Oct 23, 2010
How to get ahead in advertising
From fake bears to fake vandals, what will advertisers think of next?
Today's topic is: Understanding modern advertising.
I am tackling this issue because I feel that many people don't have the intimate understanding of modern advertising that I do.
Of course, I say this in light of the Ulu Pandan bear. That was one heck of a misunderstood guerrilla marketing campaign.
All anybody wanted was for people to watch a video of a wild, potentially man-eating animal rummage for food at a bus stop near their home and their defenceless children and then go out and buy a whole bunch of electric shavers.
Was that too much to ask?
Instead, they went and reported the bear to the authorities. The next thing you knew, there were people with tranquilliser guns going around looking to shoot the bear.
Needless to say, very few potential shaver-buyers were amused when they found out the bear was actually just an advertising guy in a bear suit. In fact, many were furious. Those behind it were investigated by the cops.
In advertising circles, the whole thing was just another demonstration of how straight-laced Singaporeans always take threats to their lives too seriously.
Anyone else would have laughed at the prospect of getting mauled by a bear while waiting for the bus.
It wasn't like it was a bomb hoax. It's just a bear hoax. A bear can kill only one person at a time.
Nevertheless, even with the public nuisance charge, the subsequent public apology, the waste of resources and the unnecessary panic, many marketing experts would still say this campaign was a resounding success.
In fact, it's something of a coup.
The advertiser got a lot of attention and got it for a relatively cheap price.
And that's the first principle of modern advertising: It's all about attention.
It doesn't even matter if the attention comes in the form of people cursing you for the destruction you caused or if you get to sell any shavers.
What's important is that they've heard of you.
Of course, advertising did not start out this way. The early days in the trade were rather different.
In the beginning, advertising simply meant telling people what was good about your product so that they would buy it.
For instance, if you were a caveman with a rock to sell, you would tell your customers what was good about the rock.
Caveman Bob: 'This rock many good for pound on head of mighty dinosaur.'
Cavewoman Jill: 'Do you have it in pink?'
And that was it. If someone wanted a rock to hunt dinosaurs with, they'd just pick one off the ground because there were lots of rocks around in prehistoric times. They'd be silly to buy one. Also commerce had not yet been invented.
Early advertising was not very effective.
Then one day, a marketing pioneer came up with a novel concept that would forever change the industry: lying.
Cavemen were no longer limited to telling people what their rocks did, they could just make up stuff about it to make it more attractive.
Caveman Bob: 'This rock not just good for pound dinosaur. Also good for hips, thighs and abs.'
Lying was quickly followed up by lifestyle advertising.
Instead of just lying to you about the features of the product, they could also lie to you about the kind of lifestyle you might lead if you used the product.
Cigarette and alcohol companies loved it. They started putting out a great many advertisements implying that if you smoke and drank heavily, you would be slim, have a healthy glow and live on a yacht.
While these developments were great, they had drawbacks. For one thing, it was a lot of work for advertising firms to brainstorm concepts, pitch them and then rent yachts.
That's when they came up with the advertising we have today: guerrilla marketing.
By far the greatest benefit of this approach is that many older businessmen don't understand it.
The advertising firm tells them they need to get 'hits', 'go viral' and 'leverage on social media' and they just lap it up. They've no idea what it means.
That frees up advertising firms to do - well - whatever they feel like.
Suppose they felt like posting a suggestive Facebook message about liking it 'on the desk in the office'. They'd do it and then pretend later it has something to do with breast cancer.
Suppose, they suddenly felt like vandalising postboxes. They'd just go out there, spray paint some postboxes and pretend it is a good way to get publicity for a postal company.
That's right, advertisers managed to get paid to vandalise postboxes. I know a whole bunch of people who would do it for free.
Still, the campaign was so successful that when real vandals spray painted real graffiti on a train, people thought it was advertising.
And I'm not saying this is exactly how it happened, but suppose it is the night before the pitch for the electric shaver campaign was due and the ad people are out drinking instead of coming up with a campaign.
Suddenly, someone has an idea.
Drunk ad person #1: 'Hey, I have this bear costume I'm saving for Halloween. Wouldn't it be fun to put it on and scare some of my neighbours on the way home to Ulu Pandan?'