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Questioning the Inanity of Television Advertising

by Todd Kasenberg

Television advertisers have historically understood the great powers of emotion at their disposal - powers to unite, to enlighten, to educate, to amuse, and ultimately, to create  pain in viewers, who come to realize that they need something that's being sold.  I reflect fondly on clever or compelling campaigns that truly resonated - the "I'd like to teach the world to sing..." commercials of Coca Cola when I was in Grade 1, the ditties that clearly helped you understand the competitive advantage of one product over another (e.g., "Have it your way... at Burger King").

A few years back, I certainly noticed, and at the time mildly approved of, the trend towards humour in TV ads.  The commercials for Leon's Home Furnishings were funny; "I just love those werewolf showtunes" is a line we still guffaw about in my home, and it shows up at odd moments in intimate conversations.

But, and I suppose driven by the collective ADHD that has been bred by our addiction to mobile devices, how did we get from "the colourful combination of broccoli, carrots, water chestnuts and a little red pepper" (courtesy of Green Giant, I believe) to digging bars of Old Spice soap out of watermelons?  I mean, really?  That's what you want to offer me?

I am saddened by marketing messaging that has become a mutually-assured stupidification.  It's like every advertiser still using television spots wants to out-stupid (and outrage?) the other spots. 

My pet peeves - Old Spice.  Crush Soda.  (Who sold Crush that commercial concept of young kids being hosed by coloured liquids presumed to be the soda pop?  Would I, as a consumer, want to be hosed by Orange Crush?  Grape Crush?  Not...)  Commercials with monkeys running around, seemingly with no advertising message.

Let's go back to fundamentals.  Not everybody needs to or wants to buy.  Most of any market is not in the buying cycle.  So the purpose of advertising is to build awareness of a brand, so that when the consumer's needs exceed the pain of purchase, s/he buys and considers that brand.  But  if that awareness comes with a sense of "gee, that was stupid", or "gosh, I don't want that to happen to me" (think Crush here...), then you've built a negative awareness of your brand.  When it's time for me to buy, I might remember your brand, but not kindly.

Competitive advantage comes from only two things, as I see it - innovation or relationships.  If you can't do the first, then you better do the second well.  But showing me folks in bizarre state of dress digging bars of soap out of watermelons isn't going to drive me to wanting a relationship with you.  I'm not wild about watermelon.  I'm not wild about digging around in watermelon.  And soap is a commodity... or at least so goes my thinking. (Actually, not completely true - but I won't digress.)

Tell me something useful about your soap.  Tell me why Crush refreshes.  Stop playing the mutually-assured stupidification game hoping that you'll breakthrough to me, that you'll get me to stop.  Damn straight you got my attention - but not all attention is good attention.

Now, on the flip side, I've got to admit that I adore the newest Canadian Tire commercial.  It shows me innovation.  It helps me relate.  For those who haven't seen it - it shows a family, zipped into what is said to be a waterproof Coleman tent.  The tent is erected in a high-pressure water carwash (also offered, of course, by Canadian Tire gas bars in select locations).  The commercial shows that high pressure water blaster in the wash spraying down the family in the tent.  Then they open the tent, and all is well with that family.  They are dry, and ready for more fun Canadian Tire adventures! Wow!  I get it.  If I need a tent (and I'm not a camper, to be sure), I totally see the importance of this buying factor - the tent is going to keep out a whole lot of water.  The wry humour at the end solidifies my impression. Kudos to the Canadian Tire advertising team - they educated me, it was amusing, it did have an appropriate sense of "outrageousness", and I could relate.  While I don't need a tent right now (or hopefully ever!), I will think kindly should a mirror universe swallow me - and I will be looking to buy that Coleman tent, and from Canadian Tire because they did the heavy lifting of intelligently proving the point.

So - enough of the Gong Show.  Help me see value.  Lightly entertain me. But keep it focused on building positive awareness and brand already...

UPDATE: July 23, 2014 [aka One Year Later]: My current pet peeve is a string of Skittles TV commercials that are ridiculous. I guess it can be argued they got my attention, but they certainly don't create a need - after all, I don't have a need for everything to turn to Skittles, nor do I have a need for a disease called Skittlespox.  Ugh.


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