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.



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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, 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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