From Howard Margulies, VP, Associate Creative Director
I had just asked the CEO of a rather successful company a question that he had apparently never been asked. “You want to know what I think is the most perfect ad of all time?” I nodded. “That’s easy,” he offered, “it’s the Veg-O-Matic commercial.”
His tone indicated that he was not being ironic or nostalgic; he was telling me that he favored clear, concrete, descriptive advertising that wasted not 1 second on spurious conceptual “entertainment.” Just the facts, ma’am.
This was his definition of risk-free advertising. (What it said about his taste level is a subject for another discussion.) I believe he learned the wrong lessons about risk.
That the Veg-O-Matic is now enthroned at the Smithsonian Institution dramatizes the power of mediocre advertising to build an iconic brand without breaking a sweat. But it raises a larger question: were the ads simply a product demonstration, or was the kitchen gadget’s design so driven by an intuitive understanding of the psychology of its target audience that it couldn’t help but succeed? The advertising guilelessly extolled its obvious time-management benefits to a generation of women who were newly coping with the frustrating notion that if they weren’t able to do or “have it all,” they were missing out entirely. For consumers today, “cooking from scratch” means adding an egg to a mix.
I submit that the Veg-O-Matic was born at just the right moment. Few products or services enjoy such a genetic advantage. I’m afraid you’re just going to have to endure some degree of risk in your marketing endeavors.
So, exactly what defines “risky” creative in an era when the Xbox and Blu-ray rule, newspaper readership is moribund, network TV viewers are older and thinning, and videos of a strange young man lip-synching in his bedroom or a precocious, laughing toddler can conjure tens of millions of willing viewers on YouTube. What does advertising have to do to be considered “risky”?
Kevin Roberts, Saatchi & Saatchi’s CEO, has stated, “None of the old rules are rules anymore.” Yes and no. Sensibilities change, tastes and fashion change, yet the insidious risks in advertising creative have not changed at all. With an infinite number of distractions and data-streams coming at today’s consumers, it’s critical that advertisers (and creative directors alike) honestly confront the hidden risks in the marketing messages we transmit to the world.
Risk in advertising is often equated with offending an audience. Some audiences are seemingly impossible to offend, while others have hair triggers. One thing is certain: in the deafening white noise of infotainment and marketing messages, which have been variously numbered in the hundreds to many thousands of exposures per day, the riskiest ads are the ones that never rise above the noise level.
Here are some guidelines (that are as old as the Veg-O-Matic itself) for identifying the hidden risks in advertising:
• First you must accept the idea that no one is eagerly awaiting to hear what you have to say (exception: Apple’s Steve Jobs)
• Merely telling the world that your product “exists” is risky
• Not engaging, entertaining, or surprising your audience is risky
• If you don’t give consumers a way to think about your product, they won’t
• Having no actionable insight into what motivates your target market is risky
• Advertising that feels cozy and broken-in like an old pair of shoes is risky
• Ads without a memorable “hook” are very risky
• If the work is on strategy, but makes you nervous, you may have a powerful idea on your hands. Don’t kill it for the wrong reason
In the 1990s, Douglas Coupland’s Gen Xers announced, “I am not a target market,” and they meant it. Teenagers today not only can reverse engineer your ads, they can create a scathing spoof, edit it, and distribute it worldwide, just because they can. And if you think they’re a tough crowd, spend a few hours listening to physicians.
The Veg-O-Matic understood its role in its customers’ lives and, frankly, got away with unimaginative, “risk-free” advertising. Our challenge as marketing professionals is to reject the false comforts of the familiar—and embrace risk.
Because we have to.