The Way We Advertise Now


I’m sure I’m not alone here: Mad Men changed my opinion of the advertising industry. Watching Elisabeth Moss’s character Peggy Olson make a pitch, yell at Jon Hamm, or boss around her dim underlings at her new firm, I feel a greater amount of respect for people who work in the industry than I did five years ago. Advertising is surely more tedious, stressful and frustrating than this show makes it out to be, but there is still the sense that creative teams in advertising have the ability to do beautiful work, smart work, groundbreaking work — work that can be appreciated not just by people in advertising and related fields, but appreciated by the average person on an artistic level.

One effect of this is that advertising and marketing degrees have risen in popularity since the show came on the air, according to a Forbes article published in March. Another effect is that, according to Ben Littlefield of the ad firm Three Sixty Solutions, clients have been demanding the kind of treatment that is portrayed on the show.

“There’s a new expectation of how an ad agency should look, how it should act, and how it’s perceived based on people watching that show,” Littlefield told the Examiner in 2009, as the third season of the show was coming to a close. “People who are hiring an ad agency for the first time are expecting Don Draper to walk in the door,” he added. Littlefield claimed that even in the midst of a recession, his company was able to bring in more money by — à la Don Draper — dressing more formally and more aggressively defending their work instead of “bowing down to the whims of a client.”

A third effect is that, while we think we just have more respect for the advertising industry, consumers like me are also becoming more receptive to ads in general. Preceding and concurrent with Mad Men is Ford’s work for American Idol. I will readily admit that if I were in the market for a car, I would be much more willing to consider a Ford than I was before having Ford’s American Idol ads shoved in my face four months out of every year for the past decade. There are a few reasons for this (in additional to the subliminal reasons that only Ford itself knows): my opinion of American car companies changed after the bailout. President Obama made a convincing argument for why these companies matter so deep to our economy, culture and history. The second reason is Ford’s use of the Dirty Jobs guy, Mike Rowe. During the recession, Rowe brought a (faux?) humbleness to the Ford brand from which the company greatly benefited, in my opinion.

The third reason is that Ford’s ads began to integrate their products in the lives of a few of my singing contemporaries, even if it was in a ridiculously forced manner (actual Ford commercials outside of the show have then tended to feature bubbly young people not all that different from the Idol contestants themselves). Idol contestants, whose backstories and dreams we’d learn over the course of a few weeks, were made to engage in a music video “produced” by Ford that of course involved Fords: driving Fords, standing next to Fords, singing about Fords, singing in Fords. And it had a more positive effect on me than simply seeing a car wind down the Pacific Coast Highway while some male celebrity (perhaps Jon Hamm) talked at me about how this car differed from other seemingly identical cars in its class. It wasn’t because any of creative content of Ford’s spots was good. It profoundly wasn’t. It was because of the integration of the product. Ford succeeded at convincing me that its cars were young, not necessarily rich people’s cars: cars that looked good, were affordable, had advanced technological features, and above all, featured competitive gas mileage.

“American Idol’s high ratings make it a mini-Super Bowl every week,” Crystal Worthem, the company’s head of Brand Content and Alliances, told Autotrader in 2011. “The show attracts a huge audience that is able to connect with our vehicles in a fresh and meaningful way because of the custom content we have been able to create.” For the most part, this decade-plus relationship seems to have paid off. This year, Ford’s U.S. sales were up 11% during the first quarter, while the industry as a whole saw only a 6% increase. Analysts differ in opinion on what actually contributed to that increase. Reuters writes that an uptick in the housing market prompted sales of Ford’s F-150 truck, while Polk says the gains have come from redesigns of the Explorer, Fusion, and Escape, which are all touted during American Idol.

In a recent episode of Mad Men, Don Draper slyly convinces Jaguar not to allot more of its budget to local radio advertising by communicating, in a perverse way, how much that move would damage the car’s reputation as luxury and aspirational. What Ford has done with American Idol and elsewhere is the opposite approach. Its national campaigns focus on the accessibility and reliability of Fords. The ads represent a greater array of ethnicities than most car companies’ ads do (I’m looking at you, Subaru). The diversity usually seen amongst Idol contestants alone doesn’t hurt. Fords exist in reality; Jaguars and many other Pacific Coast Highway-loving car brands do not. On top of that, Ford ads are not dull. They may not feature brilliant writing, but they are memorable. If you asked me to describe a single recent ad for a Toyota or Honda, I couldn’t.

