Do We Really Need This Kind of Disruption?

In the advertising world these days, there’s a lot of talk about disruption. What the advertisers and designers at some firms are talking about is making things like print ads, TV commercials, and package designs way out of the norm to rattle the consciousness of the American consumer to garner attention faster. Defined as interruption, in advertising disruption translates more to interjection.

The new movement is done at a moderate level in the print arena, much more specifically with tech and Internet magazines, both with placed ads and the overall design of the magazines themselves.

With regard to package designs, it’s done in a watered down way by comparison. Customers in stores are at an average age older than most online buyers, and the designs here cannot be too jumbled or “futuristic” so as to avoid confusing consumers.

But television is an all-encompassing medium, a ready-made stage where anything can happen before you have time to react. You can be watching your favorite telecast and the ads that come across in any given commercial break can not only annoy you, but can actually disturb you.

Such is the case with Subway ads we see while watching the 2018 Winter Olympics on NBC. The ads are pure disruption to be sure: the harsh panorama of visuals dancing on the screen with in-your-face large type (of course all in caps).

This isn’t advertising. And it isn’t good design. It’s yelling. And to make it much worse, accompanying the mind-numbing visuals is the music—or what amounts to music—by a band known as the Country Teasers, a Scottish punk group whose sound can be pure noise.

Not all of their music is terrible. It’s almost always off register, dissonant and discordant, sometimes off-color. Their production values are off the charts, so to speak, and not in a good way. What you hear during these Subway commercials is loud cacophony, filled with rancor that most anyone watching the Olympics wouldn’t pay to hear otherwise. Which makes me wonder about the placement of these ads.

Do Subway customers by and large watch sporting and Olympic events? I’m not sure. Or is it that the airtime was a creampuff that Subway just couldn’t pass up?

The ads were created by Dentsu Aegis Network, a multinational London-based ad agency owned by a Japanese conglomerate. That’s about right these days to be owned by a company in another country. In this case, being based in London might have a lot to do with the choice of (so-called) background music used here.

There are no beauty shots of Subway’s sandwiches, by the way. Nor of their brick-and-mortar franchises. Just the noise you see and hear in these ads, costing Subway a lot of cash.

The series of visuals in the commercials show people doing daring things. But the message Subway is trying to get to you is make your life choices so things will pan out for you. Here, it’s about their sandwich choices (doesn’t ”make it what you want“ sound like a burger company’s tagline ”have it your way”?). In other terms, don’t really do what you see on the screen.

But with the jarring presentation shown, you’d have a tough time convincing viewers of that message.

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Animating the Inanimate

Animating inanimate objects for TV commercials can be a dicey thing to do. In the first place, advertisers need to know their target audience: the people who are watching television where the commercials are placed. This can be a spot shown within the time slot of a specific program or telecast, or a spot shown on a network within a given time period on a given day of the week.

The time slot and target audience can determine what kind of commercial an advertiser wants to do, and animation may or may not work for them. But animation has become a way to augment ads in general and gain a wider audience’s attention span. In this age of personifying anything from medicine bottles in television ads to roboting trash in feature films, the future of animation seems to be still on the upswing, thanks to 3D.

Above are two examples of animation with distinct differences. Cartoons they are not. The Ensure commercial is humorous to a small degree, but its intention is to be instructive. The Waste Management commercial is part of a small series, and its intention is to be merely flippant.

The different approaches these two ads take are typical of their kind. The Ensure ad is instructive because the product advertised is a health food supplement, taken mostly by adults who need a nutritional addition to their supposedly already nutritious diet. Its ad placement is usually during the hours of 8:00 AM through 5:00 PM, running on network television. I’m guessing the target audience is aged 34 to 75.

The Ensure ads actually personify the fruits and vegetables along with the Ensure bottle, but like I say—even though the ad is cartoon-like—it isn’t a cartoon. The message Abbott Labs is making is easy to follow because of the way Ensure is portrayed. I’ll give the Ensure ads a B+.

The Waste Management ads were positioned as part of the Waste Management Phoenix Open Golf Tournament telecast on The Golf Channel and NBC. So it was embedded as a proprietary advertiser. But its target audience is harder to define here: Waste Management was sponsoring the golf event, and being flippant with the format was a way of saying they are cool as a company. But I found the ads could’ve been so much better: they could’ve shown just how diverse and environmentally sound the company is. The dialog between the two dumpsters didn’t at all reflect that.

