How the ad biz is changing – and what to do about it

Faithful readers of this column, both of you, will recall that my last Viewpoint compared advertising today to advertising in 1989, and centered on this italicized sentence: The delivery systems have totally changed, and the audience is in charge.
I ranted a bit about how today's audience is armed with the mouse and the zapper, and can duck our messages as skillfully as they play Tomb Raider. And I added that we react by simply hurling more and more ads at them, hoping to hit somebody with something, some time.
I then ran out of space, and pledged/threatened to return this week with a solution to this problem

Faithful readers of this column, both of you, will recall that my last Viewpoint compared advertising today to advertising in 1989, and centered on this italicized sentence: The delivery systems have totally changed, and the audience is in charge.

I ranted a bit about how today’s audience is armed with the mouse and the zapper, and can duck our messages as skillfully as they play Tomb Raider. And I added that we react by simply hurling more and more ads at them, hoping to hit somebody with something, some time.

I then ran out of space, and pledged/threatened to return this week with a solution to this problem, which I genuinely believe is part of the whole damn NASDAQ crash. Okay. Here it is. With more italics.

Because we can no longer bludgeon our audience into heeding our messages, we are left with only one alternative. We have to seduce them. Advertising must entertain.

(LOUD OFFSTAGE CRIES FROM A CHORUS OF SUITS: Oh god, he really is an old creative guy! He’s just like all the rest of them, he wants an excuse to do funny ads!)

Yeah, well, maybe. But it seems to me very left-brained logical. They no longer sit there placidly, so we must make them want to watch our ads.

I have already seen it work. When I was copy chief at Young & Rubicam Milan, precisely 30 years ago, the Italians had a nightly prime-time show that was all commercials. It ran for 15 minutes every weeknight at 9 p.m., and it was called Carosello (Carousel).

Every night, Carosello ran five little films produced by agencies for major clients. Each film was two minutes and 35 seconds in length, and you could only mention the product in the last half-minute. Each sponsor got to do five ‘caroselli’ in a week, so you could build a little continuity…but you could never rerun the damn thing. Once it was shown, it was history. (Why all these bizarre rules? It was Italy, fer corn sake!)

Did anybody watch this crazy show? Oh, a few people. Like all of Italy!! Carosello was the number-one-rated program in the country, and advertisers were lined up to get on it. (Another rule: you could only get a maximum of three Carosello series a year, no matter who you were. IBM with essentially one brand could get three, Procter & Gamble with shelves full of brands could still get only three. Competing brand managers wound up making Machiavelli look like a nice guy.)

Because the show was so popular, and because product presentation was so limited, agency creative departments stretched their minds wonderfully. Baby food companies found new ways to show cute babies. Pasta companies took you on regional tours, because fusilli-eaters don’t live next door to ziti-eaters. For an appliance company that prided itself on its design, we got audiences to stare at the beauty of everyday objects. We flew to England to find a state-of-the-art slow-motion camera, and dropped ball-bearings into glasses of water, just to watch the kaleidoscopic patterns form. It was riveting. Honest.

I’m not suggesting that Carosello would work in North America today – it probably wouldn’t work in Italy today – but as we’re supposed to do, it could help us look at the problem with lateral thinking.

Suppose, instead of having her dance around crooning its jingle, Pepsi released a whole new Britney Spears CD, song by song, video by video, publicizing the times and channels. Suppose, instead of some inane dialogue at a gas pump, American Express got Jerry Seinfeld to do a couple of hours of original stand-up – which people pay a hundred bucks to sort-of-see in giant arenas – and parceled it out in two-minute hunks. Suppose…hey, I don’t get paid to do the supposing, you do.

Things have changed, folks. The public is ignoring us, folks. We gotta get their attention, and more-and-more-of-the-same just ain’t gonna do it.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.