Nobody knows nothing!

I always liked Norman Lear, the guy who created All in the Family that had Archie Bunker and Meathead (Meatloaf was somebody else, kids.) Not just because of the show, but because of his pithy analysis of Hollywood Show-Biz Wisdom. It was brief and succinct: Nobody knows nothing.

I always liked Norman Lear, the guy who created All in the Family that had Archie Bunker and Meathead (Meatloaf was somebody else, kids.) Not just because of the show, but because of his pithy analysis of Hollywood Show-Biz Wisdom. It was brief and succinct: Nobody knows nothing.

Wow, nobody knows nothing! Write this down on the ceiling over your bed, and you’ll wake up each morning primed to cope with the fundamental communications problem of the modern age.

Imagine you’re captured by Martians, and levitated into their flying saucer. They want to know how your Seiko watch works. You don’t know. What is quartz they ask, and how does it regulate time? You don’t know. They suddenly start working you over with a rubber hose, grilling you about rack-and-pinion steering. Dummy that you are, you don’t know! Five-thousand ads tell you the watch has quartz precision! Five-thousand ads tell you the damn car has rack-and-pinion steering, and they went in one ear and out the other. Duh!

I figure we spent a million years trying to decide pretty simple stuff, like whether to climb the left hand tree or the right hand tree, involving not much more than a determination of what we used to call the fruit quotient on each, and if one or the other already contained a poisonous snake.

Now, it’s all too much. Too big. Too complicated. It’s how you feel about stuff, not what you know about stuff. Remember? Nobody knows nothing!

Two years ago nobody in the money biz knew nothing about the Internet. But they had a good feeling! So the money biz threw trillions at the Internet. Now, the money biz won’t touch dot-com biz with a bargepole. They still know nothing about it. They just have a bad feeling about it!

Advertising, mostly, attempts to give you feelings about things, couched in the most obvious, common-denominator verbal or visual symbols. The little wooden-puppet people dance better without the pins in their spines, thanks to Robaxacet. Ajax cleaned your porcelain household fixtures like a white knight had ridden a horse through your bathroom. Yeah, a white knight!

Rarely, though, can I recall seeing ads that go for an analogy as, um, elaborate as those in the current Hewlett Packard campaign. They are very curious ads indeed, suggesting they are the product of a Herculean struggle and a large-spirited compromise between the client, as the conscience of the company and the agency as the conscience of the consumer.

Two hp ads face each other across a double-page newspaper spread. Each contains a single photograph, admirably graphic, minimalist and nicely lit. In one, 12 young men cram into a Mini-Cooper with a drag-racer’s air intake protruding from the hood. In the other, a fisherman sticks his head over the side of his dory to go eye-ball to eye-ball with a school of fish.

Note the absence of a metal box. Client and agency appear to have agreed in advance that the working mysteries of hp super-scalable servers and hp storage area management are either impossible or unadvisable to reveal even in a rather large newspaper ad.

The agency has recommended an involved simile to describe the products. The client has bought in, but someone has insisted on a subtext that explains not how the stuff works, but what it does and how it helps. The agency then tap-dances into centre stage with The Big Idea: How you’d describe it to a car salesman. Hey, are we covering the waterfront or what?

Now this is odd. The target audience (people who purchase computers for major office systems) are assumed to see the world better as car salesmen than as computer systems purchasers.

The client, we may imagine, was sent home to write out what was important to the company about all this, and dutifully came back a week later with one sentence that mentions, nicely, virtually unlimited server capacity, combining instant capacity on demand, something called mc/serviceguard and virtual partitions. Agency smiled indulgently, and set it in type. Do we get this? No. Are we major computer systems purchasers? No.

So the agency squints down at us car salesmen, puts an arm around our shoulders and romances us! It’s like a compact car that seats a soccer team, turns into a top-fuel dragster when you’re in a hurry and never runs out of gas. Get it? Feelings, man! An ad both client and agency can be proud of! Formal, yet folksy, right brained yet left brained! But is it a great ad?

Call me a white knight with pins in my spine, but did it change your feelings about hp? Soccer teams? Mini-Coopers? Gas? Client/agency relationships?

Pick one. Okay, three at the most. Well, four maybe. How about those fish?

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Barry Base creates advertising campaigns for a living. He creates this column for fun, and to test the unproven theory that clients who find the latter amusing may also find the former to their liking. Barry can be reached at the Toronto office of Barry Base & Partners, (416) 924-5533; fax (416) 960-5255.