February 23, 2017

Audi, Women, Virtue, And Bullshit

There is an annoying new imperative in the ad business that seems to have had a big moment recently at the Super Bowl.

It's the compulsion of brands to rub our noses in their virtue.

Now, believe me, I have nothing but the highest regard for people, institutions, and companies that do good work. But I have nothing but contempt for brands that hook their "brand purpose" to trendy causes and then do the opposite. You listening Audi?

Don't pitch me your high-minded Super Bowl bullshit about what to "tell my daughter" when you have zero women on your management Board. I know what to tell my daughter. It's to stay away from bullshit artists like you.

Corporations that tie their supposed virtue to trendy causes are annoying. Those that do it and then practice the opposite are trash.

Doing what's right is not an after-school project, it's your responsibility. So do what's right and then shut up about it. 

When I give money to charities, causes, or people in need I don't put up billboards. I don't want kudos for my noble principles. I just want to be able to sleep at night.

Do you, as a company, have certain values? That's great. Support them with money and actions but, please, leave me out of your self-regard. Do it because it's the right thing to do, not to impress me with your nobility.

Virtue-hustling is just one example of the old school psycho-babble trope of "laddering-up" of  consumer benefits. Often to the point at which they have no relationship to the product at hand.

It goes something like this: Shin-E-Flor makes your floors shinier, which makes your house nicer, which makes your family happier, which makes life better, which makes your dreams come true. Ergo, Shin-E-Flor makes your dreams come true.

It is very easy to talk yourself into this nonsense, and usually a really bad idea.

When I was a creative director I would often get synchronized eye-rolls from my staff when I insisted that the two most important words in advertising are "be specific." They all wanted to make ads about how our new vacuum cleaner nozzle made life better. I wanted to make ads about how it picked up more dirt.

My predilection for specificity was reinforced this week. Although I'm a little out of practice writing ads, I still have to write headlines for my blog and my newsletter that will make people want to read further.

I wrote the following headline for a blog post I did earlier this week - "Messaging Versus Signaling." It described what the post was about succinctly and accurately. But as I was writing the blog I wrote the following line of copy, "This is why Tiffany doesn't run infomercials" and I knew I had the making of a better headline. It was nicely specific, and it became one of the most-read posts of the year on the blog.

I was also fretting over a headline for my email newsletter (which, btw, you can subscribe to here.) The headline also acts as the subject line in the email. I wanted to re-purpose an old blog post called "Why I Lied," but I didn't want to use the same headline.

I played around with other headlines that were more "laddered-up" like "Why Are Agencies Afraid Of The Truth?" But in the end I decided to stick with the old headline as it was more direct, and more specific. The average email marketing newsletter has an open rate of about 11%. This one had an open rate of almost 60%.

The bottom line on all this is that we shouldn't get too puffed up, too self-important, and start believing in grand themes for all our communication.

As I once told the misguided owner of a chain of donut shops who wanted to do a campaign about their management philosophy... "no one needs more philosophy, they need good donuts."

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