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A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 4 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959

This week, President Obama made one of those statements he probably wanted to retract as soon as he expressed it. He was lauding Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California, for her many accomplishments and her legal experience, when he did something guys of another era used to do all the time — he complimented Ms. Harris for being attractive. Instantly, attractive women felt marginalized (He only admires her for her looks.), unattractive women felt even more marginalized (I bet he’d never say that about me.), attractive men were confused (What’s wrong with that?), and unattractive men were also confused (What’s wrong with that?).  Surely, the President got a later earful from the First Lady and his two daughters. All around it was an awkward moment that momentarily tilted the world off its access.

Meanwhile in the world of advertising, super models are the daily norm and sensitivities be damned. Attractive people have always been used in commercials and catalogs to build brands and sell products. When that dynamic is tampered with, as GoDaddy did in their commercial during the last SuperBowl, having super model Bar Refaeli soulfully kiss computer nerd Walter, to illustrate the blending of sexy and smart, something doesn’t feel right (maybe having Danica Patrick announce the moment?). In this case, the situation was meant for comic effect, but there was something cruel about it. I know the young man wasn’t complaining about having to do take after interminable take to get the camera angle right, but he was clearly the butt of a joke in front of that audience of 108.4 million viewers. At times, we are overly sensitive, while at others like this one, we aren’t nearly sensitive enough. Take Target this week and their “manatee grey” plus size dress. Did they think anyone (everyone?) was going to miss that inference?

The Lonesome Girl learns how to make a dress.

All of which brings me back to the “100 Greatest Advertisements” collection, which features some ads that play on sensitive subjects, especially on women’s insecurities. “The Diary of a Lonesome Girl” makes every other copy-heavy ad seem like haiku. But it is worth a read to get a sense of the pitch for the Woman’s Institute, which is a mail order teaching curriculum. In this case, the course is on dress-making and it is the salvation of the Lonesome Girl from the headline. The ad is a diary account of a young lady who is practically destitute, living at home, sequestered in her room because she can’t afford to go to her neighbor’s parties, tormented because she can hear those parties and knows that her neighbor is dancing with Tom, and embarrassed that she only owns that old blue crepe dress. Since President Obama wasn’t around at the time to lift her spirits by calling her attractive, the narrator of the ad has to turn to the Woman’s Institute, which she does, discovers the art of dress making, and eventually she throws her own parties and wows Tom and her neighbor. I’ll never worry about over-promising in one of my ads again.

You may be attractive, but it's actually your breath that's stopping traffic.

You may be attractive, but it's actually your breath that's stopping traffic.

There are two ads that follow, further unnerving women readers who are unattached. An early ad for Listerine reveals why one woman is often a “Bridesmaid but Never a Bride.” Evidently, because she cannot smell her own breath, the thought of halitosis has never occurred to her. The ushers’ shriveled-up boutonnieres from the last 8 weddings never raised a red flag?

Pepsodent was on teeth film long before white strips.

Pepsodent was on teeth film long before white strips.

Meanwhile, if we think teeth whitening strips and treatments are a recent obsession, Pepsodent can remind us that we’ve been concerned with dingy-colored teeth for a very long time. Once again, a woman’s appearance is hugely important to her. And sometimes it is a matter of Presidential importance.

Diamonds. Attracting women since forever.

Diamonds. Attracting women since forever.

Finally, this N.W. Ayer ad for DeBeers was one of many to launch a long association between diamond jewelry and advertising (1939-1947), and the famous slogan, “A Diamond is Forever.”  One thing we can all agree upon when it comes to the word “attractive,” it is safe to say in public that women find diamonds very attractive.

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The NYTimes magazine features an amazing story on retailers' data collection and analysis practices.

The NYTimes magazine features an amazing story on retailers' data collection and analysis practices.

The answer is of course. We all are. Personal data is being collected on all of us at an alarming rate. We have written about it before and before that. The President and Congress and the Digital Advertising Alliance are looking at new legislation and new steps to protect consumer privacy. Meanwhile the databases continue to accumulate on you and me and your next-door neighbors and your cousin Louie and all credit card wielding members of the Kardashian family.

