Friday, August 29

Mocking Politics: Adweek & Agencies

Adweek recently challenged several creative directors to sell the next president of the United States. According to the special report, several declined and some took to tongue-in-cheek humor.

After the fine folks at The Rosen Group brought the special report to our attention, my team thought it might be fun to review some of these faux campaign concepts (here). After all, I’ve often felt that not all advertising agencies are cut out for political campaigns — the work sometimes leans too creative to really resonate with voters. Am I right? Let’s find out.

Mike Byrne, Anomaly: Disqualified

It’s not that we don’t like Byrne’s industry twist on the assignment that pits McCann Erickson against Obamaly (as opposed to McCain vs. Obama). We like the "agency as opposed to politics" spoof as well as well as the obvious old vs. new parallels that drives it. Unfortunately, it veers too far off from being applicable for this post.

John Butler, Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners: Below Average

Butler’s first contribution borrows the well-known 1984 re-elect Ronald Ragan spot and points out that Obama doesn’t have to run against John McCain. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the "choose a different opponent" approach. Why? “Running against others” has a relatively low success rate. Much funnier (though neither would make it) are his billboard contributions: the McCain billboard that declares “God is my running mate” while Obama’s reads “It’s Obama Time.”

Peter Nicholson, Deutsch: Not Good

Nicholson tosses in a refreshed “I Want You” poster with McCain playing the part of Uncle Sam. The supporting copy reads: … to feel sorry for my POW ass. While the Obama campaign team would have to pass, it might fly as an independent expenditure. Nicholson seems to have caught that McCain’s POW experience isn’t resonating with voters this cycle as it did when he ran against George W. Bush.

Jamie Barrett, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners: Average

Barrett doesn’t pick sides, except the one against political advertising. He positions McCain as the 174-year-old candidate and Obama an as the “?” candidate. He makes the right point, but without the payoff. What we do like, however, is Barret’s conclusion that “maybe, just maybe, they [voters] should pay less attention to half truths they see on commercials and think a little more for themselves.”

Tom Amico, The Kaplan Thaler Group: Above Average

Amico comes to the same conclusion as Barrett. For Obama, the contribution reads “I’m black” over and over again. For McCain, it reads “I’m old” over and over again. Both posters are summed up "If this is all you're hearing, you're not listening." Sure, the conceptual behind the ad has been done more than once, but it still edges out Goodby, Silverstein & Partners because the point he’s making seems to stick with us long after the ad is over.

Nick Law, R/GA: Good

Law’s motion billboard gives people a “Make History” message for Obama and a “Repeat History” message for McCain. It’s amazingly effective at targeting the emotions of those unhappy with the administration while driving home the point that McCain might represent more of the same. Law doesn’t let Obama off the hook either. He turns Obama into a Macy’s parade blimp, reading “Overblown.” I didn’t like the Obama take at a glance, but it starts to stick after repeated viewings. We have to give it up for Law. Both ads have the potential to work.

Scott Duncan, T.A.G.: Below Average

Duncan shoots for simple with both campaign ideas. He suggests placing a straightforward “Obama” billboard in key locations, like a steel factory setting. I liked the idea at first, but pulled back from it after it started to resemble a foreshadow of things to come. Likewise, dropping the “Mc” from McCain and running with the ‘Cain seemed okay. But over time, the initial attraction wears off and you start to wonder whether the new brand name will break down.

Rob Schwartz, TBWA: Average

Schwartz has a somewhat subversive idea by asking the world to vote for president of the United States, playing off of Obama’s global momentum. Is that a good thing? He does the same with McCain, making McCain a global action figure. Is that a good thing? The sad reality is Americans would likely be as mixed on these messages as they seem to be on the candidates. I give Schwartz some props; his additional ideas are worth the read.

