Annoying Commercials

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Big brother is watching you!

George Orwell would not be surprised by latest ad technology.

If the privacy police weren’t concerned about intrusive advertising before, they’re going to have a field day with this one. I encourage you to read this story in the Los Angeles Times about the increasing use of facial recognition software technology to identify the age, gender, and race of those who approach new digital advertising displays. When the display pegs your demographic, it serves up targeted ads for products it believes you should be interested in.

When these displays are in a specific retailer (i.e., Banana Republic), they will tailor ad content for merchandise carried in that location. Think of it like Amazon.com’s suggestions of books that you may like based on other books you have previously ordered.

But it doesn’t take much imagination to conceive of situations where this technology is ripe for abuse. For instance, I doubt many middle age men will appreciate having  Viagra ads launched when they step in front of a digital display. Those who are overweight won’t enjoy being treated to a steady barrage of ice cream and candy bar commercials.  Mirror, mirror, on the wall.

Latest NEC digital display technology uses facial recognition software.

Latest NEC digital display technology uses facial recognition software.

It isn’t a big leap either to build facial recognition software into the average TV set.  It will be more than a little unnerving to have ads of specificity delivered when you enter the room of your own home. Guys may not notice any difference if it is a beer commercial during an NFL game, but if it is a spot for a sleep aid, because the TV in your bedroom notices you are still awake wide-eyed at 3 am, then most people are going to be disturbed by the intrusion.

We all wear our gender, race, and age on our sleeves, I mean, shoulders. However, that doesn’t mean we want to be continually reminded of our demographics by the talking box. Opportunities for abuse by advertisers, law enforcement, government policymakers abound. Time to dust off your copy of Orwell’s 1984.

We’ve written before about how companies like Preference Central are trying to solve privacy issues in online advertising before the regulators dictate tougher controls.  This opens a whole new front for major consumer brands and retailers to be careful about. Facial recognition software has long been used in CCTV video monitoring in the security and access control industries. With QR codes and personalized URLs now delivering customized ad messaging, it would not be hard to imagine a future where TV commercials are talking to you by name and citing past purchases and inner cravings. It’s all a lot unnerving.

Racial messaging is an especially sensitive topic right now. For instance, can anyone imagine any young African-American men being appreciative to look into a digital display and having this ad served up to them?

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Before the Internet, before Facebook, before smartphones, local advertisers concentrated their ad budgets on TV and at least some of them felt they needed to work very hard to get noticed. Faux (or forced) insanity was the order of the day. The king of this method of advertising was Crazy Eddie, the NY metro area consumer electronics retail chain, that brought a heightened sense of urgency to take advantage of sale prices (and of Eddie himself) to everyone’s living room.

Not sure why the yelling announcer model became so popular, but it was employed by car dealers, restaurateurs, the Atco Speedway, and at least one local merchant in every city. In Philadelphia, Ben Krass made himself a hometown celebrity selling his Krass Brothers suits surrounded by a harem, usually in bikinis.  All of these “mad men” wanted to ensure that viewers didn’t miss their schtick by heading to the bathroom during program breaks.

It’s likely even then that mental illness advocacy groups lodged complaints about turning affliction into an attention grab. Most viewers, however, just found the spots obnoxious. Still, they did their job, created awareness and buzz for these businesses, and moved a lot of product.

Today, local advertisers would have to be truly loco to pass up the amazing range of online options for geo-targeting and reaching prospects and customers. They could save their vocal cords and save a lot of marketing budget dollars in the process. The array is dizzying. Local is the new focus of Google, which has hired local salespeople and repurposed its Local Business Center as Google Places. Businesses know that with so many spending so much time on Facebook, they need to be there with pages and ads. Yelp and Foursquare were ahead of the curve on helping advertisers build local followings. Groupon, Living Social, and in Philly Metro, Dealyo have bought couponing and promotions into the digital age. Then, with Microsoft Tags and QR Codes, retailers can build their own brick-and-click campaigns to generate sales with smartphone users.

