Quirky imagery can either bait or baffle

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We're culturally inclined to come to a dead halt when we encounter red ink on a page because it often indicates a punitive message from a teacher, a professor or a supervisor. It's one of several reasons why we looked long and hard at this breakthrough spread from Microsoft Corp. that parodies a standard-issue editorial profile of the smartest guys in the room. These two masters of the universe appear utterly confident as they chomp cigars in expensive suits against the rich wood paneling of a corporate suite while bragging about their top-down management style and their zeal for humiliating employees. And to think the world used to pay attention to clueless types like them. At first glance, we thought someone got their hands on the magazine before us and began to slash away with a red marker. One more reason to stare at this spread with the cliché headline: “It's not personal, it's just business.” Deciphering the forbidden fruit of redacted copy is a delicious treat, so naturally we took the plunge and squinted our way through the prose larded with business platitudes. But several words were spared the censor's ink: “it's Everybody's business to be in the know,” reads the message designed to underscore the tagline below the crossed-out copy: “ask for people_ready business intelligence solutions.” The untouched Microsoft logo appears in an odd place—beneath the photo rather than in the bottom right. Too subtle? Perhaps. But one of the most powerful brands in technology can afford to be understated. The slashing and redacting suggests that business as usual is no longer acceptable in a networked, democratic age when it's the wisdom of crowds that counts when advancing the enterprise. So there's no confusion, the all-cap disclaimer “ADVERTISEMENT” appears atop each page of the spread. We found this unorthodox execution to be a stroke of genius. It was a risk that worked. Unusual images that prompt the reader to ponder them are no guarantee of success, however. Take this gray-toned ad for IBM Corp. that looks like precipitation on a windshield. Or is it an Arctic ice flow? Or a brain scan? Wrong, wrong and wrong. We are actually looking at packing peanuts. States IBM's headline: “Depicts 440,000 packing peanuts, equal the number of pounds of CO2 that can be emitted by a single overseas shipment.” Unsure exactly what was doing the “depicting,” we visited the snippet of text, which says: “What if your inventory knew how to take a shortcut? IBM can help companies restructure supply chains, create shorter shipping distances and consolidate deliveries to cut carbon emissions. Let's build smarter supply chains.” We still didn't get it and considered a visit to the highlighted Web site, but no time for that. Let's hope the ad registered with its intended targets. A middle ground between IBM's bland, inscrutable image and Microsoft's riveting spread that bleeds red ink is an eye-catcher for Intuit Inc.'s QuickBooks accounting software featuring a dog groomer who has adorned a golden retriever from head to toe with her receipts and invoices. The dog appears to be a good sport about it, but that's not the point. “Is running your business getting in the way of running your business?” reads the headline. The copy misses the opportunity to play off the whimsical image, choosing to play it straight by stating: “Then get Intuit QuickBooks accounting software and spend less time on your paperwork and more time on your business.” That's the beauty of an unusual image. People will then pay attention to the message. But push the image too far and people will only scratch their heads before moving on. M
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