Monday, February 28, 2011

No. Sense of irony at all. No-l-ita.

Just before the New Year, I blogged about a shock campaign that Italian fashion house Nolita had done to stir up the pot at Milan Fashion week and raise awareness of models with anorexia.

The model, Isabelle Caro, has since died of the disease.
It seemed like such a bold statement, coming from within the industry. I started following the brand on Facebook, to see what else they came up with. And then they posted this video:

Let's look at some stills:

Oh, but maybe she's just naturally skinny.

Yeah, that's the ticket.

And.. her?

Not exactly "well-fed".

Although I hear sandwich prices in Italy are through the roof.

So you can understand the models skipping a lunch...

...or two...

...or five...

Are you looking at the fashion, or counting nipples and ribs?

And Portmanesque collar bones?
I tend to waffle between being a critic and an apologist for the fashion industry, because I understand both the concerns of women's issues advocates about body image and the need to create a brand based on fantasy.

But if you were going to make a point of being the brand that stuck it to the industry for promoting unnatural thinness to the point of death, wouldn't you think about casting models with a little more meat on them?

Adult Content?

A couple of things have happened recently that made me go "hmmm..."

Last Thursday, as I waited to board at the Ottawa Airport, I was reading through my favourite ad blogs when I received a strongly-worded pop-up about violating the free Wi-Fi terms of use regarding "adult content". The site? Copyranter.

This morning, I saw that Adland, another favourite, has just lost all of its Google Adsense placements because of "adult content".

I have had a couple of panics lately when Osocio posts that contain nudity (considered completely acceptable in the advertising world) have had embedded images picked up and published on Facebook by the site's automatic updater. (And all we know what a hate-on Facebook has for breasts. Especially non-sexified ones.)

Finally, I have received plenty of "feedback" (most sarcastic, but some sincere) about posts on this blog which contain nudity or sexual contexts.

What a harmless, wholesome and family-friendly ad might look like.
This got me thinking about what "adult content" means. Usually, it is an implied euphemism for porn. But in all of the cases above, sexualized content was usually used in the context of a grown-up discussion about the use of sex in advertising. In many cases, the posts are critiques of lazy, exploitative, and even offensive "sexy" ads.

"Dabitch", the outspoken voice of Adland, faced a 72 hour deadline to "clean up" her site after Google was alerted to an old post criticizing an ad by underwear advertiser Sloggi, which contained an image of bare bums.

Taking the high road, Dabitch said "if we're going to be able to talk about advertising here, some of [the ads] will have butts and boobs in them, and often be harshly criticized because they do."

But that is not the way Big Internet thinks, apparently. The mature attitudes about sexuality of Europeans (and some Canadians, and New Yorkers, and others) are crashing into the wall of America's "won't somebody please think about the children" anxiety.

The argument is that this is a public forum: "There are kids on here, for God's sake!" But then again, these are the same kids who are exposed to the very ads we critique. If they are going to see T&A anyway, at least we provide instructional context on how to tell the difference between sexual exploitation and body-positive normalization. (Plus, I doubt any child would bother to visit an ad blog just for the nudity — there are much better ways to get around a net nanny.)

This might be pornography. I saw "Lawless" in the title.
My six-year-old surfs YouTube, and sometimes Google Images. I filter his searches, but still sit over his shoulder so I can click away or explain any awkward discoveries. (But then again, he's seen his mom and me naked, and it's no big deal to him.) Look: The internet is a rough neighbourhood. Why would you let a little kid wander around it alone?

And then there's the "NSFW" argument. Once again, let's talk about context. If your employer is okay with you taking time at work to read an ad blog, it probably counts as professional development. And ad professionals — whether agency, client, or production — cannot afford to be prudes. We are in the business of playing with powerful human ideas, instincts and emotions. We can't avert our eyes from a frank discussion of one of the greatest and most persuasive forces of all.

So let's take a look at that term, "adult content". If I wanted to be disingenuous, I'd say "makes sense... this is content suitable for a mature audience!"

But we all know what it really means: porn, smut, and at best "erotica". It's part of the unfortunate epidemic of black-and-white, zero-tolerance thinking that rules certain societies these days. Everything is either "wholesome" or "dirty". (Interesting to note how often casual violence and hate ends up on the "wholesome" side, isn't it?)

I simply don't think that way. If today's burning ad issue is something with nudity in it, you may see some skin. I hope you aren't permanently psychologically damaged by it. I'm trying to have an adult conversation here.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Portlandia's take on agency life is stranger than fiction

This hilarious video is taken from episode 4 of Portlandia, a new series on IFC. The show is generally about how eccentric the city of Portland, Oregon, is. So it only follows that a big ad agency headquartered there, Wieden + Kennedy, would be an epicentre of "WTF?":

Interestingly, the character Julia is both written and played by former Sleater-Kinney rocker Carrie Brownstein, who briefly worked with W+K in the late '90s.

