Great selling idea is necessary even in prosaic product demos

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Isn't it totally amazing, as the kids might say, that Procter & Gamble, the world's largest advertiser, isn't sure whether emotional appeals or product demonstrations work best at driving sales?

And doesn't it also defy belief that there's confusion at P&G about who exactly is supposed to approve ads? Agencies apparently didn't even know about its 5-year-old "single-point-accountability" policy of naming and sticking with one decision-maker for each ad.

Meanwhile, at Unilever, the company insists that its ads employ the same style and storytelling techniques used in feature films, according to an article in the April Harvard Business Review.

"Good movies win viewers' attention, propel the audience forward emotionally and convey meaning," said John Kastenholz, VP-consumer and market insight in Unilever's home and personal-care division. "Good movies are often born in the editing room. We believe the same is true of good ads, so our goal is to diagnose problems and then fix them with a new director's cut, as it were. That requires identifying flaws at each ad's narrative inflection points."

What Unilever does, essentially, is re-edit a commercial frame by frame to boost consumer scores. Frames that represent changes in tone or action are graded on the basis of recall, emotion and values.

So, as Mr. Kastenholz puts it, "the frames give us a visual vocabulary for probing how viewers respond to discrete elements of an ad. When those data are plotted in a 'flow of attention' or 'flow of emotion' graph we begin to see where things go wrong." If a commercial conveys the wrong message, Mr. Kastenholz said "our ad folks can make creative changes to achieve the desired effects."

I find it fascinating that P&G is struggling to find the right balance between traditional hard-sell tactics and emotional work, while Unilever seems so sure about its movie editing approach.

And yet in the marketplace, it's no contest: P&G is running circles around Unilever. Of course it may boil down to the fact that P&G makes better products, and a substantially superior product trumps superior ads every time. But in package-goods, it's rare that one product is substantially better than a com- petitor's. Toothpaste is toothpaste (the chief benefit to the marketer is that it goes down the drain), so great ads can make a big difference.

I doubt whether great editing can make a big difference in producing effective ads any more than great editing can product a boffo movie. First you've got to have a great idea-one that sells the product benefit in a persuasive and entertaining way. Creative tinkering on individual frames of a TV spot can't create a selling concept that wasn't there to begin with.

Maybe, as Jack Neff reported, P&G won't win many Cannes Lions every year in its annual pilgrimage, but you've got to applaud the marketing people for opening themselves up to the "irrational exuberance" of Cannes.

My take on P&G's much-publicized creative forays is that it's trying to reconcile its traditional bread-and-butter ad approach with a more zestful presentation. Product demos and creativity are not mutually exclusive. There's no rule that says you can't produce a highly memorable product demo such as the Tampax TV spot that shows a woman plugging a leak in a rowboat with a tampon. I submit that an off-the-beaten-path demo is more memorable than an ordinary side-by-side comparison, and that might be enough to appease the warring factions within Fortress P&G.

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