So there you have it. Advertising can amuse us about the political process, but the industry doesn’t always translate well for politics. Somehow, political campaigns are different. Of the creative directors brave enough to have some fun, only Law seems to come close to a deliverable. And that makes me wonder too. Was any of this fun worth any of the comments that concluded every campaign a disappointment. I don't know.

Las Vegas Agency Example

But what I do know is that we recently found a local advertising agency attempting to play politics with equally disappointing results. After going to great lengths to hide their ownership of a smear blog aimed at State Sen. Bob Beers, Drex in Las Vegas outed itself after accidently posting the blog's project files on their agency site (right alongside a client roster that includes Sen. Bob Beers supporters).

Considering the secret campaign is reported to be a $1 million attack fund against Sen. Bob Beers (so his opponent does not have to attack him), we thought it was an amazingly amateurish mistake. It was also amateurish for Drex to reinforce its first half-truth post with an anonymous comment written by the same writer who wrote the post.

I guess that gives a lot of weight to speculators who said that advertising agencies would have a hard time resisting black hat social media. Comments by anyone else are, naturally, moderated.


Thursday, August 28

Seeing The Real Green: Modesto

Modesto, Calif. is located in Stanislaus County, an area that grows more than 250 commodities, anything and everything from apricots (called “cots” there) to walnuts. In fact, the $1.3 billion agriculture industry employs more than one-third of the population.

But rich farmland is only part of the story in Modesto. After the harvest, much of the produce is often shipped to canneries and processing centers, powered by boilers that are facing tightened emission regulations — particularly as they relate to nitrogen oxide (NOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

That’s were I’ve been for the last few days, touring several processing centers and gathering base information for a special report. The report was commissioned by Benz Air Engineering, a company that evaluates power systems and then determines the best combination of new technologies and retrofits to reduce fuel consumption and emissions in the boiler room, which is the heart of any processing center.

What’s especially significant about the work done by Benz Air Engineering is that it allows these centers to maintain peak operations without overly expensive alternative energy solutions, the installation of new boilers, or the additional cost of emission penalties. All of which you and I would eventually pay for at the local grocery store, which is already experiencing double digit price jumps.

While the tour was an eye-opening crash course in mechanical engineering, there was something else that stood out to me. Most public relations and communication professionals aren’t prepared to communicate green, which is why some programs eventually fall flat. Sure, General Motors seems to be doing an adequate job, but green communication requires something more than slapping a green or blue sticker on a company Web site.

The future of green communication is going to require communicators to get their hands dirty at the source while remembering that multiple publics depend on different communication strategies to stay moving in the same direction. As it stands now, I no longer sure the general public knows what it means to be green or that their efforts to preserve the planet might adversely affect the very industry that seems to epitomize green in their minds.

Maybe it's time to forget fancy ideas for now — like Steron’s marketing snafu that overshot on the concept of free energy or cars that run on veggies — and think in terms of what might work with today’s infrastructure. According to Benz Air Engineering, the solution is simple. Increasing plant efficiency will dramatically reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. How much?

Just one of their retrofits reduced the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions of one boiler from 30 parts per million to 6 parts per million. And, because the boiler is operating more efficiently and burning less fuel while delivering the same output, CO2 was reduced 20 percent. What does that mean? Maybe it means that the backbone of American manufacturing and processing isn’t exclusively reliant on alternative fuels or the increased production of natural resources. Maybe we just need to make more efficient use of the energy we have on hand.

By doing that, it seems to me, plants could not only appreciate an immediate cost savings and financial payback in less than two years, but the overall cost of fossil fuels might level or drop in the short term as the result of diminished demand. At the same time, we all benefit from a greener planet without placing additional hardships on farmers.

In other words, we might not need to polarize environmental communication in the presidential debates between John McCain and Barack Obama. Maybe, we just need to be more efficient with our energy and our communication about it.


Friday, August 22

Celebrating Mars: Fans Cheer Rumors

Reporting with an exclusive, Michael Ausiello with just fueled the fire in the hearts of Veronica Mars fans. According to Ausiello, Rob Thomas had an impromptu meeting with Kristen Bell to discuss a Veronica Mars movie.