How realistic is this? Well,  I've never been anywhere near W+K. I don't know anyone who works there.

This is how you come up with ballsy creative.

But here in Ottawa, I have worked in agencies where the main brainstorming room was filled with plastic balls, or is decorated like a jungle.  I have gone to meetings wearing an enormous pink bra. When you work in a creative field, all that imagineering can produce bizarre byproducts.

Interestingly enough, while W+K happily donated their brand and their space for the goofy send-up on modern agencies, AdWeek says the agency would not give comment on how they felt about the portrayal.

It does have the typical blurring of agency roles, where everyone is essentially both creative director and account director all in one, like Darrin on Bewitched.

But who cares? I just want a hot air balloon.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

I don't want to grow up.

Wow. Talk about tickling my Gen-X nostalgia.

Facebook friend Candace shared this amazing photoset by Argentinian photographer Irina Werning.

Her explanation:

"I love old photos. I admit being a nosey photographer. As soon as I step into someone else’s house, I start sniffing for them. Most of us are fascinated by their retro look but to me, it’s imagining how people would feel and look like if they were to reenact them today... A few months ago, I decided to actually do this. So, with my camera, I started inviting people to go back to their future."

These are some of my favourites from the set. You can see them all at Irina's Facebook gallery.

(All are copyright 2010 Irina Werning. The captions are mine.)

Never outgrow your inner nerd.

Never outgrow your exotic tastes.

Never outgrow your sense of wonder.

Never outgrow your defiance.

Never outgrow your love of learning.

Never outgrow wanting to stand out.

Never outgrow your rockin' style.

Never outgrow the things you love most.

Never outgrow your intimacy.

Never outgrow your innocence.

Never outgrow your mom's love.
And never outgrow your imagination.
I'd love to have someone do a portrait of me like this, because as a creative dude I am one of those lucky people who never really grew out of anything fun. And why should I? My inner child is way to much fun to hang around with.

UPDATE: e-mail response from Irina

Hi thanks for your email. Im very happy that you like my pictures. I work alone on my personal projects and the fact that you liked it and decided to write means a lot to me!

This is an ongoing project and I will be uploading new pictures regularly on my site.

I will be in NY and Boston in April; and May in Europe and am looking for people who want to go back to their future, so please drop me an email if you want to take part...

Friday, February 25, 2011

Won't someone please think about the (very confused) children?

NBC Dallas Fort Worth reports that this billboard, erected on a stretch of highway I-35, is causing quite an inflamed response among residents:

image via

Recounts local parent Rebecca Blake:

"We saw a big billboard with a cucumber on it and a face and it said 'Stop vegetable abuse. My daughter Sara said, 'What's that? Stop vegetable abuse?'For them to have to be exposed to something like that in a very public place is just uncalled for and offensive."

My problem is that I can't for the life of me understand why she took the amusing cartoon billboard as some kind of dirty joke. Okay, so the call-to-action was two URLs, and (no relation to the younger Miss Blake), but what could sex shops possibly do — or sell — that would save a cucumber from being put in a position that would inspire such naked horror? It looks as if it were facing a very messy end.

Sounds to me like someone just needs to take the pickle out...

There's a video, too, but it was even more confusing. What does a cucumber have to do with insomnia and a buzzing flashlight?

Bum lookers!

Here is a very clever viral ad from New Zealand (filmed in LA) that aims to prove that men and women alike cannot avert their eyes from a really well-turned bum in a good pair of jeans:

You might have laughed. You might have been offended. But do you feel like buying a new pair of jeans? And which brand?

This video was produced by Levi's,  designed to promote Levi's Curve ID range for curvy women. But you don't know that, unless you read marketing blogs or mainstream media, or cared enough to follow up on Google.

According to SMH, Levi's doesn't even know if it will work:

"The aim of this campaign is for people to connect with the brand and walk away feeling good about their body,'' said Levi Strauss senior director of public relations Alexa Rudin. ''We need to look at how we convert that into sales. We have to be strategic and long term about it.''

That is certainly sound. But The Guardian's Arwa Mahdawi, while not offended by the ad, thought it was a little too "stealth":

"Personally I think it's a great idea and an entertaining video. It's just a pity that Levi's didn't have the guts to put its name to it to begin with. Even now the jeans company is quick to point out that the clip, created by the New Zealand agency Colenso BBDO, was an "experiment without any creative direction from us". To me, that translates as, er, we're not sure how people are going to react, so we're keeping a safe distance. But if a safe distance means that everyone misses the fact it was a Levi's ad, then the exercise was pretty much futile."

What do you think? If the content was branded, would it have been more effective as marketing? Or would cynical viewers have been less likely to watch if they felt they were being "sold to"?

