Viewpoint

Death Wish I: The AgenciesJohn Burghardt has worked as a creative director at Young & Rubicam in three countries, co-founded his own successful shop, and is now in his second term as a freelance writer/consultant. We have asked him to be...

Death Wish I: The Agencies

John Burghardt has worked as a creative director at Young & Rubicam in three countries, co-founded his own successful shop, and is now in his second term as a freelance writer/consultant. We have asked him to be a kind of ‘critic-at-large’ of the commercial communications he sees. His column will appear on a regular basis.

Sometimes I think advertising people have a death wish.

The business is in tough, tough shape.

Media dollars are way down, worldwide. Agency employment figures are even worse. National magazines are running cover stories headed, ‘Is advertising dead?’

The latest road to salvation is something called the information superhighway, but I don’t know anybody who’s even found the entrance ramp.

So, you’d think the industry, with all its communication skills, would be working hard to build itself up. You’d think it might get together. Improve its product. Trumpet its triumphs. Remind the public of its role in helping to provide top-flight news and sports and entertainment, absolutely free.

Nope. Instead, an outfit called The Movie Channel is plastering billboards and radio waves with the following simple message: I hate commercials. Worse, it does it without style, class, charm or wit. (It attempts the last. It fails.)

Only advertising people could do this to themselves. Can you imagine a bunch of dentists proclaiming their business to be a pain? Lawyers announcing a recent study proving they are, indeed, parasites? A used car dealers’ association saying, ‘Come to think of it, I wouldn’t trust us either?’

That’s exactly what the advertisers behind The Movie Channel are doing, for a narrow, self-serving reason. They don’t have commercials on their channel, so they choose to build upon an existing negative stereotype. They reinforce, quickly and mindlessly, what a segment of the public already believes.

By the same reasoning, if they had a channel with no women on it, they could run advertising saying, ‘I hate women.’ If they had a channel with only Protestant religious services, they could run, ‘I hate Catholics.’

And would they? Not likely. But, okay, let’s pick on advertising. Everybody else does.

That’s just the point. The Movie Channel’s message kicks an industry when it is down – and, of course, nobody complains or cares.

I think I’ve just figured out what happened to the dinosaurs.

While the Ice Age was coming, or the meteor was approaching, or whatever, the Dinosaur Creative Department was back in the bullpen bangin’ out billboards:

‘We’re a bunch of fossils.’ ‘Would you want your daughter to marry a brontosaurus?’ and ‘Bye, now, see you at the museum.’ That sort of stuff.

No doubt they thought they were real cute.