Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Aggressive Marketing Campaigns

We're just a few short weeks away from Super Bowl XLIV, which means we should all be preparing ourselves for the most impressive and expensive commercials of the year. Even in a recession where both advertisers and consumers have been hit hard, we can still count on the Super Bowl as a forum for some intense ware-hocking. Now that I've become a die-hard football fan, I will no longer be among the ranks of Americans who watch the game only for the ads and whatever drunken bets they may have foolishly placed - but that doesn't mean I won't be eagerly observing what innovative new commercials flash across my screen.

I'll be especially interested in the spectacle because it seems that companies nowadays have started going right for the jugulars of their competition in their commercials. Stuff like mentioning the other brands by name, pointing out their shortcomings, or even poking fun at people who use/identify themselves with the products of their competition.

It's evident that we've reached the point in our society where a catchy jingle or a clever joke isn't enough to make a sale. Thanks to the glory of newspapers and the Internet, buyers are more savvy than ever and less likely to get taken in by silly gimmicks or extended warranties. Not only do commercials need to outline the benefits of a particular product, they need to emphasize the detriments of their rival companies' products. And I just can't wait to see who gets slandered next.

The practice of calling competitors out by name came back into vogue around 2006 with Apple computers' "Get a Mac" campaign. In addition to launching the career of a very lucky young man, these commercials suddenly made it okay to besmirch the reputations of rival companies rather than just throwing around veiled references to "leading brands" and "other products." While totally devoid of professional courtesy, this marketing strategy has the benefit of allowing you to both highlight specific strengths of your product and malign the weaknesses of the opposition all in the same breath. Up to this point, Microsoft seems to have taken the high road regarding aggressive response, remaining content with the asinine "Windows 7 was my idea" spots.

Among other companies willing to bring their competition into the fray are American car manufacturer General Motors. Chevrolet's longtime spokesman, former footballer Howie Long, has started openly comparing the gas mileage of his employer's vehicles to that of Japanese hybrid-hockers Honda and Toyota. GMC has shown images of their flagship pickup truck (the Sierra) outperforming rival pickups, then urging prospective buyers "Never send a truck to do a Sierra's job." I haven't noticed many other automakers retaliating, but keep in mind that 2009 saw a double-digit drop in advertising revenues spent by car companies.

The biggest and most notable commercial back and forth of the season has been brought to you by Verizon and AT&T. After the Big V finally got their hard-hatted minion to stop asking us if we could hear him now, their next tack was to go up against their largest competitor by parodying the commercial stylings of one of their partners. Playing on the paucity of AT&T's cell service, Verizon launched its "There's a map for that" campaign - a send up of Apple's "There's an app for that" series for the iPhone.

So the original attacker now finds itself under attack - although Apple Inc. itself is not the target, but rather Apple's exclusive distributor in the smartphone market. While Verizon is specifically going after AT&T's spotty cell coverage, one would do well to remember that the foundation for AT&T's newfound popularity rests squarely on the shoulders of Apple's iPhone. With these ads, Verizon is trying to wrest the public's attention from hardware back to service, banking on the idea that Americans still use their cell phones to place calls occasionally - when they're not surfing the web, checking their email, or popping virtual bubble wrap.

AT&T fired right back, hiring erstwhile movie funnyman Luke Wilson as their new "brand ambassador." Provided you don't own a DVR or if you have a penchant for watching TV when it airs live, you've probably seen either him tossing postcards all over a map of the U.S., watching little orange baubles (which he calls "minutes") fall through the floor, or awkwardly shaking hands with his own downloaded doppleganger while they both watch a third copy run around like some kind of farm animal without a key body part (see above).

You may have thought to yourself, What's Richie Tenenbaum doing trying trying to sell us on AT&T? He used to have some pretty big parts in some pretty successful movies. And you would be right. Sure he's had a slow couple of years, but I don't think he needs a new revenue stream. But work is work, and it would be silly to deny a request to become the face of a globally dominant franchise (cf. Gene Hackman and Ed Harris and their partnerships with Lowe's and Home Depot, respectively).

The AT&T commercials just come off so dull and uninspired. They don't give you any particularly meaningful facts, and what they're lacking in content they don't come close to making up with charm or energy. I'm no behaviorist, but it just seems like Luke Wilson would rather be anywhere but in front of those dopey orange checklists. If they left the cameras rolling for a few extra seconds, I get the feeling we might hear Wilson exclaim, "What the hell am I doing here? I used to be an actor!"

Commercials can be many things: funny, witty, catchy, argumentative, confrontational, even artistic. They can inspire excitement or sadness, hope or pity. But despite the fact that some big name directors (Spike Jonze and Ridley Scott, for two) have lent their talent to the production of commercials, they'll never flourish as a legitimate artistic or story-telling medium while they're underwritten by corporate megagiants. The corporate structure became abundantly clear for me while watching football this past Sunday: the Ravens/Patriots game (broadcast on CBS) featured commercials for Time Warner Cable featuring Mike O'Malley (minus the Aggro Crag) complaining about the drawbacks of his satellite dish. Whereas the Cardinals/Packers game (broadcast on Fox) inundated us with DirecTV propaganda, undoubtedly stemming from their price gouging controversy with Time Warner that unfolded as 2009 drew to a close.

Not that I want to come across as a champion for the artistic merits of the 30-second spot. It's not like I think there should be some kind of Oscar-style show honoring the best commercials of the year. But the closest equivalent to such a kudo-cast would have to be the Super Bowl. And the increasing volatility between competing brands - coupled with gimmicks such as Miller High Life's hilarious hijinks of last year - could have more people choosing to forgo the fast-forward button on their TiVo remotes than ever before.