How Controlling Should We Be?

Letting Go Is Scary -- For Good Reason

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Peter Madden Peter Madden
Here come the Victoria's Secret models. Size 0 waifs strutting down the runway in their underwear and high heels, lights flashing, music pulsing. By the way, this ad is supposed to be SEXY. And in case you didn't know the message was supposed to be SEXY, the word SEXY in skyscraper-high neon lights keeps flashing at the camera in between the ladies' hip thrusts . . . SEXY! . . . and kick steps . . . SEXY! . . . and hair tosses . . . SEXY! Remember, everyone, in case you didn't know, this is one SEXY commercial.

What a terrible ad. Over-controlled. Over-messaged. Over-boring. And sure the models are great-looking (they better be given what they're paid) but sexy? I'm still seeing spots from the big SEXY lights. This is lingerie we're talking about -- do we really need the giant letters to help us connect the dots? I thought Sesame Street had the large-letter market cornered. Apparently not. A great example of how over-controlling an ad not only takes out the sizzle. It turns the steak into scrapple.

As the collective brain trusts at small (but mighty) ad agencies, we conceptualize and we edit. We shape up and shave down. We brainstorm and hope clouds and lightning form, as we look for the perfect hook, the perfect word. We do everything to control the message we send across to make our targets 1) sit up and pay attention and 2) interact with, love, and cherish the product or service we're selling. But when does our message-massaging become over-control, like in the Victoria's Secret example? And is it ever a good thing?

But what happens when the message isn't controlled to this degree? Such as the cases where PR loses its control? After all, when an open microphone or camera is in front of someone in an emotional state, who knows what might happen? When PR is good, it's great. Good PR can make CEOs look like heroes and celebrities look like saints. Good PR can make everyday Joes the next big thing.

But when a message loses its magnetism -- when it's inconsistent -- you might not lose an audience, but the negative attention will disconnect the audience from the product. Look at Britney Spears making a 180 degree turn from "wholesome southern mama's girl" to 1) almost dropping her kid but not her caramel macchiato; 2) forgetting to throw on some knickers in public (thanks to BBC which has taught me fun British words like "knickers"); and generally acting a fool. What do you think is going to happen to the message and the brand? If you were Jive Records, would you keep her on your roster, let alone spend millions on promotion when the teens that paid actual money for her albums the first go rounds are scratching their heads?

Uncontrolled messages or over-controlled ads -- either way, when things get bad bad, things get ugly. Whoever said "I don't care what you say about me in the press, just spell my name right" didn't live in our hyper-kinetic media world. Between YouTube, blogs, office chatter and more, the public acts as one big jury that waits to free or jail individual or corporate brands at will when they . . . well, when they suck. How often have you seen and ad and asked yourself, "What were they thinking?"

How much are you willing to control -- or give up -- to get attention? Where do your ads and messages fit in on the control chart? Maybe when we as small agencies take them "off the leash" the real lightning can strike. Let's call it "uncontrolled control" (much like lightning come to think of it). Go ask the Geico cavemen, who just got a sitcom deal (oh the happy marriage of advertising and great PR in this case). That whole campaign, and this new deal, are risky enough to be brilliant. Next thing you know, the boys will be walking red carpets with socialites and roughing up photogs. Just please don't leak any sex tapes, fellas.
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