black and white TVs to buy a new color set. So every TV manufacturer was running ads that basically showed a picture of a set with a color picture on the screen and a headline that said, "Adjective or adjectives color."

Today, a similar thing is happening. Many people are jettisoning their old cars with internal combustion engines to buy an electric car. So every auto manufacturer is running ads that basically show a picture of their car with a headline that says, "Electric" or some version of electric. 

It's like some modern version of Gertrude Stein. She might say, "an electric is an electric is an electric." Because from the looks of the ads from most manufacturers, there's nothing to say about electric-powered cars except that they're electric.

I remembered the Toshiba color TV ads below since I first saw them almost half-a-century ago. I recalled them as involving, credible, smart and differentiating. 

They made me want a Toshiba color TV. They made me better at advertising because they made me think about how I could bring differences--even if they're small, even if they're invisible--to life.

I looked for the ads for almost 50 years and finally found them about two years ago. 

I don't care if you think they're dated. Or if you proclaim, without evidence, that no one reads or cares anymore.

I can't believe that from electric motors to AI systems to solar panels to mouthwash there's nothing that makes brand X different from brand Y. That it's enough just to say, "electric" or "minty fresh."

I think the problem with advertising today is that no one believes in advertising anymore.

Therefore no one understands what it can do or how to do it.

No one does anything different.

No one makes a difference.

Like roaches hiding in a dark kitchen cabinet, we survive by not being noticed.

If you run a company and believe what I've written here, you should call me.

I'm different.

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