Or, do you just want me to shut up and embed the "making of" video?

Have a happy and safe weekend.

In other words, "watch your ass..."

When are you due, Mister?

These personal trainer ads from Montreal's BBR don't pull any punches. While comparing the beer gut to a woman's pregnant belly is an old joke, this takes it a little further:

Is it a boy, or some grill?
Pee negative, but positively famished for poutine.
And yes, you can say the campaign is "body normative" or whatever. But these are men we're talking about here. And a beer belly alone — as opposed to overall obesity — is not usually a result of having a different body type. It's about overindulgence and inactivity, and it puts men in much greater danger of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer.

Luckily, I'm only in my second trimester. So far.

(From Ads of The World)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Women's bodies exploited by advertiser


Posted on Copyranter this morning, this purports to be a guerilla move by DDB Auckland to get more impressions (ha ha tee hee) for NZ fashion boutique Superette:

"We put indented plates on bus stop, mall, and park benches, so that when people sat down, the message was imprinted on their thighs. This meant that as well as having branded seats, a veritable army of free media was created, with thousands of imprints being created and lasting up to an hour."

As Copyranter noted, probably none of the un-staged impressions was particularly legible. But of course that's not the point anymore. Guerilla and ambient work these days is designed to appeal to a global internet audience (and awards show judges) rather than to function in the meatworld.

But points for finding a new way to impose sexy advertising on women.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Admen need to go back to school

I had one of those humbling experiences this morning when I realized how ad and marketing people overcomplicate everything. I was talking to my wife, Julia, over coffee about my struggles to explain a social marketing strategy to a group of people.

I talked passionately about how I had learned to turn away from attention-getting (but ultimately self-serving) "shock and awe" campaigns and to focus more on creating stories and experiences that engage people. You know, the big scary social media world we admen are racing to come to grips with.

"Oh, I get it," she said to me. "You're not selling, you're teaching."

Julia teaches English public elementary school, Grade 4.

"Of course you don't get anywhere by surprising people," she said. "Learning isn't about surprises. That interferes with the learning process. If you don't prepare people for what they're about to learn, the lesson will be lost. The level of learning will be much greater if you prepare them for the lesson, then provide support."

This was exactly what I was trying to come to terms with: a campaign strategy that involved a slow, social-media-based awareness build to create context for later direct marketing and paid media efforts, followed by online tools, continued media relations, and sustainable community-building. But without all the jargon.

Sounds like Julia has known more about social marketing than me for... well...  years.  No wonder I'm hot for teacher.

EasyJet Porks Kosher Passengers

Newser reports that EasyJet — a UK discount airline that just launched Tel Aviv-London service with a kosher menu —had a bit of a mix-up in the food and beverage department.

During a 4.5-hour flight, the airline had no food to offer its passengers but ham melts and bacon baguettes.

Not a popular snack in the Middle East.
The airline apologized, but it's strange to think that they would offer nothing but pork products on any route — especially considering the many Jewish, Muslim and vegetarian passengers they must serve. As one passenger quipped, "I think they need a lesson or two on cultural awareness if they expand their routes into the Middle East."

"The Web's Favourite Airline" TO MOCK!

Yet another reminder that branding goes far beyond design and advertising — it's how you relate to your target audience, every single time they experience you. And thanks to social media, the culturally insensitive gaffe is out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Heart of Glass

Acart President Al Albania sent me this fascinating bit of futurism from Corning, who are riding high on the wave of high-tech glass as the ideal interface material:

It's a little long, but it rings true. Especially if you are reading Work That Matters on an iPhone or iPad.

Many of these technologies are already in place. And while the bathroom mirror interactivity seems a little intrusive to me, I can see Gen Y loving the idea of constant connectedness.

It's interesting to note that, in addition to announcing glass' future, Corning curates its past at the Corning Museum of Glass. It's amazing to think that a technology that was started thousands of years ago can still amaze us. Plus, it's reusable and extremely recyclable.

Makes you appreciate that beer bottle just a little bit more, doesn't it?

Next up: Apple iBeer?

Let's just hope they wrote "feet" not "inches"...

Sick today, but fortunately How to be a Retronaut (via AdFreak) made my life easier by sharing this awesome IKEA parody:

Let's just hope that, unlike Spinal Tap, they don't get their measurements confused.

(Published in the QI H Annual. Written by Justin Pollard with input from John Lloyd andStevyn Colgan(c) QI Ltd Faber.)

Friday, February 18, 2011

"Embed Everything"

Look, I get the message. But putting adult words in kids' mouths is very hard to do well. There was Peanuts, sure. And Calvin and Hobbes.

But this?

It doesn't quite ring true. Why not let the kids tell us in their own words, instead of having them spout a bunch of marketing and social media babble that will be obsolete by the time they reach puberty?

