Advertising's Punch Bowl Round 3

By Published on .

No pusillanimous pugilists, the creative director known as the Phantom Menace and his favorite opponent, ad columnist James Twitchell, go for another round of fisticuffs.

PM to JT

Hey, Jimbo -- what do you make of the Just for Feet fiasco? If you recall, they're the company that sued its ad agency (Saatchi & Saatchi) for making and running a "politically incorrect" (and more to the point, just plain stupid) commercial for last year's Super Bowl. Here's a recap: "The ad opens with a shot of white men in a military Humvee tracking the footprints of a barefoot black Kenyan runner. The men drive ahead to offer the runner a cup of water laced with a knockout drug. The runner drinks the water, and immediately collapses to the ground, unconscious. While he is passed out, the white men force a pair of Nikes on his feet. When the runner awakens, he sees the sneakers and begins shouting and flailing. `No! No!' he cries. He then scrambles to his feet and runs away, still trying to shake the shoes from his feet." (You can read more about it in the archives, "The Ad from Hell," by Ruth Shalit, from which the above was taken).

As I see it, the whole mess is a perfect illustration of how the industry has been bewitched and bewildered for years by agencies and production companies seeking to promote their own interests (Hollywood wannabeism and plain old self-indulgence) over the interests and needs of their clients. Or do you think the public is buying it? And if they are, what is it they are buying?

JT to PM

Hey, what do I know? When I saw the spot I thought it was from a shoe company, not a retailer. But you guys always want to have it both ways. Half of you say, "We know what we're doing," and the other half says, "We used to know what we were doing." But in truth, you have never known what works. You have to make it up as you go along, because the act of selling totally interchangeable products is nothing if not whimsical. The clowns have always been in control. Advertising is neither art nor science. It is a circus. It's just that the suits have changed.

Sometimes people want to see the wild animals, sometimes the sexy ladies, sometimes the trapeze artists. Currently, they line up to see the freaks. Ironically, the Saatchi guys were acknowledging this.

But who I'm really concerned about is Mr. Harold Ruttenberg (the Just for Feet CEO). This guy is not supposed to be a clown. Ruttenberg is supposed to be the ringmaster. He wears the whistle around his neck. Is it so hard to operate? And hey, what about Fox Broadcasting? They own the big top. If the ad was so offensive, why not sue them?

The ad was bad, the lawsuit stupid.

PM to JT

I'm afraid it is you, my ivory-towered maven of marketing misconceptions, who wants it both ways. You want to believe that advertising works because it provides meaning, and yet you're willing to defend it when it provides nothing more than distracting dissonance. What did the Just for Feet ad accomplish for the advertiser? Hell, you didn't even know it was for a retailer. The whole mess with the lawsuit possibly generated more positive awareness for the company than the commercial did -- and who knows, that may be the shrewd kind of thinking that's behind it all. Now, I don't know about you, but when I go to the circus I expect to oooh and ahhh and see elephant droppings. I don't expect that the man being shot out of a cannon will be dressed as the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. A minor misstep in creative execution? My ass! Mr. Ruttenberg got snookered.

Now, I'm not defending the lawsuit -- that's just sour grapes on the part of Just for Feet -- but where do you come off being so lenient? You've written a series of books that go into excruciating detail regarding the artful strategies and tactics used to create empires of culture around products. And now you're saying it's a big-top crapshoot? I don't buy it. Wasn't it P.T. Barnum who said, "You can never underestimate the intelligence of the American public"?

JT to PM

Say what you want about me, but don't ever invoke the patron saint of advertising without paying due respect to his genius. P.T. Barnum is not famous for the circus. That was established well before his time. He was famous for the freak show. These freaks, many of whom came from his New York museum, were added to the big top. Barnum's genius was that he knew the freakish, the eccentric, the strange was repulsive unless controlled by a story. So he spun out stories to give these poor unfortunates a place in the Order of Things. In advertising terms, he gave them value. He coined this: "making humbug."

One of his most incredible humbugs was spun around a microcephalic, mentally retarded African American dwarf. He called this young man Zip -- The What Is It. Barnum said Zip was the missing link between man and monkey. Creating Zip makes what Saatchi & Saatchi did seem Politically Quite Correct.

I mention this only for this reason: Shoes R Us, Just 4 Feet, or whatever this company is called, is not interested in advertising to me. I buy athletic shoes once every five years. The audience they want buys five pairs a year. And that audience stood patiently in line two generations ago not to view lions, acrobats, clowns, and elephant droppings. That's for you and the kiddies. These older kids lined up to see Zip.

Saatchi knows this. OK, they went over the top. But their direction was correct. Move away from the Big Top. Get with the freaks. Upset righteous creative directors. Go ahead and neglect James Twitchell. Maybe sell a shoe to a teenager.

To Be Continued

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