Ads That Don't Sell Aren't Funny
by Chad Rueffert

Combing through files of old industry articles that I hadn’t found time to read yet, I found a write-up in USA Today by Michael McCarthy that was really depressing.

McCarthy was covering the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France where they hand out awards for the best advertising spots and campaigns.  McCarthy introduced his article by saying, “Give the consumer what they want.  And hold the ‘message,’ please!”

Based on the awards given at the Festival, McCarthy concluded that “…feel good ad campaigns, such as Budweiser’s series featuring the ‘Whassup?!’ guys, are back in vogue.  These campaigns serve up ads the way consumers generally like them:  humorous, quirky and with no messages other than ‘buy this product.’”

I just don’t buy it.  Ads with no message?  Feel good campaigns?  I can tell you what I feel: David Ogilvy turning in his grave.

It may be true, as Festival Judge Cheryl Berman says, that “People are so busy and stressed out they just want to laugh.  They don’t want stuff that has a real serious message or is too hard to figure out.”  But the goal of advertising is to influence the consumer, not be influenced by them.  While the product itself has to give consumers what they want, advertising has always been about getting consumers to want what we have to sell.  Let people laugh at the television programs.  Feel good campaigns and ads with no message are wasted dollars that will have no effect whatsoever on sales.  If agency leaders are back to judging advertising based on how humorous and quirky it is instead of how much it improved the bottom line of the advertiser then I am worried about the future of our industry.

Marketing, and advertising as one of its tools, has one purpose that is best summed up by Sergio Zyman, former Chief Marketing Officer for the Coca Cola Company.  “The sole purpose of marketing is to get more people to buy more of your product, more often, for more money.”  At its most basic level, every marketing or advertising tactic you use should have an incremental, positive effect on your bottom line or you shouldn’t be using it. 

David Ogilvy, the most renowned pioneer in the advertising field, says it this way.  “I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information.  When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’  I want you to find it so interesting that you BUY THE PRODUCT.” 

Irrelevant brilliance is the bane of advertising.  Quirky, humorous ads with no message clutter the airwaves and blur the line between programming and advertising.  But most of these ads fail half way through their mission.  You may pay attention to the low brow humor, animated animals or talking babies, but if you walk away laughing at the delivery and take no action, it was a wasted effort.  As advertisers, we shouldn’t be trying to make ads that people LIKE, we should be trying to make ads that make people BUY.  With that in mind, humor should only be used in advertising if it serves the purpose of moving consumers to take a buying action.

Two great examples come to mind.  Remember the Coke commercial featuring football player Mean Joe Green?  A young boy offers an injured and upset football player his Coke and Mean Joe politely  says, “Thanks” and then gives the kid his jersey.  Everyone loved this ad, from critics to focus groups.  The one man who didn’t love it was Sergio Zyman, who pulled it after only a short time on the air.  Why?  Because despite the positive response to the ad itself, it wasn’t motivating anyone to buy more Coke.  It was irrelevant brilliance because it gave consumers no reason to buy.  It was an ad that felt good, but fell flat.

Now picture the exact opposite of Mean Joe Green.  You guessed it, Mr. Whipple.  Mr. Whipple spent years in his supermarket squeezing rolls of Charmin toilet paper, and everyone hated him.  He tested terribly and ranked high in consumer annoyance factor.  But those ads resulted in skyrocketing sales of Charmin bathroom tissue.  I can promise you that ad won zero awards at any French festivals. 

The bottom line is this:  great advertising is advertising that produces results, and the only results that matter in marketing are increased consumer responses.  A straight forward message with a compelling reason to buy is more often than not a much better advertisement than a quirky feel good ad that leaves consumers smiling and scratching their heads.  I laugh every time I see one of those Budweiser “Whassup” commercials?  But I still drink Coors.  Whassup with that?