"It's very tough to focus on it right now with two pilots on my plate," Thomas told EW. He is reworking a resurrected series called Cupid and an adaptation of the New Zealand series called Outrageous Fortune. "But as soon as I have any free time, that's my top priority."

The reason for the continued interest in Veronica Mars? The fan base, which assembled too late to save the series, has maintained that slow and steady is the pace to see Veronica Mars on, this time, the silver screen. They seem to right too. Bell admitted she misses the show and is bullish (while pretending to be modest) on the idea.

I started covering the fan base efforts more than a year ago as fans from three different cancelled series came together using social media to save their shows. At the time, Veronica Mars seemed the second most likely to succeed and a different show seemed to be an easy favorite as long as the fans stayed focused.

Things quickly began to change from there, demonstrating that social media is indeed merely a tool with mixed results that seem dependent on leadership. By the end of the year, Veronica Mars fans were able to exhibit that they had exactly that.

Sure, they may have smartly given up on short-term hopes to see the series return, and began to focus on making new fans while winning over the hearts of everyone they came into contact with in much the same way that BrownCoats gave Firefly its shot on the silver screen.

While Neptune Rising is still fairly far off from hearing a Veronica Mars movie has received a green light, everything seems to be working in the fans’ favor. In short, they were able to help boost Veronica Mars from a fan favorite into something that resembles a true future franchise.

It’s not out of the question that Thomas could take Veronica Mars anywhere — picking up where season three left off, her first year at the academy, with her own start-up detective agency, or anywhere for that matter.


Wednesday, August 20

Melting Credibility: Bigfoot Hunters

So Matt Whitton and his friend Rick Dyer, a former Georgia corrections officer, supposedly chanced onto the remains of Bigfoot and decided to share their story on YouTube. More recently, they held a press conference.

"It's not a human, it's not an ape," Whitton, a Georgia police officer, told the media.

Whitton was right about that. It wasn’t human or an ape, but a rubber suit designed to drive traffic to their Web site and, presumably, to an online store where you can purchase a shirt or spend upwards of $5,000 (currently) to be taken to the site where they found, er, planted their phony evidence.

The Bigfoot hunters are probably not laughing now. The police department intends to fire Whitton; they will likely be charged with fraud; and the messages filling up their guest book are less than sympathetic.

While Whitton and Dyer reportedly admitted it to be a hoax after being confronted, they have since fled. And most people, it seems, consider Tom Biscardi, who was allegedly defrauded for $50,000 or more, in on the hoax.

Perhaps most disappointed of all was Jeffrey Turner, chief of police in Clayton County, Georgia. He had granted Whitton medical leave after the officer was shot while attempting to stop a robbery.

“This turn of events from hero to someone who defrauds a nation is just baffling. I don’t know how he got from one point to the other,” Turner told the reporters. “For someone to do a complete three-sixty like that, I can't explain it."

Hmmm … maybe those Bigfoot hunters were led to believe that “all publicity is good publicity.”


Tuesday, August 19

Flattening Writers: Dave Fleet

Dave Fleet is a communications professional based in Toronto with a self described passion for social media. I was recently reintroduced to his blog via The Buzz Bin after Mike Nelson included it among the posts selected for “Great Blogs of Fire!”

Dave Fleet has a good blog, no question. But the highlighted post? It’s only close.

How Might Friedman’s Flat World Affect The Public Relations Industry?

Fleet takes journalist Thomas Friedman’s sixth chapter and applies it to public relations and other communication fields, establishing that public relations can stay ahead an increasingly competitive global market by anchoring and becoming really adaptable.

The second point, adaptability, has always been part of the communication equation and has very little to do with flattening. Public relations, along with communication, is one giant exercise in staying ahead of the curve.

