Banishing Wallflower Brands

6 Jul


A version of this appeared in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily. The last week of June marked an incredible turn of events in the United States, with the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage and a massive surge of support for sweeping away the Confederate flag.

In all the celebration, and amidst all the noise, it was perhaps easy to overlook that American brands just entered a new chapter, one of full citizenship on social causes.

By the week’s end there was no longer any doubt that being a national or global brand means being ready to take an active role in the national discourse. Gone are the days of staying silent or taking milquetoast stances for fear of alienating a portion of the customer base.

The week of this transformation began with a debate few would have predicted. Five days after nine people were killed in a Charleston church by a racist gunman, Walmart announced the removal of Confederate-themed merchandise from its shelves. The retail giant said in a statement, “We never want to offend anyone with the products that we offer.”, eBay, Sears and Etsy soon followed, pulling the imagery from their inventory. Simultaneously, a flurry of pronouncements came from state legislatures across the South that long-revered flags would come down.

“Walmart and Amazon are behemoths. When they make a move like this, it is going to affect the national conversation,” said Margaret Duffy, Chair of the Strategic Communication Program at University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. Their actions can be attributed, in part, to calculations of what the backlash would be if they were caught up in a controversy, she said.

“But the calculations are only part of what’s happening,” Duffy said. “If you’re in marketing you are radically in the culture business. If you’re going to be any good you have to understand that.”

[Click here to read the rest of this post]

Stop it! You’re Being Creepy

15 Apr

clown2Excuse me while I seethe. I just attended a conference where the head of a major media lab explained to the audience all the wonderful new ways technology will let marketers track audiences.

The pinnacle of this tracking was a chip in new Internet TV sets that not only tracks what people are watching, but logs every mobile device on their home network for subsequent re-targeting.

“This is huge. In fact, I’m happy to say that we’ll be announcing a partnership with this company in the coming days,” he rather gleefully told us. Several audience members didn’t share his enthusiasm, especially the part about having their TV keep track of their mobile devices.

“Isn’t that an invasion of privacy?” asked one guy.
“Well, you will agree to it when you set up the TV,” media guy explained.
“But what if I don’t want to agree?”
“Then you shouldn’t buy an Internet TV.”

But that wasn’t the only great innovation he wanted to share. Another company is placing WiFi sensors at major public venues that can track every phone that passes by, recording the unique ID, then reporting all the places other places that phone is spotted. “With just a little bit of effort we can even link this data with what people buy. Imagine what we can do with profiles like that,” he told the audience.

Imagine indeed. I am seeing the enormous public backlash that will erupt when this data is used by insurance companies to keep tabs on the habits of their customers. Or worse yet, when this stalker data falls into the wrong hands, like hackers. You think the NSA revelations were upsetting, then just wait.

It is companies like these, and marketers like this media guy, that are exactly what is wrong with our industry today. They are so hell-bent on proving what can be done that they never pause to think about if it should be done. And if we, as an industry, don’t put the brakes on these guys, and fast, then the resulting blast crater will wipe out the good with the bad.

Time and again these companies will claim one of several defenses. Either they claim the data will never be sold with personally identifiable information, or that they’re doing a service to the public by allowing more appropriate targeting of messages.

Bullshit. Anyone claiming the data will never leave their servers with the PII is whistling past the grave yard. Shall we review all the companies who have seen their customer data hacked? A service to consumers?! If this is so valuable to consumers, then why don’t companies ask for permission in big, clear term? Because you never ask when you know the answer will be no.

And it’s all so dumb given what we know about the coming generation of consumers, those who are most wired. How many articles have been published about Millennias and their need to trust the brands that earn their money?

Has your company talked about creating relationships with your customers? What kind of relationship can a brand have with its customers when it uses technology to stalk them like a jealous spouse?

When this tracking technology finally goes too far and triggers outcry by consumer advocates, congressional inquiries and stories on network news, do you want your brand in the discussion?

Won’t THAT be awesome?


Native Advertising? Yeah, We’re Screwed

14 Aug

native-advertisingA version of this piece ran on

Can we just stop hyping native advertising? It’s not new. It’s not the next big thing. It certainly is not the answer.

Native advertising is just the latest symptom of a system that has lost its way. Rather than honing the craft of building meaningful marketing campaigns, we have become enablers of a system that values short-term gain for minimal investment. And in the end it will come back to haunt us all.

