Honda ad hype is overdone; 'spots' no longer stars of show

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A front-page Advertising Age headline two weeks ago heralded the birth of a new star. "U.K. Honda ad wins global buzz," it blared. Underscoring the importance of what Ad Age called a "Cannes contender" was this "reefer": "Garfield awards four stars to instant classic."

With all due respect to Honda, ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, the editors of this august publication and its bewhiskered critic, this fanfare encapsulates everything that is wrong with contemporary advertising.

The "spot"-the broadcast commercial-is now some 80 years old. On TV, the format celebrated its golden anniversary almost five years ago. Despite copious evidence about the declining effectiveness and efficiency of TV advertising, the agency business remains so wedded to this single device that it is compromising the industry's ability to help clients achieve their most important objectives: finding new customers, enhancing relationships with existing customers and driving top-line growth.

Lord knows, I'm not arguing that marketers should abandon commercials. Telecast ads are certainly a concise, even economical, way of delivering a message: They are structured to allow easy, repeat distribution. They also serve other vital, although generally unacknowledged, roles, particularly in dispersed organizations, helping, for example, to galvanize sales forces around a new product or strategic direction.

But an industry that aligns its values, compensation, psychic rewards, organizational structures, recruiting, training, selling and strategic activities so overwhelmingly to a single format is-by definition in a broadband world comprised of multiple effective channels-undermining its own and its clients interests. The cost of TV advertising is just too high and the ROI too indeterminate for it to remain the sole default weapon in marketers' arsenals.

Consumer marketers should understand they are financing creative directors' auteur fantasies. The mere fact that this ludicrous Cannes International Advertising Festival persists into the age of interactivity is evidence enough! If winning Gold Lions for 30-to-120-second commercials is how agencies are interpreting the growing calls for added entertainment value in advertising, then it's clear Madison and Vine are highways to hell.

It is time, friends, for spot-centric marketing to take its place in the pantheon of faded marketing schemes, alongside the traveling medicine show, the town crier and the hieroglyphic-engraved obelisk.

The good news is that marketing is more exciting today than at any point since the Creative Revolution of the 1960s. The opportunities to delight consumers while delivering strategic messages have never been greater. MP3 players, combined with legal services such as Apple's new iTunes Music Store, have opened new possibilities in sponsored entertainment, as have game-based broadband media centers. Sponsored, PVR-based micro-networks-first posited in this space in 2000-are another method now available for experimentation. And conventional tools, turned to new uses by sophisticated marketers, are already proving their ROI. (Starbucks' music compilation CDs are a profit center for the coffee retailer and advertisements that encourage repeat consumer engagement.)

As for Cannes, it's important to note that the Hollywood establishment continued to give Academy Awards to silent films even after the sound era had begun. Talkies, the diehards felt sure, were just a passing fad.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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