The Waste Management ads were also harder to follow along with because the animation was harder to see: the lids of the dumpsters barely move to express speaking, and the insets on the lid handles sliding from side to side are supposed to be the eyes of the characters—overall almost too subtle to be picked up while the dumpsters yap at each other. All considered, I’ll give the Waste Management ads a D.

And Waste Management’s target audience here? Anyone who was watching the golf tournament. A sporting event’s TV audience has an attention span equal to that of a ten-year-old. So being flippant was probably deemed OK by the client.

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The Soundtrack of Our Lives?

Whatever happened to original music in TV commercials?

TV commercials have always relied on ambience—background music or sounds—to set the stage for a thematic message the advertisers wanted to convey to their target audience. From the ’50s thru the ’70s, TV commercials had original music, the track and sometimes vocal accompaniment, to provide that ambience.

Advertisers were well aware that the “jingles” written for these ads became a catchy way for the viewers to remember the ads. People would even hum or sing along with the ads, after a fashion, maybe making fun of the ads. But the advertisers didn’t care one way or another, as long as people remembered their ads.

And the jingle writers were happy to crank out the tunes. Many of the composers of these tunes were songwriters looking for a way to make extra cash between writing more lengthy songs for recording artists. But it was an arm of the entertainment business—part of the way things were done.

Then something changed around the late ’80s. The jingles started disappearing. Maybe the advertising agencies felt that viewers were becoming more sophisticated, but what actually happened, certainly by the late ’90s, was that writers at those agencies saw they had at their disposal a lot of music already available to them. They could use old rock ’n’ roll tunes.

It was part of a wave of using retro imagery and sounds from days past. Baby boomers had become of age, and taking the reins at ad agencies, wanted to express those images they had grown up with as art. You might say it was an extension of Andy Warhol’s version of “pop” art. Packaging began using old off-register print images. And old rock ’n’ roll music, either instrumental versions or snippets of the original vocals, were beginning to be heard in the background of TV ads.

At first, vocalists were hired to redo the songs, even update the sound. But then the originals were starting to be heard. Even today, you can hear ZZ Top’s “La Grange” on a Geico motorcycle insurance ad.

I was watching TV a few weeks ago and heard a tune I hadn’t heard in over 40 years. It wasn’t a rock tune or even a pop song, per se. It was a simple tune called “Mah Nà Mah Nà”, which had been a minor radio hit back in 1968 for a short while and later picked up as a tune used on Sesame Street. Originally used in a Italian film, it was written by Piero Umiliani, a name long forgotten by now. The tune has no words, just nonsensical syllables uttered by a vocalist.

And here it was used on a Ford Explorer commercial where we find a father and daughter making a wood craft in their garage. So here was an instance where the advertiser decided on using a tune heard in his/her youth, recalling a happy time with Dad.

And maybe that’s why we hear these tunes that recall those happy times. The 45-to-60-year-old demographic can surely identify with that mindset. A radio station in Chicago—playing songs from the ’60s and ’70s—has a byline: the Soundtrack of Our Lives.

But then I recently heard a homogenized Steely Dan tune in an elevator.

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What’s With the “Look”?

Engaging the viewer is of course a staple in making television commercials. After all, the last thing an advertiser wants to do is alienate possible buyers of his/her product or service. But lately I wonder about that.

Back in the day (I actually hate saying that), commercials had spokespersons. And those announcers had great voices previously groomed from radio experience. And for TV, they were dressed up in suits/dresses just for hawking the product or service directly to your living room.

We don’t have that kind of announcer anymore, although I did see a recent Geico ad where a white-haired spokesperson was closing out the ad, a sort of spoof of the old-fashioned stuff from the ’50s and ’60s.

The reason we no longer have that kind of presentation is because America grew up and became more sophisticated. Instead of those didactic presentations, we have voiceovers explaining what you and I cannot live without. But at least the advertising community now lets us feel like we have authority over our own destiny—to a degree.

Most contemporary shopping is done over the Internet anyway. And the retailers are feeling that deficit. In most areas, anyway. But there are some places in the product/service realm where TV advertising is still viable, and in other areas is even expanding.

