From tech geek to tech sleek

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Business technology customers often like to see themselves-or some semblance of themselves-in the advertising that targets them. But business-to-business advertisers using images of their prospects or customers walk a fine line between insult and flattery. The happy medium would seem to be a simple reflection of the customer. Let's take a look at b-to-b ads that cover the range from insulting the customer to reflecting the customer to flattering the customer.

GE Security attempts to flatter its audience of corporate security officers by declaring them smart for specifying GE's card readers, winner of a national award for product innovation. But the would-be customer proudly displaying the GE card reader is too smart for his own good, actually for his own head: The top half of his skull is so swollen with smarts that his head is shaped like a lightbulb. The image is so bizarre, it's off-putting.

At the other end of the spectrum are b-to-b ads that feature customers who are so well-turned-out that they seem unlikely members of the target audience. They smack of geek chic with their bright looks and cool glasses.

For example, in an ad for VeriSign, a with-it-looking woman who's set against a backdrop of a bank of servers containing data that are protected by the company's secure socket layer (SSL) system, studies her monitor. The headline reads: "Where 93% of the Fortune 500 goes for SSL." The woman appears studious and chic-but is she a little too chic?

In an ad for Network Solutions, a woman with her hair pulled back-who apparently gets her glasses from the same optometrist as the VeriSign woman-studies a set of blueprints for the home she's designing for a client, while simultaneously contemplating the construction of her own Web site. Network Solutions explains that it can help customers build their own Web sites with its tools and templates. The model looks enough like a real person that readers just might relate to her-with a small stretch of the imagination.

VeriSign and Network Solutions seem to be borrowing a page from consumer advertisers, which routinely cast their ads with the bright and the beautiful. Even though some b-to-b advertisers may be overglamorizing the look of their customers, they still deserve some credit for injecting a human presence into their ads. People are enormously curious about their fellow humans.

CDW seems to have found the right measure of humanity in an ad that features a guy who looks right at home in a company's Information Services department. In the spread for CDW, a distributor of IS equipment, a man with a vanishing hairline sporting a work shirt whose breast pocket is stuffed with pens and pencils casts a worried look about his company's state of Internet security. The contents of his cubicle offer many clues as to just how concerned about security in general he is: there is disinfectant spray, a box of vinyl gloves, a first aid kit, antibacterial hand gel, and of course, multiple antivirus and spam programs and books. The headline sums up the image: "Are you working harder than your security solution?"

He is the spitting image of someone in CDW's target audience of technology buyers, and readers will likely relate to him easily. The ad neither flatters nor insults the audience. It does a stellar job of selecting the right audience, essentially saying: "Hey, this is for you."

Siebel Systems seems to have a keen sense for the look of its customers as it features three customers across the bottom of the ad. At the left edge of the ad, one customer has been lost as represented by a would-be dog-eared page obliterating him. An arrow connects the man to the headline: "Losing even one customer is one too many." In the right-hand corner is a female customer, with her arms crossed and looking slightly bemused.

But in the middle is an IS type someone might actually encounter in the hallways of a Fortune 500 company. This fellow is bearded, portly and looking a little bit hostile. He's no leading man, but he is our idea of a best supporting actor, thanks to his ability to reflect the reality of the high-tech workplace.

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