Next week’s blog post is devoted to yet another local program/platform called Matchbin that gives local businesses a wide range of ways to connect with customers. So many choices for those looking for asylum from the crazy method of advertising.

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JesusHatesObama.com spot was rightly banned from this year's SuperBowl.

JesusHatesObama.com spot was rightly banned from this year's SuperBowl.

The big game isn’t even here yet, but some businesses are already leveraging the attention that the SuperBowl brings. Two advertisers have already gotten the boot from Fox Sports for spots too controversial for prime time. I’m sure neither business ever expected their commercials to air and are all too happy to be basking in the resulting “news” attention from being banished to viral YouTube heaven.

Here is a link to the story behind banned commercial number one — an online store that sells “humorous” novelty items. It was launched by a supposed conservative comedian. His site is called JesusHatesObama.com. The spot depicts bobblehead dolls of President Obama and Jesus, with the latter scowling at the former and the former mysteriously bobbling off a ledge into a glass of water.

HahahaNOT. This spot isn’t funny. It is just dumb. Last time I checked, Jesus never expressed hatred for anyone, even the moneychangers in the temple (they did piss him off, though). And while President Obama has a knack for pissing off conservatives, of which I count myself, this spot is not remotely humorous. It isn’t goofy. It is just lame.

I am not above a good “Jesus hates” joke, however, which is why when I saw this tee shirt in a window on South Street, I had to laugh and I had to snap a cellphone photo.

Some "Jesus hates" jokes are actually funny.

Some "Jesus hates" jokes are actually funny.

Not sure the exact reason for Fox’s decision, but they are entitled to make a decision based on their own broadcast standards. I am just glad this terrible idea for a web site and a political statement is not going to get any additional exposure during the SuperBowl.

Banned spot number two is troubling for a far different reason. Read all about it here. It is for a matchmaking (hooking up?) web site known as AshleyMadison.com. Its business model? Enabling those interested in extra-marital affairs to meet like-minded individuals. The site itself got a lot of negative publicity when it launched a few years ago. The fact that it is going strong enough to pay for a SuperBowl commercial is a sad sign of the times.

I remember seeing its founder interviewed on TV and explaining that his site is strictly business. He is filling a need and if he didn’t start AshleyMadison.com, someone else would. Great, can we expect him to follow up soon with HitsRUs.com for those who want to hire an assassin anonymously? The most recent example of this muddled thinking was PA Governor Ed Rendell going medieval on Leslie Stahl during a 60 Minutes interview about the state forging ahead with casino gambling. The governor was enraged that Stahl and her team just didn’t get it that PA residents with gambling problems were going to gamble regardless of whether the state was making money off their vice or not. So, PA might as well make up some of their revenue shortfalls. Right? Wrong.

One way to start righting wrongs is to stop creating additional wrongs. We’re sluicing down some slippery slopes, folks. Hats off to Fox for refusing to be party to either sorry spectacle.

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With all the turbulent changes the advertising industry has undergone in recent years, one constant has been a welcome distraction — the hilarious, note-perfect commercial parodies that Saturday Night Live churns out every show and every season. SNL has undergone its own annual turbulence of cast changes, topical content challenges, and guest host chemistry issues. Yet every season, a different cast produces a number of gems that tweak real commercials or use the prism and familiar formats of advertising to tackle current news stories.

NBC has produced entire specials of these special thirty-second clips and now has an amazing archive of this rich comic material. Breakfast cereals are popular subjects. From John Belushi’s unlikely Olympic athlete powered, not by Wheaties, but “Little Chocolate Donuts.” To the fiber-over-rich, can-you-match-the number-of-bowls laxative power of  “Colon Blow.” But there are so many others, from the all-clay, moldable Adobe car that repairs itself, to the Change Bank that addresses all our needs of exact coinage, to Wade Blasingame, the attorney who will sue dogs.