Which brings me to the spate of long commercials you now see—those 60- and 90-second spots that border on becoming infomercials: the pharmaceutical ads and the ones for exercise machines, the latter running mostly in the evening hours while you’re practicing your couch potato skills.

Of course, the pharma ads, whose companies have deep pockets for TV air time, really cut into your viewing enjoyment of Law and Order reruns. The first third and last sixth of the run time of these ads tell you how wonderful the drug is, while in between we learn the giant list of all the side effects.

All of the pharma ads have visuals of people going through their daily lives and interacting with friends and family, but a lot of the ads have the actors actually looking directly into the camera. At you.

The above two photos are prime examples here. The left photo is from a Humira ad, promoting their plaque psoriasis medication. The right photo is from a Peloton ad, promoting their exercise machine.

This is the newest version of engaging the viewer: you, too, can do this. You, too, can be one of us (regardless, in the case of the Humira ad, of getting your doctor’s prescription first). Is this inviting, meaning you may need to do this, or is it shaming, meaning you really should do this?

I’ll call this the “look”. And it’s more prevalent in the last year or so. It’s become a psychological tool to make you question your laziness in any given part of your life, be it attending to your retirement savings to your medical or life insurance situation or to your lack of fitness.

The “look” on the actor’s face in the Peloton commercial is practically intimidating.



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Blatant Plagiarism

Competition in the marketplace is always there, in every area you look. Retail (as in clothing lines), industrial design (as in home appliances), automotive design (as in car features), and consumer services (as in home security)—the list is endless.

Thing is, is it all original? Of course not. Competing advertisers compare their products and/or services in subtle and not-so-subtle ways through images and/or verbiage. Advertisers feel they need to stay current and are not above copying ideas. Sometimes the presentation of an idea can become blurred in the minds of the viewers as to which advertiser did it first.

And the competition doesn’t have to be in the same category. It can be competition just for your attention, regardless of the message. If it worked for them, it can work for us—can be the attitude.

We pick up on similarities among TV ads because the ads themselves are not only in-your-face, but also because they repeat so often that you get second and third impressions, seeing things you might’ve missed the first time around.

For me, I enjoy the entire medium. Sure, some commercials are grating in their delivery—especially local ads. But every now and then you see a gem, or maybe a series of them that catch your eye.

Back in April of this year, ads for Spectrum started showing up with a cast of classic “monsters” appearing in everyday situations among the normal citizenry. Spectrum, as you may know, is now the umbrella cable company under which are such entities as Time-Warner, Charter Communications, and Bright House Networks. The first in the series (top left visual) has four deadly characters riding a subway car: a mad scientist, a mummy, a werewolf, and the Grim Reaper.

They way the ad runs, nobody pays any attention to the characters. They’d already been integrated into society.

What makes the ad (and the rest in the series) work so well is that the characters gripe about issues that aggravate all the rest of us, including problems with TV reception: Spectrum, being a cable company, is taking a swipe at satellite providers. And here, the Grim Reaper has received a text message on his cell phone from his kids that the satellite dish has corrupted the signal at home. If you haven’t seen how the commercial ends, I won’t ruin it for you.

The ads were conceived by an independent, little-known ad agency named Something Different, located in Brooklyn. And kudos to that bunch because the ads are by far the most refreshing departure I’ve seen in years. Apart from the aforementioned characters, the cast includes the werewolf’s wife, a demon and a vampire couple.

Another in the series has some of the characters playing charades (bottom left visual), while in yet another the werewolf parents are meeting with their son’s teacher.

One of the ads that ran this past summer has the demon and the werewolf under a child’s bed (top right visual). To be honest, this particular ad doesn’t quite fit the mold of the others in the series. Here, the monsters portend horror, but the child is just irritated.

So, anyway, last week a commercial for Progressive Insurance showed up with the same format (bottom right visual), with a demon under a child’s bed. The reference is so blatantly obvious, the context and timing so close, that Progressive had to have copied Spectrum’s ad.

I suppose imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but plagiarism is the surest way of getting sued.


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Where’s the Correlation?


TV advertising is becoming more and more disconnected. By that, I mean there are many commercials that stretch the correlation between the client’s product and the theme or initial message of the ad.

