Saying no can be a good thing

Sometimes, in my darker moods, I think that a great advertising idea has about as much chance of making it through to fruition as I do of being elected the next pope. Most large corporate structures have multiple approval levels for ad concepts, and along the line, pretty much everybody can say 'No!' but it takes unanimous agreement to say 'Yes'.
My own classic example, which I've written about before, was when a senior potato chip executive killed two commercials after we'd spent a bundle to shoot them.

Sometimes, in my darker moods, I think that a great advertising idea has about as much chance of making it through to fruition as I do of being elected the next pope. Most large corporate structures have multiple approval levels for ad concepts, and along the line, pretty much everybody can say ‘No!’ but it takes unanimous agreement to say ‘Yes’.

My own classic example, which I’ve written about before, was when a senior potato chip executive killed two commercials after we’d spent a bundle to shoot them.

He said that the spots, featuring a furry monster who ate the chips by the carload, lacked appetite appeal. A year or so later the director and chief puppeteer, a young and talented guy named Jim Henson, took the monster to Sesame Street, and changed his mania from chips to cookies. Cookie Monster’s career did a lot better than that senior VP’s. But the exec had had the power to say no, and he used it.

Yet every once in a while, I see the exact opposite happen. I see a piece of advertising that is so bad – not just mediocre, not just trite, but so bloody bad/wrong/damaging – that I can’t understand how nobody said no. Still, nobody did.

It just happened to the Walt Disney Corporation – arguably the best marketer of tourism and entertainment in the history of the planet. Disney, like all long-haul travel marketers, is trying to rebuild business in the wake of Sept. 11. So they did a new spot which, I suppose, was intended to attract adults.

The setting is an old-fashioned spelling bee, with all the homespun Norman Rockwell Americana touches that Disney does so well. At centre stage is a contestant, a girl of perhaps 11 or 12. She is given the word ‘MICROPHONE’. She hesitantly starts to spell it: ‘M-I-C…’

So far, so good. Warm, small-townish, a little bit of tension. Then all hell breaks loose.

A middle-aged audience member hears those letters, and snaps back to his childhood. He picks up from the ‘M-I-C’ and starts to sing the next three letters of the Mickey Mouse Club theme: ‘K-E-Y…’ Needless to say, one of the spelling judges takes it from there, and adds ‘M-O-U-S-E.’ Pretty soon the whole school gym, or wherever it is, is full of adults prancing around being grown-up boomer Mouseketeers.

I’m sure that in the boardroom, the agency folks threw around wonderful words like nostalgia and empathy and rediscovering-your-childhood. But that’s not what results. The commercial – and this is the director’s fault, and they let him get away with it – keeps cutting back to the poor hapless girl speller, who is abandoned, embarrassed, and completely ignored by this pack of laughing, dancing idiots.

The spot would be bad, but not awful, if it were for some floor cleaner or mouthwash. But it isn’t. This is a commercial for the company that built its reputation, and did it pretty damned well, on the promise to provide family entertainment and togetherness and we’re-all-kids-at-heart and good old Ammurrrican values. And what do they show? Adults being so preoccupied and self-indulgent that they totally ruin a child’s big moment, and they don’t even notice. This may be real life in the aging boomer world, but it sure as hell ain’t good selling.

In its first week, I’ll bet I saw this spot half a dozen times. Then I didn’t see it any more. I think somebody may have pulled it. I sure hope so.

Making ads and guarding images is a little like being a parent. You’ve got to give the kids, the young creative people, lots of room. You’ve got to let them grow, try stuff, make mistakes. But every once in a while, you do have to say no.

You have to say, don’t do that. Don’t stick your hand on the red-hot stove top. Don’t shoot commercials for a family entertainment company centring on the humiliation of sweet little girls. No. No. Burn self. Hurt self. Hurt big company real real bad.

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.