Parity ads sans boredom and wankery

So anyway, as I was saying when restrictions on space and attention span interrupted us...

So anyway, as I was saying when restrictions on space and attention span interrupted us…

I took a reel of classic commercials with me to Hong Kong. I talked about positioning, and showed Volkswagen making Detroit look big and clunky, Volvo cornering the market on safety, and Pepsi out-youthing Coke. I talked about demos, notably a remarkable Union Carbide spot in which they boiled a birdie while remaining true to the guidelines of the World Wildlife Fund. Then I showed and talked some more.

I titled one section, ‘PARITY PRODUCTS,’ because that’s what we deal with 95% of the time, and that’s what’s responsible for so much awful advertising. Creative teams either choke and do boring, client-dictated stuff; or they forget about the product entirely and do a joke or an artsy wank that has nothing to do with selling anything. But there are exceptions.

Exception One on my reel was a Sony Trinitron spot, centring on reliability. Now it happens that reliability (or dependability, if you prefer) is the third most hackneyed claim in the world, after quality and value. Nobody has ever made it memorable except for the Maytag Repairman, and he took 20 years. Sony did.

They locked down the camera (as did the creators of the Union Carbide spot. It’s amazing how simple you can be when you have an idea.) They showed nothing but a living-room couch, facing the viewer, and a Sony TV, its backside to camera. And then they intercut the life of a human being on the couch.

An infant became a boy, a boy became a man, a man was joined by a woman (with some active couch hanky-panky), a new generation of children arrived, the boy-man aged, deteriorated, disappeared. I have no way of explaining the true impact of the spot, because I’m limited to words here and the commercial was brilliantly visual. But trust me. It was riveting, and it said loud and clear, ‘This TV will last a lifetime.’

Another parity-product classic was for Southern Airways. It was a 30-year-old gem which Barry Base cited just a column or two ago. Southern actually started off with a product disadvantage. They were a U.S. regional carrier, with little-bitty planes that didn’t have room for a first-class section. So they turned that on its ear and gave us their vision of a competitor’s two-class plane.

Joe Customer boards the plane. He walks into the first-class section, filled with bodacious stewardesses (you could say that word then), overflowing champagne, and already-reveling flyers. It is one of hell of a party, and he’s delighted. But then someone taps him on the shoulder, and points out that his seat is beyond the curtain. He reluctantly accepts, and enters coach class, which resembles war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina. The earth’s dregs sit on the floor drinking from tin cups, and the vaguely Russian music comes from a man spinning a record with his finger.

It is funny, 30-year memorable, and says clearly that Southern won’t treat you second-class. It’s a classic.

My third parity product featured a man talking about his own company. Perdue Chicken’s agency put their client on camera, not because he threatened to fire them if they didn’t, but as the centerpiece of a wonderful and powerful concept. Frank Perdue personified the theme line, ‘It Takes a Tough Man to Make a Tender Chicken.’

Frank Perdue simply talked to his audience, in words crafted by an outstanding copywriter and delivered in an absolutely believable fashion. He came off as a very prickly individual (the ‘ly’ is optional), but he left no doubt that he was obsessed with excellence.

In the spot on my Hong Kong reel, he compares his quality standards to those of the federal inspectors, and he, of course, is tougher. He ends the short spot saying the very ordinary words, ‘If you’re not completely satisfied, write me, and I’ll give you your money back.’ But then he makes the message strong, funny, and memorable, by adding with a sneer, ‘Who do you write in Washington? What do they know about chickens?!’

A television set. A small regional airline. A chicken leg in a meat display. No-difference products, every one. How on God’s green earth do you make those interesting? They did. Believe me, they did.

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