A prime example of this is the latest T-Mobile ad that shows a couple returning home after an evening out only to find a sassy babysitter wisecracking about her hourly rate increases while wearing the housewife’s shoes.

Then the ad closes with a few taglines for T-Mobile—which has absolutely nothing to do with the couple’s situation nor the babysitter. It’s a complete disconnect. I’ve seen the ad several times, and there’s nothing. It could’ve been an ad for skin cream or home security.

I’m not sure what happens in the minds of the copywriters in this way of thinking. I’m sure they think there’s a minor shock value in the babysitter’s snappy reaction to the parents’ inquiries. You watch the interaction between her and the parents and it does catch your attention. But I had to see the ad a few times to catch that it’s a T-Mobile ad.

If it weren’t for their signature hot pink color branding in the last few seconds of the ad, you would’ve missed it, too. Not a good idea.

I have a brother-in-law who’s done a lot of copywriting for ad agencies, and we discussed this disconnect. His theory is that ad agencies’ copywriters are beginning to hate writing for these kinds of commercials. Either it’s that or this commercial’s editing staff left too much on the cutting room floor. It’s also possible that this way of thinking is the new soft-sell approach. But the disconnect is so wide that it does not work.

Here’s the thing: it does appear to be a small trend. I say small to refer to a small number of advertisers doing this kind of ad, but I also say trend to say there will be more coming, if not a large number. I hope not.

There are however, advertisers who stretch the correlation and yet keep it as a comparative statement. Geico is one.

The latest Geico ad has a scene in a pharmacy with Boyz II Men singing the side effects of a prescription to a woman. Then the voiceover explains that Boyz II Men can make anything sound good (it’s what they do), and that if you want to save 15% or more on car insurance, you can call Geico (it’s what you do).

A small connection, but it’s just enough to make it work.

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Those Pharmaceutical Commercials


In the last few years, we’ve seen numerous pharma ads on TV, and they seem to multiply like rabbits in April. Seems like you’ve seen them all only to encounter another one with a pharmaceutical name someone must’ve made up on the way to a board meeting. Names like “Myrbetriq” and “Entyvio”. The names themselves don’t mean anything, because none of them sound like what they’re prescribed for. And the ads are long, some longer than a minute—which on TV, while you’re waiting to see if the new MacGyver will save the day—is like a minor eternity.

But this column today isn’t about the names of some of those medications or about the length of the ads. It’s about the ads themselves and the models they use. I’m not certain just why they bother me. But they do. I look at the perception and the storyline of the ad, but mostly the perception.

My issue is that the model walks through her day as though she’s on Xanax instead of the advertiser’s product. I look at these models and the dopey expression on their faces tells me they might not be allowed to drive a car after shooting the ad.

Of course the models themselves aren’t to blame here. It’s the directors who staged these stupidly idyllic ads. Plus the ad agency probably stepped in somewhere between the concept stage and the storyboards and added their two cents. More committee decisions.

In the Stelara ad, the brunette can’t quite stop smiling throughout the commercial. She’s easily the dopiest I’ve seen in all the pharma ads going. Stelara is prescribed for plaque psoriasis, a skin condition that can be embarrassing in the company of strangers or among people of minimal acquaintance. So this girl is walking along various rural tracks with her beau during the sunlit day and also sits with him among others at night around a campfire.

So the depiction is that she’s enjoying life and not worried about her skin condition because she’s taking Stelara. But the perception is that she’s just too happy. And it ain’t the Stelara.

In the Botox ad, this girl is cruising on something else. Not sure, but the perception is maybe…Vicodin? She’s in dreamland, this girl. Botox is prescribed for migraine headaches. I think she’s using more than is prescribed.

In the Lyrica ad, this model appears confident, alert and very conscious of who and where she is. This is normal behavior, advertisers. Lyrica is prescribed for fibromyalgia, a chronic pain disorder affecting joints and muscles. So the perception here, because the model comes off as managing her condition with a sound mind, is that there’s no apparent side effect of Lyrica displayed by heavy eyelids and a dopey smile.

I can see a patient going to her doctor and asking if the pills he’s prescribing are going to cause her to look as clueless as some of these models. Advertisers need to be aware that perception is everything. Not just to them, but also to the viewer.


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Owls for Now


Mascots. They’ve been with us almost as long as slogans have (see article from June 16). Whereas slogans probably came from a remark that someone made offhandedly about a product or service, mascots came about in an entirely different way.