This season, two spots have done an amazing job of capturing the Zeitgeist. One is all about the pleasures and dangers of social media and its expansion beyond the college campus.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YZSIrzFsnlQ

The other combines the allure of those late night chat line come-on spots with the need to diffuse the anger over ever-more intrusive airport security screening procedures.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIan6woglrA

The next time someone wonders whether advertising is still relevant in the digital age, tell them not to taunt Happy Fun Ball. Then, hit them with a Nerf Crotchbat.

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Preference Central

Preference Central has a great solution for targeted ad control.

I try to avoid webinars for online marketing products and services, because too many fall into the categories of broad pie-in-the-sky over-promising or arcane technical details that only Internet technologists or media strategists can get vaguely excited about. However, I made an exception this week with PreferenceCentral, and I’m glad I did.
I learned something encouraging — that someone is trying to get out in front of the consumer privacy or privacy controls debate and that someone is PreferenceCentral. What’s more, PreferenceCentral has developed a terrific solution for targeted ads, which balances the needs of consumers, advertisers, and ad creators, customizers, and deliverers (agencies, media companies, behavioral data folks, etc.). The solution also takes into account the input of interested parties at the Federal Trade Commission (the recipients of consumer complaints over privacy issues) and industry marketing associations whose members include CMOs at the big national brands. This is the way the marketplace is supposed to work, although it doesn’t as often as it should. The alternative is often government regulation that is full of intended (punitive) and unintended (a whole bunch of unexpected and unfortunate) consequences.

Privacy concerns are huge for consumers and brands.

Privacy concerns are huge for consumers and brands.

The back-story behind all this is the use of browser cookies to collect information on the kind of web sites each of us visits on a daily basis (our ongoing interests and our immediate needs, also known as our current and future purchases of products and services). That data is increasingly mined, collected, analyzed, refined, and used to send targeted ads of interest to each of us, especially when we are regularly visiting e-commerce sites (close to a purchase). The obvious privacy concerns of this are being voiced by many consumers, and within this larger group are the “I hate all advertising” elements that further muddy the waters. Most everyone recognizes the role that advertising places in commerce, but you can’t discount the ways that technology is changing and challenging all of us in how we create and deliver effective and respectful ad messaging.
The PreferenceCentral solution is to add an icon to every targeted ad that enables consumers to learn who is sending this ad specifically targeted to them, then providing the recipient with sensible controls to take action from there. Most consumers will recognize that the advertiser is a reputable business and will select preferences on the kinds of products they are interested in receiving targeted ads about. They can also select other ways to receive information (web site feeds, e-newsletters, direct mail, etc.). Control in the hands of consumers who up to this point haven’t felt like they had any. As for the people who don’t like the concept of targeted ads at all, they will be able to opt out completely from receiving future targeted ads from this company.

Ad Choice Icon opens Preference Central's preferences control.

Ad Choice Icon opens Preference Central's preferences control.

Of course, this only affects the targeted ads a company is using and not the general media ad choices in the marketplace. For instance, just because you opt out of targeted ads from Microsoft doesn’t mean you won’t see a Microsoft banner when reading the tech section of the Wall Street Journal. And even now, without PreferenceCentral’s solution, consumers already have the less sensitive control that they need to opt out (their own browser preferences and “empty cookies” command).
I encourage you to visit the PreferenceCentral web site to learn more about how their Solomon-like, technology-agnostic approach works for both consumers and brands. Currently, the alternative tool is the only one to be found in the government toolbox and that’s a hammer.

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Tom Carvel

Tom Carvel

As a creative in advertising, I find my teeth grinding whenever I see a commercial that is clearly a do-it-yourself production. You know the ones I mean. The spots typically feature a business owner who thinks he can save money by not hiring an agency and by being his own spokesman. Zero charisma. Lame delivery. Bad puns.

As a business owner, I have a slightly different take, especially in the present economic climate. The late great Tom Carvel represents what’s both right and wrong about this approach.

