No mystery if the ad flops; 'reality check' was missing

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Why does it always come as such a shock to companies when their advertising lays a big fat egg?

What would have been very evident to you or to me, or, for that matter, to the consumers to whom the ad was directed, remains a complete mystery to the poor marketer-until the ad runs. In hindsight, there are always plenty of reasons it didn't work (none of which occurred to anybody beforehand).

A case in point: the Levi's TV spot, run with great expectations on the Super Bowl last January. It featured a couple wearing Levi's new Type One jeans who were untouched by a herd of stampeding bison. "It wasn't a Levi's ad," Levi Strauss & Co. President-CEO Phil Marineau said in a meeting with analysts. "It didn't have a sense of humor about itself. It was certainly a poor Super Bowl ad." How insightful, but, then again, everyone's vision is keen in hindsight.

In another example, my old boss, Stan Cohen, longtime Washington editor of this family publication, recently received a direct mail piece from MNBA America. The headline of MNBA's sales pitch said: "Living well at tax time is the best revenge."

"There was no specific subversive message," Stan said, "just an effort to turn a buck by exploiting what was presumed to be a warranted hatred of taxes." Opening it just before the war in Iraq started, Stan said he was "in no mood to be charitable. It came on an awesome day, when brave young Americans stood waiting for the word, ready to risk their lives for the welfare of our country. Yet this huge financial institution and the thousands of businessmen who participate in its Visa programs were encouraging people to ignore the fact that taxes, like military service, are an obligation of citizenship."

In response to a letter to MNBA, Stan got a call from a woman in the office of the CEO who, Stan said, was "very responsive and surprised." But it's not always so, Stan told me. Companies don't realize the implications of their ads, Stan contends, because "where they come from everyone thinks the same. It's a cultural thing. They need to spend more time with ordinary people."

Bob Garfield, in his new book, "And Now a Few Words from Me," asked advertising biggies how they could have gone so wrong with "the dumbest thing they've ever done in the business." Phil Dusenberry, the BBDO creative legend, talked about the disastrous "Generation Next" campaign for Pepsi-Cola, and why nobody realized it was a stinker.

"Sometimes, when a group of people work on a creative project together, it becomes a little inbred," Phil told Bob. "Everybody sort of begins thinking alike. And that's fine, except that you sometimes lose your objectivity and you lose your focus. ... so we just went blindly along thinking we had this thing really nailed, and no one came and said, `Wait a second; this stuff just isn't right.' That sometimes happens."

More often than not, unfortunately. Bob's advice on how to avoid such debacles: Use some sort of a reality check. "Asking a spouse and kids is better than nothing. It's far better than nothing. The only key is, whichever outside source you consult, you listen. Listen carefully. Don't roll your eyes and dismiss the negatives because if you do, in due course, that's exactly what your target audience will do to you."

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