Just When Did Marketers Decide That Advertising Isn't for Selling?

Generating Buzz Is Not the Same as Moving the Merchandise

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The old Benton & Bowles ad agency said it first and best: "It's not creative unless it sells."
The image I have about too many of today's ads is a pie thrown in our faces, not to provide a little sustenance, but to create a good old-fashioned food fight. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
The image I have about too many of today's ads is a pie thrown in our faces, not to provide a little sustenance, but to create a good old-fashioned food fight. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
Recently the top marketing guy at Pontiac, speaking at our Madison & Vine confab in Los Angeles, put a new spin on the same idea: "It only matters if it works."

What sells
I get the idea, though, that these days it doesn't even matter if it works -- or at least marketers aren't equating "what works" with "what sells."

Nowadays it's enough if your ads create buzz, awareness, PR, shock, surprise. In our story on "Marketing's Era of Outrage," we quoted an executive from Renegade Marketing as saying: "If you offend no one, chances are you don't have a strong communications program."

So what it's come down to, as "the mass marketing machine wheezes into its latter years," to quote our own story, is that the basic job of advertising is to get noticed. That's always a good idea for the ad agency, of course, but it's not necessarily a good thing for advertisers, whose main (only?) job is to move the merchandise.

'Overall bad taste'
As one of our e-mail-survey respondents put it when asked if advertisers are trying to outrage: "Absolutely. ... How else to explain the bad ideas, bad creative and just overall bad taste of many of the ads being thrown in our faces today?"

That's the image I have about too many of today's ads -- a pie thrown in our faces, not to provide a little sustenance, but to create a good old-fashioned food fight. The sole object, it seems, is to get your ad talked about, positively or negatively (it doesn't matter much).

Maybe I'm being too harsh here. Maybe such ads aren't being produced for the ultimate consumer but for distributors, dealers and retailers who equate notoriety with genuine sales appeal. If you can get these guys talking about your ads, they're more inclined to stock up in anticipation of the consumer rush (that might never come).

Chevrolet Silverado
Could that be what happened with the Chevrolet Silverado truck ads? Mike Jackson, General Motors' domestic ad boss, was playing to his dealers when he praised the Silverado ads for creating "an emotional connection," with the help of music from John Mellencamp, to convey the truck's dependability and build "a very powerful campaign." Now that Silverado is being seriously challenged by Toyota's Tundra, Chevy dealers are no doubt comparing the no-nonsense Tundra spots with the feel-good Mellencamp renderings.

Mr. Jackson's latest tune, as reported in Automotive News, is that ads for Chevrolet cars need to "go beyond" the patriotic and nostalgic themes of Silverado. Methinks he's feeling the heat from his dealers.

The same thing happened with Volkswagen. At first VW dealers were enthralled by the cultish "Un-pimp Mein Ride" TV spots for the GTI model. The dealers liked the buzz the ads stirred up, but when subsequent ads for other models grew sales a measly 5%, VW jettisoned the whole approach (and the ads' chief client cheerleader) and is looking for a unifying theme like its previous "Drivers Wanted." As our story said, "Great buzz isn't enough."

But as long as creating buzz is easier (and more fun) than actually selling stuff, brace yourself for a continuing barrage of stupid ad tricks.
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