Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Sure it's fake, but...

There's an intiguing article in Slate on viral video, particularly of the unbranded or so-called stealth variety, by Farhad Manjoo. The occasion of the article is a series of short viral videos for a headset manufacturer. The videos portrayed a bunch of phones pointed at popcorn kernels. Kids dial the phones and when they ring, the popcorn begins to pop. (If you want to check it out, all the links are in the Slate article, which I'm too lazy to reproduce here). Apparently they were viewed 10 million times in two weeks.

Manjoo takes a balanced approach to a whole phenomenon, placing this video in the context of other unbranded--or initially unbranded--videos for Gatorade, Ray-Ban and Nike. He doesn't deny that the web is full of videos of dubious authenticity. And advertisers are far from the only source of misleading information. And he acknowledges--or at least quotes other experts on the fact--that figuring out whether the video is accurate or not is part of fun.

"The most populat ads feature scenes that aren't obviously impossible, just nearly so, leaving the is-it-real debate raging on blogs and comment threads....More sophisticated viral ads turn their deception into a kind of intereactive game, planting subtle clues pointing to their corporate source."
But Manjoo draws the line on consumer health and safety. And he thinks Cardo stepped over it. Beyond just mocking up near-impossible stunts, Manjoo believes that Cardo fed off of consumer fears, playing to unsubstantiated claims linking cellphone radiation with brain damage without needing to take responsibility for them. Here's how he puts it:
The Cardo ad is another story. Health concerns may push many people to buy Bluetooth headsets, but the research connecting cell phones to brain tumors is unclear, and Cardo would face an outcry—not to mention possible legal or regulatory action—if it straightforwardly marketed its products as being "safer" for you.
If Manjoo's point is that web video should be subject to the same regulatory strictures as all other advertising, he's certainly right, and such desire regulation is bound to get tighter. If, however, he wants to ban all advertising from insinuating health risks or benefits, he's got a long crusade ahead of him. The entire anti-bacterial category is built on equally deceptive information. (It's not that alcohol infused gels don't kill germs; but so does soap. It's not that dust in the air doesn't make you sneeze, but it's not very clear it makes you sick.)

Equally interesting are the comments on the article, which provide a wonderful representative sampling of responses to almost any article on advertising: There are the readers that want to debate the facts: could Kobe could really jump the sports car or not? There's the self-proclaimed non-TV-raised-Gen-Y'er who expresses his genuine fear over "where advertising will go next." And there there is the reader (referencing great-depression era hardship) who tells him to stop whining. There's a reader who simultaneously denies and affirms the power of advertising: "the more I am marketed to, the less I want to buy. That said I like a cute film every now and then for amusement...." And there's the reader who advances his or her own observation on the "irony" of an advertising technique which is designed to speak to jaded audiences but only succeeds in making them more jaded.

But it's MountainManZach who provides the title for this post. He cites a subtitle on collegehumor.com that accompanied the cell-phone video that might stand as a motto for advertising itself: a brilliantly concise insight into the psychology of consumer reception.
"Sure, it's fake, but what if it's real?"
It's why I found Manjoo's closing line-- "But what fools should buy from a company that takes its customers for fools"--so unsatisfying. After such a balanced and insightful account of this emerging marketing practice, Manjoo retreats to a familiar and inaccurate fantasy that companies and ad-men are sitting around thinking of ways to gull all the suckers out there. It's inaccurate for the simple reason that knowledge has nothing to do with how advertising works. We know you know and that you'll still act as if you don't.

"Sure, it's fake, but what if it's real?"

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Palmer gets permed

Came across a recent column by Benjamin Palmer in Adweek that has me a little puzzled. Let me preface my comments by saying that I’m a big fan of B. Palmer in particular and the work of Barbarian Group in general. I’ve been impressed by and referenced his thinking on these very screens, particularly his comments on the concept of Brand Utility, but in relation to this column entitled "The Future of Branding is Now," I can only assume that he’s been championing new media (against old) for so long that it's driven him to overstate his claims.

Chief among these is Palmer’s dubious distinction between what refers to as temporary media and permanent media. Guess which one is which?

Here’s how he puts it:

The brands that have historically achieved the most permanence are the giant ones that can afford to have an ad in a medium that hits your eyes once or more a day every day. The branding (hopefully) accumulates over time, but the messages themselves are disposable, mostly randomly distributed and, as a result, strictly temporary. These old media are temporary. Brands, however, are permanent. The good news is that, in the Internet, we finally have a medium that's permanent.

Even if I could sort out the overlap between brands and media here (maybe I should be critiquing the Adweek editor instead?) I’m still not sure what Palmer means by permanent. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. Brands are permanent? The internet is permanent? I’m assuming he can’t mean the medium itself (The internet is a baby in comparison to TV and radio). But if I assume he means that digital marketing is somehow more permanent (because people interact with it) than old media marketing, he seems to get the point exactly wrong.