Advertisers began introducing characters to represent their products, knowing two things would happen: one, it would distinguish their product from the rest, and two, it would also make it more memorable. Around World War I, we had the girl on the Morton Salt container (1914), Planter’s Mr. Peanut (1916), and Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo on the Cracker Jack package (1918).

In the advertising world, mascots are important for endearing products to the buying public. So like my old design school roommate would tell it, it’s a gimmick. Call it what you will, but it worked back in the day and it still does. Otherwise, advertisers would’ve abandoned it long ago. Advertisers have to be timely and current.

After World War II, animals came to the fore in the ad world. Cartoons came of age in the ’40s, and ad agencies began to see a way to incorporate lovable characters into ad campaigns. Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes started using Tony the Tiger in 1951. Bucky Beaver was the spokesperson for Ipana Toothpaste in 1957. There were other characters besides animals just as cuddly: “Speedy” for Alka Seltzer (1952), Pillsbury’s Poppin’ Fresh doughboy (1965), and Keebler’s elves (1968), for example.

Right now we have owls. One for America’s Best eyewear; one for Xyzal, an allergy OTC pill; and a third for Trip Advisor, a vacation helper on the Internet. Two of them are well-animated, the third not so much.

America’s Best is the best owl by far. He looks real—within most parameters—and he’s articulated very well. Plus he’s wearing glasses, which is of course a necessary tie-in with what he’s hawking (sorry). The fact that he appears out of nowhere—on a roof or park bench—is of no real consequence. And there’s no segue into his sales pitch, telling the unsuspecting and bewildered person that she’s paying too much for eyeglasses.

You’d ignore or turn away from a stranger doing the same direct confrontation. But this is an owl, and you listen to him because owls don’t speak and also, because he’s an owl, he’s wise. That’s the shtick.

Xyzal’s owl is much more stylized, but he’s just as wise. Even professorial. He’s not accosting people in the park—he’s in a library, wearing a monocle, a bow tie and a smoking jacket. Plus, he’s got a British accent, which we’ve noted before implies intelligence.

Then we have a third owl, the Trip Advisor mascot. He’s not as qualitative and not nearly as articulated. He’s more a stuffed owl in an oversized white robe. But the implication of you making wise choices for your vacation or business trip can be associated from dialing up Trip Advisor on the Internet.

Note that none of these owls has a name. But then neither does the Geico Gecko (1999), the Aflac duck (2000) or the garden gnome for Travelocity (2003).

Do you think it’s necessary that these characters have a name?

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It’s Time to Change it Up


One of the things you learn in design school is not to fall in love with your designs. Complacency is not an attribute you want in the design world, anyway. You don’t want your designs to look the same all the time. You want to keep it fresh.

Unless, of course, you’re running a series of ads within a mode of thought. The famous series of ads for the Volkswagen Beetle, running in magazines in the 1960s, was the brainchild of Bill Bernbach’s team at DDB Advertising in New York. But that ad campaign stands alone in the pantheon of series advertising. There hasn’t been another like that in almost 60 years.

It was named the number 1 ad campaign of all time in Advertising Age’s 1999 The Century of Advertising.

What made that campaign so special was—

1) it didn’t take itself seriously

2) it didn’t make a glamour puss of its product

3) it was simple

One of the things I mention in my Tenets of Good Design series is simplicity. If you make an ad simple, your message gets pared down. And the simpler you make it, your message gets closer to bare bones. Stark. Plain. And—easy to read, understand, and best of all, easy to remember.

That’s what DDB knew in the late 1950s leading up to a new decade, that tumultuous time in America, the 1960s. That time saw a complete change in everything we experienced in this country: movies and music came of age, along with staggering political, racial, and global issues that altered the way news was reported.

And amid that backdrop, DDB played it backwards. With all the complexity and turmoil in that era, DDB played it simple and steady. That’s what made those VW ads stand apart.

But those ads didn’t run forever. Not the way some TV ads run these days. Repetition breeds boredom, and that leads to annoyance to the viewers. The advertisers whose ads are shown above have become complacent leaving these ads running far beyond their value.

They need to come up with something new. Because they’re not at all memorable. Maybe what they need to do is to stop trying so hard to be memorable.

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