For those who have been living under a rock, native advertising, or sponsored content, got its moment under the interrogation spotlight recently when John Oliver laid into it on his weekly HBO show. eMarketer projects marketers will spend nearly $2.3 billion on sponsored content this year, up more than 20% over last year.

But as Mr. Oliver noted, advertisers have been wrapping themselves in the credibility of editorial content for more than 60 years. The piece went on to lament the dissolution of editorial independence at institutions like Time Magazine and The New York Times.

It made for pithy and enlightening commentary, and highlighted that the general public is typically ill-equipped to draw the line between independent editorial content and ads masquerading at stories. But the point that the comedic piece missed was that native advertising is merely the latest shiny object offered by publishers eager to satisfy the demands of marketers and their agencies. It does nothing for the audience.

If marketing was a public square, then native advertising is nothing more than standing next to someone who knows what they’re talking about and hoping people think that makes you smart too. It may be slightly more effective than billboards, and less creepy than trying to butt into conversations. But ultimately you’re hoping to trade on the credibility others create. [Click here to read the rest of this post]

Take This Cable Bill and…

11 Jul

5816578607_b28148910cI have seen the future, and cable companies aren’t going to like it. Led by my kids, I have plunged head-first into a world of streaming video, on-demand entertainment, and options anywhere on any device.

For the first time in more than 40 years I am living without cable TV. Getting there hasn’t been easy, or cheap. But having invested the time to research and put the pieces together, I’ve got to say I am excited by the possibilities, and the savings.

CTCWhy would a middle-age guy (ok, a bit beyond true-middle age guy) plunge himself into this? Well let’s go through some background. For the last 10 years I have ping-ponged between Comcast, AT&T and DirecTV.

Of course the cable companies were all too happy to facilitate this with better and better intro packages. My most recent deal was AT&T’s U-verse cable and Internet. For which I was paying $136 a month. But that would eventually go up to $170ish after the deal ran out. Do some quick math, and I was paying $1600 now and that was going to jump to $2000 this October. [Click here to read the rest of this post]

Here We Go—Plunging Into a World Without Cable TV

26 Jun

aereo_scales-justice_content-2__largeOh  hell! Before I could even pull out the scissors, The United States Surpreme Court made my life a little harder by ruling Aereo is illegal. Damn, damn, damn!

Sorry about that. I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start with my determination to stick it to the man. And by the man I mean AT&T and Comcast. After a surprisingly high level of introspection I’ve decided to cut the cord and join the legions of people living without cable TV. Like many people I have, for years and years, sent of a monthly payment to one cable company or another, grimacing and asking for the privileged of being raked over the coals for yet another month.

CTCEvery month I grumbled about how much I was paying for the diminishing value I receive. True, the cable companies pump hundreds of channels into the lineup. But the reality is that I was paying for tons of channels I will never use. A few weeks of scrutinizing what I was actually watching made it clear to me that I really only used fewer than a dozen channels. It was an eye-opening exercise. So I was paying for the Lexus and driving a Toyota. [Click here to read the rest of this post]

Social Gives Brands Balls

27 Mar

BoycottCokeA version of this also appeared on MediaPost.

There’s a new calculus happening in conference rooms across the country as CMOs work with their teams to hone the brand message are asking, “Can we afford to offend portions of the country’s conservatives?”

More and more, the answer is yes. Indeed brands, emboldened by their digital connection with consumers, are committing to not just appeal to consumer’s lifestyle in order to sell products. Instead, they are placing bold bets as an active player in shaping a culture that aligns with their products.

And with that comes risks. The evidence is abundant: Sam Adams pulling its sponsorship of the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade over LGBT issues; Chevrolet’s inclusion of gay families in several spots, or Coke’s 60-, and then 90-second, “America Is Beautiful” in all its multi-lingual splendor.

“Advertising reflects the mores of society but it does not influence them,” David Ogilvy famously once said. Apparently, that wasn’t the guidance for Coke’s multi-lingual version of “America The Beautiful.” [Click here to read the rest of this post]

Protests? What Protests? This Is NBC, Where Russia = Happy

23 Feb

Is there no end to NBC Sports’ determination to keep a happy face on the Olympics? As the games concluded today, it is abundantly clear that producers are willing to ignore just about anything.

Hotels and facilities not ready for prime time? What are you talking about? Protesters whipped by Cossacks? La la la la.  Russian-backed troops in Kiev killing revolting citizens? Did you say something?

