June 1, 2007
Advertising Campaigns and Barriers to Creativity

The other day, I was driving down the road here in Cambridge, when an advertisement came on touting a car dealership. It caught my ear because it was one of those negative campaigns I've written about before.

As I wrote back in March, these are "anti-yourself" campaigns or "reverse psychology marketing," one of the most famous of which is "I Hate Steven Singer."

As I wrote back then:

the legend goes that a local actor stopped by the Steven Singer jewelry store and explained that he had bought a ring for his wife of 23 years, and nine months later they had a baby. "Steele dropped by the shop to share his success story and blame Steven Singer for all the sleepless nights associated with a baby. Singer took the backhanded compliment and made it a focal point of the new reverse-psychology ad campaign." [ . . . ] My cousin and his wife were driving up from Kentucky to visit here in Cambridge and passed the billboard on the way. They were so curious, they looked up the URL when they got here. Don't know how much that helps business in Philly, but the campaign is getting attention from folks just traveling through.

The example I heard on the radio was from a car dealership, in which they were telling you that if you wanted a good deal on a nice car, they were not the first place to look. I listened, semi-amused, as they went through a series of one-liners, emphasizing not to come to them as a first choice. Rather, the punchline was that they are literally the last place you should go, because once you come to their lot, no one else will compare.

The campaign isn't really reverse psychology marketing in the true sense, since they reveal what they mean at ad's end, but it was attention-grabbing. The problem was that it sounded like every hackneyed vehicle advertisement I've heard all my life, with the booming voice emphasizing every tired line by ad's end.

Lo and behold, when I started checking my favorite blogs over the weekend, I found a great post from Rad Tollett of C3 partner GSD&M's Idea City blog, looking at a car dealer's decision to put a huge hot-air balloon on top of his roof that would cost $3,000 a month. This is similar to the Hummer dealership that has gotten all the press for their giant American flag that neighboring businesses are complaining about--they are both expensive, annoying, and reinforcing every stereotype of a car dealership.

Rather than playing the same old tired games, Tollett emphasizes a local dealership named Shock Value which does something quite different:

They don't have a balloon, but what they do have is a live band playing in front of their dealership. The bumper-to-bumper traffic creeping down South Lamar was a perfect audience. It captured attention in a way no balloon could have. I wasn't compelled to pull over, after all my finger was bleeding on the steering wheel. But I recognized the dealership and will remember it if ever in the market for an electric car (which may be a reality when my '94 Camry heads to the grave). One Austin band x 4 rush-hour fridays = less than $3,000.

His whole piece is worth a read, but he emphasizes something that stretches far beyond car dealerships and well beyond advertising itself. Most of the creative boxes our entertainment and advertising are put in are self-created, and the stereotypes of what a business or company should do to entertain is often somewhat limited by what's perceived as the usual method of business, even when that method was created by the most arbitrary of circumstances.

Prof. John Parker at Western Kentucky University always likes to point out that the governor of Kentucky still must be sworn in by promising he has never been in a duel. Why is this archaic language still in the governor's oath? Tradition. The ad world shares a lot in common with politics, it seems, as business as usual so often dominates the ways people think. Tollett's call for a new way of thinking and his highlighting of Shock Value is a nice creative change of pace.