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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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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