THE PERIL IN ELMO'S SUCCESS: A CRITIC PASSES

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Schwarzennegger's new "Jingle All the Way" sounds like good fun, and toy marketers are enjoying it more than most, we'd expect. But some are also living it. The hunt for Tickle Me Elmo dolls has gotten more press than the President. And it started, of course, with smart marketing.

Tyco Toys' PR shop, Freeman Public Relations, reportedly devised a plan to get the pricey doll on Ros-ie O'Donnell's TV show, and it took off from there. Mention on NBC's "Today Show" created more demand. Some retailers saw opportunity and-up to their old tricks-discounted the price for promotional purposes. The race, as in "Jingle All the Way," was on.

The race was on for Tyco as well. Production schedules for the doll, the company insists, were based on initially reluctant ordering by store buyers. There's where the danger can lie for marketers who plot the publicity that feeds a shopping frenzy.

Another toy-even hotter than Elmo, considering its earlier start-has been Ty Inc.'s Beanie Babies. This start-up company planned from the beginning to make the product scarce with limited distribution and controlled shipments. Mostly, Ty's marketing consists of that plan, plus promotion on the Internet.

Smart marketing? Yes . . . if. In Elmo's case, Tyco was smart to pull its TV ads because the toy story isn't fun anymore if demand gets too far ahead of the realities of distribution and availability,

Marketers plotting strategy must remember the toy landscape is littered with Pet Rocks and, if PR is a company's plan, that the press is an unpredictable marketing avenue. If the media sense the public is being manipulated with pre-planned "scarcity marketing," watch how fast "The End" appears to that company's hopes for a Merry Christmas.

A critic passes

ocial critic Vance Packard died this month, but his perspective on advertising continues to color the public-and regulatory-view of advertising to this day, nearly 40 years after the publication of his first book, "The Hidden Persuaders."

The term "hidden persuaders" was an unfortunately compelling catch-phrase referring to Madison Avenue's use of the then-new tools of motivational research and psychological symbolism to build brands and move products. For the ad industry, these were obvious tools to make their work more effective. To the public, it was evidence of an almost diabolical scheme to play on their secret desires and dreams.

Mr. Packard was generally accurate and often fascinating in telling how the sharpest ad minds of the 1950s used this new psychological understanding to build enduring brand images such as Marlboro Man. Indeed, his discussion of cigarette ad strategy remains, astonishingly, at the core of public argument to this day.

Where the book falls short is in its vaguely threatening and very 1950's-style tone of conspiracy and paranoia. This was the book, after all, that scared America with the promise of all-powerful subliminal advertising, and that cast consumers as passive puppets in the hands of master manipulators (which many agencies only wish were true).

Looking at "Hidden Persuaders" today, one is struck by how commonplace Mr. Packard's revelations now seem. Consumers themselves appear to have a strong grasp on the underpinnings of ad imagery.

That understanding is a large part of Mr. Packard's legacy, and it's a very positive thing. You can still watch the rest of the Packard legacy play out every day in Congress, at the FDA, and in the White House. And that's usually not very positive or enlightened at all.

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