I’d like to thank Michael Smerconish and his drive time radio show for tipping me off to an amazing story on personal data collection and analysis from last Sunday’s New York Times magazine. I encourage you to read it in its entirety here and to watch the short video that accompanies it. There’s an amazing story about how data launched, crashed, and resurrected Febreze and a mini industry of household deodorizers. However, the main event is how Target is successfully collecting data and using it to predict key moments when customers might be induced to become even more loyal and big-spending customers.

The Target example given is focused on products that women purchase when they are in the early stages of pregnancy (evidently one of those retail window periods when customers might be influenced by special offers and promotions to become uber customers).  That sounds like a universal creepout and Target, smart marketers that they are, recognize how to use that data in such subtle ways that most customers will not even realize they are being beckoned siren song style by the ”growing family” clothing, feeding, and home decorating aisles.

Once the full ramifications of this article had sunk in, I began having nightmares about the data that various retailers are collecting on me and how they are interpreting it.

Does Starbucks know they have a serious caffeine addict on their hands and can now move beyond this gateway drug and start selling me crack lattes?

Must Wal-Mart be convinced by the number of boxes of Cap’n Crunch and other child-friendly cereals I purchase that I am now ready to acquire a steady stream of action figures and Pokemon cards?

Will Wegman’s tally up my craft beer six pack totals and write me off as asleep on the couch Rip Van Winkle style and unlikely to shop again prior to 2015?

Lord, please make CVS destroy the servers where my Rx and OTC pharmaceutical purchases are stored. They may be calling the asylum now.

I think we can all take some comfort that Ryan Braun, last season’s National League MVP, managed to get his drug testing suspension overturned this week. It may not restore the appearance of purity to Major League Baseball, but it’s one small blow against the data collectors and wielders.

On the second anniversary of our weekly blog. Thanks to all of you who read on an occasional or regular basis. This marks our 106th post. Last month, we broke the 10,000 unique visitors mark and it felt gratifying that the meta tagging of all those pornographic search terms are finally paying off.

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Black Friday shopping gets bleaker with each passing year.

Black Friday shopping gets bleaker with each passing year.

“When Black Friday comes, I’ll collect everything I’m owed.  And before my friends find out I’ll be on the road.” I’m pretty sure that Steely Dan didn’t have the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season in mind when they wrote those lyrics. But there is a sense of entitlement captured there that rings truer with each passing annual installment of these retail follies.

This year, the yuletide injury report is evenly scattered coast-to-coast, many at Wal-Mart stores, and this year with pepper spray being used by both a psycho-shopper, and in a separate incident by law enforcement as a warning to an unruly mob.  Nothing says the season of giving like trampling others in a bid for electronic gear that will still be available in the same stores tomorrow and the day after that. And December 26, too. The obsession with material goods clouds all common sense — one shopper was shot to death by parking lot robbers when he refused to part with his purchases.

For 11 months out of the year, brick and mortar retailers are begging shoppers to come visit (and shop) and yet mall traffic continues to dwindle. Then, one stinking, heavily promoted, holiday sale day arrives and suddenly amateur productions of “Lord of the Flies” break out in unison across the US map.  It is little wonder that online and catalog sales continue to surge. Seasonal shopping is no longer a Currier and Ives moment. Darwin rules.

My son decided to brave the crush and went with friends to the Philadelphia Outlets at midnight. It turned out to be very good exercise because they had to park a mile away or risk getting in the parking lot and off-ramp gridlock that went on for hours.

In spite of the holiday horrorshow that is Black Friday, one retailer has managed to strike a balance of quirky humor and obsessive fun about the shopping frenzy. Last year, and revived this year, Target created an entire campaign centered about the loonytoon Christmas shopper lady, well dressed, but with crazy ninja skills, who encourages shoppers to prepare for the season. And for the mayhem.  If all the real world shoppers shared this lady’s off-kilter spirit and uber-anticipation, we wouldn’t need a national police blotter tallying the body count. I preferred the original meaning of “shop ‘til you drop.”

Black Friday isn’t about to go away as a sick holiday tradition, though. Early reports show that sales surged once again in spite of several years worth of sordid news stories.

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