My first three-year-old is now eight. My second three-year-old is now three. And I am reminded, forcefully and once again, how much the craft of advertising resembles talking to a three-year-old.
Oh, we have lots of analytic tools in advertising. (Sometimes we even pay attention to them.) We have lots of formulae. (We mainly use these to impress clients.) We figure out the features, advantages, and benefits (FAB) of a given product or service, then determine that product or service’s unique selling proposition (USP), and generate advertising messages accordingly. Among ourselves, we stick closer to a simpler rule: The customer wants to look like a hero, not a goat. And we want to have a high old time creating ads that will make us look like heroes to our fellow advertising types. We want to have fun. We want to play music, sing, crack jokes, put on skits, take sexy photographs, and play with flashy multi-media toys. We want to develop great, memorable images, like a karate class costumed in pink bunny suits, or a babe chugging a cola and giving out with a proster greps.
It is entirely right and proper that we should do so.
Why? Because the advertising audience acts just like my three-year-old.
Look. Here comes Joe down the stairs for breakfast in the morning. I sometimes wish our house were composed of a single smooth surface of dull stainless steel. Of course it is not. It has corners, rugs, spillages, scattered toys, books, a dog, a cat, a toolbox sitting on the kitchen floor, drawers full of batteries and Easter egg coloring kits and cooking tools. And all of it, every bit, holds more immediate interest for a three-year-old than, say, his breakfast.
The red lighted numerals on the kitchen radio clock shift a minute closer to school time.
“I want a Bajeeta,” says Joe. (This is a name for a certain action figure.)
“I’ll get your Bajeeta after breakfast,” I say, knowing this feeble gambit won’t work.
“I want him now!” Joe insists, and refuses to eat. The red numerals on the clock shift another minute closer to school.
There you have it. Brand insistence. And yes, this is a very real category of consumer response, determined by advertising research. The hierarchy goes: Brand insistence, brand preference, brand awareness, brand indifference, brand rejection. Brand insistence plays out this way. Guy goes into convenience store wanting Pall Mall reds. Convenience store clerk says, “We’re out. How about Luckies instead?” Guy shakes his head and goes somewhere else to find his desired cigarette. The Holy Grail of advertising effectiveness.
The Clinton administration famously applied The Permanent Campaign to politics. We advertising types have been doing it for decades. As we tell our clients, “Your message competes not only with the messages of other products like yours. It competes with all messages in all media, all the time.” That means the billboards your customer sees on his morning drive into work, the station promos for his drive-time radio, the jingle for his favorite radio voice (“Imus in the morning!”), and so forth.
And guess what? Everybody in every medium crafts a message to appeal to the inner hero, the inner three-year-old, and tries to produce that quintessential response: “I want it now!”
Even magazines, newspapers, and television and radio news providers cultivate and promulgate these images. Here’s the subtle part: For adults, the message must come in two parts, the overt and the secret. It’s easiest to satirize those we disagree with, or don’t like. The New York Times, for example, overtly appeals to “the superior reader.” Secretly, “We decide, everybody believes — or else.” NPR’s overt and secret appeals are echo similar themes: “The educated, affluent listener.” “We are entitled to look down on everybody else.”
With the rebirth lately of The American Spectator, we have to pay attention to crafting our image, too. It goes against the grain for political reporters and commentators, but there it is. What is TAS’s brand? How can we create brand insistence among a wide enough audience so the new magazine succeeds? Rebellion should form part of it. Maybe “rabbits who shoot back,” in Ann Coulter’s phrase, will work. Maybe a self-mocking campaign modeled after ESPN’s masterful advertising will ring the bell. (Overt message: “We’re just kids playing here.” Covert: “Our sports heroes are kids just like us.”)
That’s the challenge. All humor aside, the adult inner three-year-old behaves a little differently from the real thing. My Joe may want his Bajeeta now, but in fifteen minutes (or a lot less), he’ll be on to something else, maybe paddling in Daddy’s shaving cream. The adult inner three-year-old wants his image repeated, in focus, regularly. He wants to look forward to it, the way I look forward to ESPN’s latest commercial.
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