Back in the 70s and 80s, Tom made himself synonymous with his soft ice cream empire by doing home-made commercials with home-made announcing. His distinctive voice, as someone on a Comments page put it, “sounds like Tom Waits gargling hot asphalt.” There were times it was even hard to make out what Carvel was saying.

But it is hard to argue with results. Tom Carvel built a highly successful fast food franchise, as evidenced here and here. Not believing in ad agencies was not the same thing as not believing in advertising. Clearly, Carvel had faith in marketing and he funded it and threw himself into it full bore. He came up with novel names for ice-cream novelties, such as Cookie-Pus and Tom Turkey. He spent a lot of money on media in order to attract business to his stores.

Today, Carvel the company is going strong long after its founder’s passing. The offbeat ice cream cakes still bear the names of the characters that Tom Carvel created. I’m guessing that an agency is involved now. Fudgie the Whale appears to be a little too carefully art directed. Instead of looking like the creation of someone armed with a cake icer and not enough time serve up his creation, Fudgie now resembles the baby monster that bursts out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien. I miss Tom’s amateurish but consistently funded efforts to build his brand.

Fudgie the Whale

Fudgie the Whale

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Stephen King could have been our greatest copywriter

Stephen King could have been our greatest copywriter

I usually don’t read Entertainment Weekly for advertising news, but the June 4/11 2010 issue (100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years) contained an absolute gem about our industry. In his guest column (The Pop of King), Stephen King reveals that he almost followed another path instead of becoming the most successful horror writer of all time. His high school guidance counselor told him that results on an aptitude test revealed him to be well qualified for a career on Madison Avenue. Not a surprise given F. Scott Fitzgerald, Elmore Leonard, James Patterson, and many others got a great creative foundation as copywriters, then went on to become accomplished novelists. I would have loved to see Stephen King’s take on ad classics. A demonic Pillsbury Dough Boy. Some bloody good new uses for Heinz Ketchup. Kathy Bates comes to the aid of the “I’ve Fallen But I Can’t Get Up” lady.
But I digress. Stephen King’s column was dedicated to “The Most Obnoxious TV Commercial. Ever.” He offers some historical examples before sending readers to the Huffington Post to cast a vote for favorite of “The 17 Most Annoying Commercials Of All Time.”

HuffingtonPost — Most Annoying Commercials of All Time

HuffingtonPost — Most Annoying Commercials of All Time

There is definitely plenty to annoy here, although this grab-bag doesn’t do justice to the many stupefiers and wince-inducers from decades of badvertising. The Meow-Mix cat food jingle is here. Clap-on, Clap-off, The Clapper. Plus Toyota’s “Saved By Zero” sales event, which wasn’t bad until they bought a continuous loop media buy that ensured by the time people had seen the spot for the 4,057th time, their heads would explode like in Scanners (I’m sure on Stephen King’s all time list of cult classic horror movies).

As for Stephen’s hands-down choice, it’s ShoeDini, which combines the extended broadcast time of an infomercial with the voiceover of an over-caffeinated Gilbert Gottfried:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SltsgYuSHrw

My own choice for most annoying commercial? It’s a whole mini campaign arc that annoys me less for the productions than for the business decisions behind them. It’s Microsoft’s lead-in to the Windows 7 launch and their response to the Apple ads (PC and Mac) in which all Windows PCs take a licking, then another licking, then yet another licking, then a full-blown piñata bashing, then, well you get the picture.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKM8kCPBn5E

Any agency would kill for the budget that teams Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld in their own reality show sitcom to connect with real people. But not many agencies would deliver this loopy approach as a reason to buy a Windows PC. These spots succeed in humanizing Bill and putting Jerry in some forced comedy moments, while failing in their mission impossible — distracting PC buyers from Apple’s growing technological domination, as evidenced by last week’s news that they’ve overtaken Microsoft as the world’s biggest tech company.

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