I love the Dew ads – but what would I know?

I am not a youth.
(I will pause briefly while the waves of shock die down among my loyal readers from coast to coast.)
I once was a youth, however. I used to sit smugly in meetings, and I'd look around, and I'd say to myself, 'Yep, you are definitely the youngest dude in this whole roomful of ladder-climbing competitive people. You are some kind of hot shit.'

I am not a youth.

(I will pause briefly while the waves of shock die down among my loyal readers from coast to coast.)

I once was a youth, however. I used to sit smugly in meetings, and I’d look around, and I’d say to myself, ‘Yep, you are definitely the youngest dude in this whole roomful of ladder-climbing competitive people. You are some kind of hot shit.’

But time elapsed, along with carbon paper, black-and-white television, and union sound effects men who went clippety-clop with upside-down half coconuts when you wanted the sound of hoofbeats. I gradually became a demographic non-youth, passing that sad day when one no longer even fits into the generous catchall of 18-to-49.

Even so, I still like ads directed to youths. When they’re good, they’re fun. They’re often cheeky, and they make you chortle. Like the Mountain Dew stuff now in the subways, which is quite literally very cheeky.

Mountain Dew, if I remember correctly, is one of the few products that has completely and successfully changed its image (although the greatest example of image change is Marlboro cigarettes, originally positioned to fit in the Duke of Marlboro’s classy parlor). Mountain Dew started as a laid-back hillbilly soft drink, and that went nowhere, so they took it back and gave it edge. Now they have a new flavor, and they’ve kept the edge.

It’s simply a cherry-flavored version of their basic belly-wash, but they’ve filled it full of bright red food coloring and dubbed it Code Red. Then they’ve held the bottle up in front of the subway rider, with the caption, ‘That’s weird, it’s red!’

Solid advertising so far. Good brand identification, centring on the unique product feature. But then look in the background, if you haven’t already. In one poster, there’s one of those baboons or mandrills or whatever they are, proudly displaying its bright red derriere. And in another, there’s a plumber under a sink, in the usual plumber cleavage position, but he’s displaying his bright red Speedo underwear. ‘That’s weird, it’s red!’

I think this is very good advertising. On the one hand, as I just said, it follows the ‘product-as-hero’ rules; on the other hand, it’s strange and edgy and appropriate for its young target audience.

But that’s just the point. Since I am about four decades out of the target audience, how the hell do I know?

Suddenly I think back to another long-ago meeting, on Mad Ave in NYC. We were introducing a new product targeted at youths, and the account team had brought in a friggin’ consultant to explain youths to us. He knew his stuff, all right. He alerted us to the Motown sound, and the discovery of tequila, and the new trend of young men occasionally attending dance clubs without neckties. Far out, man. I must have been all of 26.

Yet my cohorts thought I needed youths explained to me, and worse, they may have been right.

In the advertising business, we try very hard to empathize with our target audiences, because that’s our job. We are paid to communicate in a manner that will resonate, reverberate, ring that viewer’s chimes and open that viewer’s wallet. But there’s almost always going to be a gap between us who create and them who listen. It may be generational, it may be sexual, it may just be attitudinal (sports nut that I am, I cannot get interested in products associated with auto racing.)

I have written ads over the decades in many, many different categories, and I still think my all-time biggest gap was when I was assigned to what is delicately known as feminine hygiene products. Now, I very much consider myself to be a SNAG (Sensitive New Age Guy), but somehow I fell slightly short in my ability to empathize.

I saw a US college course listing the other day, and it included a semester on how to do Ethnic Advertising. I don’t get it. I can sit in your classroom for 40 semesters, are you really going to teach me how it feels to be Chinese or Hispanic or Pakistani?

Sadly, I conclude that empathy is an area where typecasting is important. When addressing a tough audience, send in people who understand the target in their guts, and let the graybeards sit back and pontificate.

Maybe that explains why Labatt forgot to phone me when starting their new agency. They probably overlooked the potential power of an Executive Pontificator.

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.