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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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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In the Commercial World, Color is Identity

 

What is color? A tool of design. Color is as important in design as shape. Color is the element that makes an item among similar shapes noticeable.

Color is what makes anything pop. In the 1950s, the color of lipstick was red. There were several reds available, but red it was. Red gave dressed up women pop. Find reprints of ’50s magazine ads, and there it is (or go to Google.)

And as any designer knows, red is the most chromatic color. It shows up as the most noticeable color. It’s the color of stop lights and stop signs and brake lights. A red car is the most noticeable of all the cars in a parking lot.

But not everything can be red. In the world of advertising and merchandising, marketers have staked out their own share of any given category with certain colors.

So the branding departments at major manufacturers have given their prized products colors to differentiate them from their competitors. Coca-Cola is red. Sprint is yellow. T-Mobile is hot pink. These are examples of branding, a term that has many connotations. But as pertains to color, a marketer can’t choose a more identifiable tool.

Some examples are less obvious. DiscoverCard has run a series of ads that feature a sales associate in one frame talking to a customer in another. Look at the visuals above: everything in frame 1 is color coordinated with frame 2. This isn’t coincidental. It’s a subtle version of branding, using the color from the DiscoverCard logo (orange) along with a complementary toned-down blue. Coordinated and cohesive.

Within all these companies, they have a built-in rule referred to as “brand awareness”, meaning that they keep their brand colors in the forefront when it comes to advertising.

Smart.

 

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New H&R Block Ads Miss Core Audience with Jon Hamm

Design is cohesion. We’ve talked about that. And advertising design on TV needs cohesive thought—a continuity—that keeps viewers tuned in.

H&R Block has been doing TV ads ever since the early ‘70s. Henry Bloch (spelling correct) started the firm with his brothers not long after World War II, when it was merely an accounting firm. But in 1955, they started doing tax preparation, and by 1972 they decided to do their first TV ads, with Henry himself appearing in them.

In 2013, H&R Block put an everyman [see my last post, “Rise of the Everyman”] on the screen touting their new bold messages. One of their own tax professionals, Richard Gartland, wearing what was to become a signature (and color-coordinated with the Block logo) green bow tie, yelling, “It’s refund season!” and later, “Get your billions, America!”

Apart from the rather avant-garde delivery from a tax man, his image tied in perfectly with the buttoned down H&R tradition. It was a brilliant move.

But according to Fallon, H&R’s ad agency, 2016 was a tough year for their client. Other tax services were making inroads, including TurboTax, the software anyone can use from the confines of his/her own home. So they decided to change course.

And that course, according to broadchannel.com, is a bold directional change. New direction, new writing, new tagline: “Get your taxes won.” And they picked Jon Hamm to deliver it.

Thing is, Hamm had never done TV commercials. Not on camera, anyway. He’d done some voiceovers for Mercedes-Benz. You hear his words, soft and direct, and he’s OK there.

But in the Block ads, he’s lacking. He practically mumbles his lines, moving the entire time, following his blocking. But he’s quick to move and too quick to speak. We lose his delivery, and therefore the message.

It’s almost like the director was told they had to do these ads all on the first take.

And that’s too bad. We’ve lost the core H&R feel here. It’s too slick—he’s too slick—and the viewers will see it that way as well.

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Rise of the Everyman

Decades ago—the ‘50s and ‘60s—television advertising was a proud institution where announcers came from radio. They’d been groomed to have excellent speaking voices, and when mainstream television came to everyone’s living room, these announcers were groomed with hair stylists and makeup to look as good as they sounded. And magazine ads selling the same products echoed this mannered style with photo insets of those same announcers.

Advertisers wanted to come off as authoritative. That aspect gave their product more credibility, more weight in the public eye. If Ed Reimers sold Allstate Insurance on TV, you were “in good hands.” If Harry von Zell sold something on TV, you bought it. If Art Gilmore touted it, it must be the best.

But by the time the ‘70s rolled around, the advertisers’ collective mind had changed. More and more TV advertisers were using a different personality: actors gleaned from the movies and TV shows. Orson Welles sold Paul Masson wines. Rodney Dangerfield appeared in Miller Lite ads. Mel Blank (the voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig) hawked the American Express card by saying, “Don’t leave home without it.”

Gradually, these high-profile celebs were replaced by younger, no-name actors. They were cheaper for one, and two, they could grow on the audience by being hip—almost one of us. David Naughton promoted Dr. Pepper. Lindsay Lohan did Jell-O. John Travolta for Safeguard soap.

Other advertisers called on lesser known performers who came from comedy. Jan Miner was the Palmolive dish soap lady. David Leisure appeared as Joe Isuzu.

Soon, advertisers realized two things: they didn’t need to spend money on celebs, and also they could reach the same audience with a new kind of spokesperson—the everyman.

So came the new millennium, and with that prominent advertisers are still using actors, but somehow the pitchmen (and women) are less glamorous, more like us average people. Less intimidating. People like Paul Marcarelli (pictured at left, above, the former Verizon pitchman) selling Sprint, and Adam Lisagor (right) selling TrueCar.

Which is good. We tend to believe the everyman. Not so much a person like Tom Selleck (who was himself a former male model in cigarette ads) pitching reverse mortgages.

Which makes the advertiser and the product—more accessible. More reachable. More attainable. The actors are more…normal.

More like us.

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There’s Nothing Like Advertising—Especially the Wrong Kind

Believe me, I know. I spent decades in and around the ad business. Last year, we saw two vehicles—the Buick Enclave and the Nissan Altima—getting a lot of ad play during the holiday season. But the way these two were being sold to viewers makes the advertisers look stupid.

The Buick SUV ad wouldn’t go away. It ran constantly. That alone made anyone crazy, but on top of that, Buick was trying desperately to impress us with a design that they felt was not like your old Buick. “That’s not a Buick,” says the elderly lady in the ad. Then Nissan’s ad for the Altima had the actors turning their heads to look at a supposedly racy looking car, when in fact it was as Plain Jane as you can get.

This year the most aggravating series of ads is with Chevrolet. Once again, these ads run all the time. Incessantly. We’ve got this focus group of non-actors following its host around like lambs over a Malibu. One of the girls in the ad actually says this: “The lights remind me of Audi lights.”

Is Chevrolet serious with this? Audi lights? There isn’t an Audi on the planet that has lights like this, and even if Audi had one, it either looks like the same lights or it doesn’t. They don’t remind anyone of Audi lights, is my point. Someone needs to tell the copywriters to feed better lines to their non-actors.

The thing is, advertisers rely on these ads to sell cars. Understandable. But they fail to use some basic, common sense.

1) Viewers get tired of seeing the same ad. If advertisers want to grab their target audience’s interest, they should vary the ad enough—say a series of three ads or more—showing different aspects of the car. Keep the viewers intrigued, maybe making it a continuing storyline. If they do, people will talk about it.

2) Viewers are not stupid. Please quit treating your prospective buyers like fifth-graders. Write intelligent ads that when viewed, will make the viewers feel valued, like they already have smarts. Mercedes-Benz is good at this: they know who their customer is and they don’t talk down to them. Good advertisers don’t have to.

 

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