BugThat NBC wanted to treat its evening broadcast as a made-for-TV movie, rather than a real sporting event, was a given. NBC Sports execs said as much before the games started. If you want the messy, unpredictable coverage, they expected you to find real-time feeds on cable channels or online.

When you pay $775 million for the exclusive US right to broadcast the games, some creative license comes with it. But when you are the only broadcast pipeline for 313 million Americans, there is an obvious obligation to put the public’s needs ahead of your profits. [Click here to read the rest of this post] Intentionally Bad So You’ll Watch TV?

19 Feb

nbc olympics streamingIt all seemed so promising, NBC announcing it would stream every event live online from Sochi, complete with announcers, more than 1,500 hours in all.

But if you’ve been to, you know  that the potential and reality are miles apart. In fact, trying to find any specific event on the site should be an Olympic sport all its own.

BugDaily on Twitter and Facebook, people are asking for links to help them find a specific live stream or highlights. Don’t even think about looking for videos embedded on those or any other site. NBC took a step five years backwards with its videos, preventing users from enjoying them anywhere but on their own site.

So we’re essentially trapped. Geofencing prevents anyone in the US from watching highlights or live streams from any other broadcaster. And NBC’s greed means you have no choice but to navigate their site.

But just how bad is it, really? For an informed answer I asked my JWT colleague and usability expert Adrienne Sangastiano to dig into the site. The fact that she immediately started comparing the site to the hotel room trashed by US bobsledder Johnny Quinn should have been my first hint about her perspective. [Click here to read the rest of this post]

The Shame of Sochi – The Internet Seethes Over NBC’s Zeal for Tears

17 Feb


Click to see the whole interview.

There was no doubt that NBC was going for gut. The camera pushed in tight for the whole interview with Bode Miller on Sunday.

Christin Cooper: I know you wanted to be here with Chelly (his brother who died recently), really experiencing these games. How much does this mean to you to come up with this great performance for him? And was it for him?
Miller: I don’t know if it’s really for him but I wanted to come here and, I dunno, make myself proud, but … (trails off, THE TEAR finally emerging).
Cooper: When you’re looking up in the sky at the start, we see you there and it looks like you’re talking to somebody. What’s going on there?
Miller: (breaks down and cries, Cooper puts an arm on him)

BugYou could practically hear the high-fives back in the control room. Yet another emotional moment squeezed out of an athlete for Olympic gold.

There was nothing spontaneous about the moment. It had happened nine hours earlier and was airing in prime-time. It wasn’t the first. It certainly won’t be the last. But this time viewers weren’t eating it up.

Within minutes of Miller walking away from the camera, posts were pouring in from people complaining about the interview, saying it was far too heavy-handed. The sentiment was 9:1 negative, according to Topsy.

“That reporter just did everything short of kick Bode Miller in the junk to try and get him to cry on TV. ,” @matthew_schott posted.

[Click here to read the rest of this post]

Tweeting Deceit From Sochi

16 Feb

selloutAin’t singin’ for Pepsi/ Ain’t singin’ for Coke/ I don’t sing for nobody/ Makes me look like a joke/ This note’s for you.
This Note’s For You – Neil Young.

Good luck finding integrity like that in Sochi, especially from figure skaters and American darlings Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner. As AP reported, these two (and who know how many others) have handed over to the keys to their Twitter accounts to sponsors.

goldThat means the allegedly spur-of-the-moment tweets you read, thinking you’re getting a personalized glimpse into these athletes’ experiences, could easily have been written by Smuckers, P&G, and Covergirl, among others. So when Gold tweets, “Did you know that I did gymnastics and swimming before I took up skating? #funtimes #smuckers #ad” It’s entirely possible that it was scripted by Smuckers—which wasted no time replying to that tweet and got massive exposure among her 65,200 followers.

Bug“This is the first Olympics where I actually have a social media calendar, where an athlete has to tweet or mention something on a given day,” Gold’s agent, Yuki Saegusa, told AP. “We get a list of tweets or social media things that need to be posted and then we approve them for her.”

Wagner’s agent, David Baden, told the wire service that her contracts stipulate “how many tweets, how many Facebook mentions, and even Instagram” photos they must post. He went on to say that letting the sponsors actually craft the posts was just a matter of convenience.

“It’s just that with her schedule, if we can make things easier, what’s the difference?”

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