But the first point, anchoring, can easily be misinterpreted. It deserves some check and balance. While there is some truth that anchoring (knowing your market) provides some advantages, it can also diminish your competitive value on the global stage and tie you, sometimes fatally, to one market.

For example, although I would not classify my company as a public relations firm, our out-of-market and international assignments are expanding, not retracting. In other words, it’s working in reverse. And it suggests to me that communication remains wide open, requiring companies to expand in both directions — local presence and international market penetration.

Knowing this also leads me to the other portion of his post that caught my attention. Despite the prevalence of English overseas, writing is not so at risk.

Sure, it’s possible. As the editor of an international trade publication several years ago, I worked with more than 40 writers located all over the world. We still tap the best of them on select assignments from time to time.

However, after contracting overseas writers during that five years, I learned to appreciate that the prevalence of English and the quality of English writers does not necessarily go hand in hand. In fact, often times, some of the best assignments came from English and Canadian writers living abroad in places like India and Hong Kong. Don’t get me wrong, we worked with Indian and Chinese freelancers too. Nationality wasn’t an indicator of a great writer, which is why I think Fleet might be upside down in placing writers at risk.

Still, there are distinctions. For example, there is a significant difference between a correspondent who can write a decent article and a copywriter who understands how to fuse strategic communication, key contrast points, demographics, and psychographics into advertising copy well enough that it doesn’t read like one-way communication.

More to the point, I think what Fleet touches on is that there are many businesses out there, especially public relations firms, that entrust too much communication — releases and correspondence — to unseasoned professionals and interns without enough oversight by senior writers.

When you consider the impact that communication can have on a brand over the long term, I think it would be a mistake to hire writers based on nothing more than the number of dictionaries they happen to own and a price point. So no, writers are not at risk as long as companies continue to understand that the ability to write and the ability to generate results with words are not the same thing.

Monday, August 18

Trending The Inevitable: Retail Leaves Print

It’s no surprise that Kohl’s and JCPenney are reevaluating their newspaper-circular strategy. online advertising has been chasing newspapers for some time.

Losing even a small share of two retail giants will hurt. Last year, JCPenney spent an estimated $149 million in newspaper advertising. Kohl’s spent $136 million. Like many companies, these two retailers are finding that online marketing works.

Since July, JCPenney has seen steady increases in site traffic since July. Kohl’s is up slightly during the same period. The appeal of both sites seems to be their ability to attract online shoppers and entice online window shoppers, with the latter group sourcing online catalogues before visiting brick-and-mortar stores.

Their reasons are simple enough. They can save travel time and money when they know which retail store is having a sale or what particular styles might be in stock. In other words, consumers don’t have to visit four or five stores in person.

Newspapers aren’t dead. Not by a long shot.

While newspapers continue to be hit, they aren’t dead. Early online adopters such as The New York Times seem to be well ahead of the curve. Sure, online advertising revenue has yet to make up the diminishing print revenue, even for The New York Times as Scott Karp, creator of Publishing 2.0, pointed out. Stuff that the Washington Post has been covering even longer.

However, it seems to me that newspapers will eventually make up the losses as online advertising doubles in the next five years, spurred by the realization that they need their own version of product placement — advertising buys that are tied to specific subjects and stories.

In other words, if newspapers can dominate search terms and continue to lead as sourced content, then advertisers will be there. It makes more sense for marketers than the current model, which used to work when people spent better than a few minutes glancing at headlines or waiting for a friend to prompt them to read an actual story. It requires some to rethink media buys.

Ergo, instead of JCPenney relying on newspapers to carry a truncated circular to your door, it relies more heavily on online newspapers to provide content along with direct messages that are designed to entice online readers to visit an entire online catalog. (For example, a back-to-school sale advertisement seems suited to stories about education or fashion.)

Done right, a future JCPenney site will not only provide you the option to buy online, but also let you know which brick-and-mortar store near you has that specific item in stock, and maybe which size. Who knows? You might even be able to place a hold on the item before you pick it up.


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