Sometimes `no’ is a good thing

I've been hearing one radio spot a lot lately, and it's got me thinking about something that's usually terribly frightening to advertising people.Clients who say 'No.'But, in this particular instance, I remember those nay-saying clients as the good guys. They were...

I’ve been hearing one radio spot a lot lately, and it’s got me thinking about something that’s usually terribly frightening to advertising people.

Clients who say ‘No.’

But, in this particular instance, I remember those nay-saying clients as the good guys. They were the ones with the guts and the standards to say:

‘No. Even though your concept may be very strong communication, and may have positive results for me, it is not a message that this company wants to send to the public.’

The radio commercial I’ve been hearing a lot is for a tire company, and it’s a single male voice, not announcerish, more of a guy-next-door type. He is telling me, with a fair degree of charm, that if I buy a certain brand of tires, I can forget about them.

Well, that, of course, is exactly what the public wants to do with tires. Forget about them.

There was a survey once about the basic interest and excitement level of all nationally advertised product categories, from soft drinks to frozen waffles, insurance to socks.

Tires finished next to last, just ahead of sparkplugs.

So, being a creative guy with his finger on the pulse of the nation, I once presented an ad campaign to Michelin that said:

‘Buy Michelin, and you can forget about your tires.’

Now, you may or may not know that Michelin runs its company something like the U.S. Marines run a boot camp. It has certain principles, and discussion of them is not encouraged.

Michelin, therefore, said to me: ‘No, John. We understand the chord which you say your campaign touches in drivers from coast to coast. But, we reject your wise thinking, for the plain and simple reason that we do not want the public to forget about their tires.

‘The public is already far too willing to forget about their tires. Therefore, they drive them underinflated, and drive them out of balance, and drive them without enough tread to cover a pool table, and, for their own sakes, they should not do that.

‘So, take your admittedly excellent campaign and go away.’

When presented with a position like that, an adman – at least, this adman – has but one response: ‘Oh. Okay. See you next week.’

A similar thing happened, in a far different tone of voice, with a company seemingly quite unlike Michelin – Johnson & Johnson.

This time, the campaign had already run for a year, and sales were way up, and the agency was proud of its work, and wanted to produce new ads for Year Two.

Johnson & Johnson said, ‘No. In fact, we’re withdrawing the campaign completely.’ (The agency again responded, ‘Oh. Okay.’)

The campaign urged young people to use Johnson’s Baby Oil as a tanning agent. The product was very effective that way, basting the skin quickly and nicely, much in the manner of a Thanksgiving turkey.

The ads were wholesomely sexy, with lots of skin, and the inviting headline, ‘Turn on a tan with Johnson’s, Baby.’ They were strong, and they worked.

But, j&j started to get letters. Just a few, yet, it paid attention.

The letters pointed out what j&j’s techies no doubt already knew – but, techies don’t approve ad campaigns: baby oil contains no sunscreens; and, unblocked sun, like bald tires, can be dangerous.

(This seems obvious today; however, this was several years ago. Times change. People used to think cigarettes were good for you.)

Anyway, there was no major consumer outcry, and sales were great. Yet, j&j said, ‘No, we’ve thought it over, the campaign goes.’

I like that. I respect that.

God knows, I’m not trying to present myself here as some paragon of virtue. I’ve sold powdered drinks as ‘pure energy,’ without pointing out the energy was 100% sugar.

I’ve sold all kinds of miracle pain relievers that were simply repackaging of good old asa.

Hell, that’s what the advertising industry does, and that’s what people, generally, do. They tell the truth, but not the whole truth.

And, yet, looking back, the actions of Michelin and j&j stand out.

They said: ‘Good idea, good communication, good sales potential, but, it doesn’t feel right to us. Therefore, we won’t do it. End of discussion.’

John Burghardt, formerly president of a national Canadian ad agency, now heads his own communications firm.