Great ads, ads broadcast on old media, have lingered in the culture for years if not decades. Copy from boring old media ads have completely permeated our culture--for better or worse--and will linger as long as the dialect does. (Wassap, where’s the beef? Plop, plop, etc., etc., You want more examples just check look at the taglines filled in by a nine year old on a previous post.) By comparison, marketing on the internet has a very short lifespan indeed. Consumers are still looking up the Mean Joe Green Coke Ad and feeling all misty-eyed over the image of racial harmony decades after it was broadcast, but few people want to mess around with last years or even last months microsite. Anyone still playing with subservient chicken? I'm not suggesting this won't change, but the evidence isn't on Palmer's side here. At least not yet.

Isn’t one of the chief virtues of marketing—as Palmer makes clear in the same column—the fact that it’s relatively easy and cheap to change over time? It’s the opposite of permanent, in a good way, particularly in relation to something relatively fixed and expensive, like film.

Palmer ends the column with an equally either odd rant about how there was no real “brand value” before the internet came along. I suppose he means that’s because it was harder to measure the contribution of old media to brand development than it is now that we have web analytics.

Again, no one will argue that the accountability of digital media—the fact that you can measure what people do with it—is very handy, but again, it seems that Palmer seems to have forgotten that stories are also very powerful entities, sometimes less, sometimes more powerful than tools, digital or otherwise.

The fact that you can’t necessarily click through a storytelling experience or exactly measure what it means to “identify” with a character doesn’t mean something isn’t happening, and that something isn't having an enormous and sometimes even permanent impact on our perceptions, feelings and actions.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Beverly Farms doesn't do Juno

My little neighborhood has made national news recently with it’s July 4th horribles parade, basically a Mummers-style parade in which the locals mock and parody usually very local events and personalities. I’ve only lived here 4 years and it’s been pretty out-of-hand every year: with instances of open profanity, personal attacks (personal as in naming names) and flagrant racism (e.g., mocking Latino illegal immigrants) present in just about every parade. And if you ask my neighbors, I haven’t even seen the worst of it (the Viagra float is legendary as are the kids who decided to reenact the JFK assassination, complete with a screaming Jackie, etc., etc.) This year, however, they’ve apparently gone too far, with three floats mocking the dozen-and-a-half teen-age pregnancies in nearby Gloucester high. You can watch it in all it’s glory on Youtube here. Keep an eye out for me!

The mayor of Gloucester is outraged, claiming that the parade could spark a class war. Most of the MSM and bloggers who have picked up the story are equally shocked, taking a controversial “teen-aged pregnancy isn’t funny” line. Like here. Or here from Gloucester's local. No kidding, Neither is the JFK assassination or illegal immigration or the local guy who was mocked for his DWI and other humiliations in two floats a year ago. I just watched a “Greater Boston” segment, a local PBS affiliate show hosted by Emily Rooney, in which a reporter from the Beverly Citizen claimed this parade went too far because it made fun of people without power compared to a memorable float parodying Kerry Healey’s run for governor two years ago.

The distinction is meaningful if you compare the pregnant teens to the very rich and privileged Healey, but the argument doesn't hold up when you look at the range of subjects usually in the parade. Most of the floats I've seen are far from clever political satire. Most of them are pretty trashy and personal and often sexually provocative with attacks on local embarrassments from guys who get DWI's to crappy city planning and quite a few involve guys in drag and profane language. No one I’ve read has yet mentioned the eye-popping “Trolls Gone Wild” float from I think '05 in which some local young women either donned wigs or dyed their hair fluorescent hues and then created cone-shaped doo's (to emulate the beloved troll figures of our childhoods) and danced provocatively down my little new England street, right before of the innocent eyes of the local children.

To declare the parade offensive is hardly an attack, it’s a description. It’s offensive by definition. You could argue that we don’t want any offensive parades in quaint sea-side towns like the one I live in, but it’s a very weak argument indeed to differentiate this parade from past years (and let’s not forget this has been going on for a full century.) I suspect there is some deeper Cape Ann rivalry at work here but I'm too much of an newcomer and outsider to penetrate its depths. And personally, as an outsider, I find it kind of pleasant to see one unregulated, unsanitized public event, without a single appearance of a Disney character!

If I was to get all academic in my defense, I’d say the parade is a great modern example of what Bahktin defined as the carnivalesque, that is, a period of anarchic and transgressive behavior licensed by the powers that be. Bahktin was talking about how the carnivals in medieval Europe created a period of temporary liberation from the controlling strictures church and state but you could say that the same principle applies here. In any other context, the behavior would be totally unacceptable. The only thing that makes it okay here is that we’ve decided it’s okay.

You can read more about it here. Or if you really want to get into Bahktin, and he’s worth it, check out his famous and influential book on Rabelais in which he develops his theory of the carnivalesque. Though the very fact that I'm deploying a Russian literary theorist to defend this outrageous parade probably only positions me more firmly on the snobby side of the alleged class war.

And since "the children" have played a role in just about every story on the parade, I should probably disclose that I also have them--children that is (2, 4 and 7). And they watched the parade in front of my house with the usual combination of screaming excitement and perplexity, and yes--just like the kids in the press--my oldest did in fact pick up a condom that had been tossed from one of the floats and asked what it was. And before I could even think of a good answer that wouldn’t take the rest of the holiday to explain, he had forgotten about the weird foil wrapper and moved onto a package of Sweet Tarts and a manic discussion of the night’s fireworks. Hopefully, he will remain unscarred by the experience.