Instead, they sound like my Twitterfeed:

"I want to know that this brand has an authentic social voice"

Are you going to incentivize me? You'd better freaking incentivize me!"

"Your engagement strategy seems off, somehow."
"You know what's shareworthy? Your mom!"
"I find your use of the auto-retweet regressive and unimaginative."

"Did you even READ last week's Mashable? Jesus!"

"I am going to click that PPC ad, then refuse to engage.  Just to make you pay."

Link shared by Ads of the World.

Now THIS is how you do a bloody drunk driving PSA!

This. Is. Awesome.

Posted today by Copyranter, this brilliant little Danish teleplay of organized crime (Directed by Adam Hashemi) gets the drinking and driving message across in a totally unexpected way:

...which is fantastic, because at first I thought it was going to be a ripoff of this MADD spot:

It's always great to be reminded that there's always new territory to explore in social marketing.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Does Your Brand Have Asperger's Syndrome?

Note: This is not an attempt to trivialize human autism spectrum disorders in any way. But this hit me the other day and the metaphor is apt.

Two current marketing truisms:

- A brand is a personality.

- Brands are more socially active than ever before.

But what if your brand has difficulty with its social skills?

Look at Groupon. It's a brand that is built on what it has to offer, which is deals! deals! deals! But when it made its first major branding foray on national advertising, despite being well-intentioned it ended up just pissing everyone off.

"He spit in this fish curry, didn't he?"
So what happened?

Let's compare the Groupon fiasco with some select symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome, based on social difficulties and inappropriate expression.


1.Severe impairment in reciprocal social interaction
(at least two of the following)
(a) inability to interact with peers
(b) lack of desire to interact with peers
(c) lack of appreciation of social cues
(d) socially and emotionally inappropriate behavior

Groupon's Super Bowl campaign showed complete misunderstanding of how the audience would react to its ads that made fun of social causes. This was immediately apparent in the flurry of "WTF?" Tweets among professional marketers and customers alike.

This apparently came as a complete surprise to the advertiser, who expected that a drunken football audience would "get" that it was subtly making fun of its own origins in the not-for-profit sector — despite having done nothing significant in advance to communicate it. It was as if we were all supposed to be in on a very private in-joke.

If you have friends or family with Asperger's, this may sound like a familiar situation. Inappropriate jokes, and random statements with absolutely no context, seem to come with the territory.

2.All-absorbing narrow interest
(at least one of the following)
(a) exclusion of other activities
(b) repetitive adherence
(c) more rote than meaning

3.Imposition of routines and interests
(at least one of the following)
(a) on self, in aspects of life
(b) on others

The Groupon brand owes much to the peculiarities of its founder, Andrew Mason, who is known for his bizarre answers to interviewers. When asked by the New York Times last year to confirm or deny rumours that Groupon was about to be bought out by Yahoo, he famously quipped: “Only if you want to talk about my other passion, building miniature dollhouses.”

4.Speech and language problems
(at least three of the following)
(a) delayed development
(b) superficially perfect expressive language
(c) formal, pedantic language
(d) odd prosody, peculiar voice characteristics
(e) impairment of comprehension including misinterpretations of literal/implied meanings

To me, this is sort-of about Groupon marketing and PR. When creating the ads, Groupon's agency (CP+B) failed to make any mention of the serious corporate social responsibility behind the campaign. (Later added as a last-ditch edit.) After the Super Bowl fiasco, it took the company almost 24 hours to respond to complaints. And it was too little, too late.
5.Non-verbal communication problems
(at least one of the following)
(a) limited use of gestures
(b) clumsy/gauche body language
(c) limited facial expression
(d) inappropriate expression
(e) peculiar, stiff gaze

And CP+B? Good Lord! The agency went into full defence mode. Rather than saying "sorry" and "we'll learn from this" — with empathy and humility — they just kept arrogantly hammering their Twitter followers with any positive press they could, along with too-late links to the original intent of Groupon's CSR.

6.Motor clumsiness: poor performance on neurodevelopmental examination

A week and a half later, they're still at it:

Despite the fact that the campaign has been killed.

So, what can be learned from all this? Well, when a person has difficulties with social integration, they can only work on personal strategies to deal with their own empathetic or communication deficits. (If you, or someone you love, is in this situation, start here.)

A brand is different. Even though the Groupon brand is — in some ways — and extension of its founder, it has outgrown that phase. Groupon is now well-enough known that its brand is in the hands of its consumers. Its social relations will now determine its brand value.

The good news for Groupon is that it can change its personality much more easily than a person can. In a group effort, Groupon's community manager, PR people, and whatever ad agency they choose in the future can work to educate the public about their real intentions and heal old wounds.

Plus, it can't have been that bad. I keep seeing Groupon updates from friends on my Facebook newsfeed.