It is surprising that all it takes for me to consider a product as valuable is to see it enmeshed in reality (or “reality.”) But more and more brands are ditching aspirational in favor of real because they’re seeing that it doesn’t necessarily equate with damaging their brand or “slumming it.” Most consumers want to believe that the product makes sense in their life. That the creative team is actually talking to them. That the person in the ad could be them. That the people who wrote the ad are not all that different from them. Is it possible that Mad Men (along with the recession) has encouraged advertising teams to care more about the people they’re selling to? To be more sensitive to those people? To not see them as straw men? In Don and Peggy’s world, I would argue that the consumer is more valued and more respected than the client. The work comes first, then the consumer, then the client.

The Internet, while it has turned publishing upside down, has been a boon for the type of advertising that Ford has lately been good at. With the Internet, companies can take their messages a step further, if they want to. They can not just offer products, which they must do, but they can better integrate their products in “real” people’s lives, and more than that, they can offer services to potential consumers, which only reinforces the idea that a company has relevance in a consumer’s life, that it cares about the consumer in a broad sense, and in the long-term as well as the short-term.

Two athletic companies, Nike and Salomon, do this very well. With Nike+, Nike has made it blissfully easy for any runner with an Apple, Android or Nike gadget to record detailed information about their workouts including pace, distance and elevation. Nike+ users can also “race” each other and rack up points for beating records and goals. As Stefan Olander, Nike’s VP of digital sport, explained at a festival last year, “It used to be that when you bought a product, that was the end of the relationship. It’s classic marketing. ‘Great, you bought the product. See you in a year, when the next campaign comes along.’ That thinking has flipped on its head. Now, the purchase of any Nike product needs to be the beginning of the relationship we have with the consumer.”

It sounds a bit insidious — recall the adage that if a product is free, you are the product — but if Nike+ has actually helped change the way people think about running, has actually motivated people to exercise more, then it’s hard to see Nike’s plans as manipulative or evil. Personally, Nike+’s beautiful, colorful interface, a dream come true for design lovers and data nerds alike, gets me more excited about running. In an article about Nike+ in Wired in 2009, Mark McLusky interviewed one Nike+ user, Veronica Noone, who echoed this sentiment. “There’s something about seeing what you’ve done, how your pace changes as you go up and down hills, that made me more motivated,” she said. The two of us are clearly not alone. In 2009, Nike had attracted “more than 1.2 million runners who have collectively tracked more than 130 million miles and burned more than 13 billion calories.” Since that article was written, Nike+ membership has grown to a whopping 7 million users, according to a Nike press release from June 2012.

When such an important (and feel-good) service is being provided to you by a company, it’s pretty hard not to see that company in a more positive light. Does that translate to purchases? Apparently. Nike’s revenue has increased from approximately $10 billion in 2001 to $21 billion in 2011, according to an article in Fortune, which used data compiled by Advertising Age. That number is 30% larger than Nike’s closest competitor, Adidas. Since 2008, Nike’s advertising expenditures for “unmeasured media,” which Forbes describes as direct marketing, internet paid search, and social media, among others, has spiked, while its expenditures for traditional media advertising — TV, print and radio — has taken a significant dip. As Fortune‘s Scott Cendrowksi writes, “Before, the biggest audience Nike had on any given day was when 200 million tuned in to the Super Bowl. Now, across all its sites and social media communities, it can hit that figure any day.” While Nike won’t offer specifics about revenue tied to Nike+, it’s hard not to see a connection between its running revenue, which increased 30% to $2.8 billion in 2011, and Nike+ membership, which increased 55% in 2011, according to Fortune data.

Then there’s Salomon: the French-founded company, now owned by Finland’s Amer Sports (Adidas acquired Salomon in 1997, then sold it to Amer in 2005), makes shoes, skis, boots, clothing, and accessories for a variety of sports. To my mind, there’s something more aspirational, more out-of-reach, about Salomon than Nike, even though the price points are the same (roughly $100-$130 for a running shoe). My image of Salomon is tied to its broad reach in traditionally more extreme outdoor sports, including climbing, skiing, snowboarding and ultrarunning. Salomon represents Kilian Jornet, the ultrarunning wunderkind who recently appeared in the nude on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.

Athletic sponsorship is by no means a new thing, but Salomon has taken it to a new level. For one, the company produces beautiful documentaries about its athletes and posts them to its Salomon Running YouTube channel. Like the Nike+ tool, these documentaries are inspiring, motivational, and have a direct impact on my enthusiasm toward the sport. Salomon Running also has its own separate website, featuring much more than just products for sale. This only solidifies my feeling that Salomon cares about runners, that it’s not only interested in the bottom line, but that it’s invested in serving, entertaining and giving back to its consumers. I’m more willing to buy a Salomon trail shoe now than any other brand, despite knowing next to nothing about the brand prior to this year.

It’s not just because Jornet wears Salomon shoes and clothes and carries a Salomon pack and water bottle. It’s not enough for a company to slap some of its products on some amazing athlete like Eli Manning or Raphael Nadal. Salomon made an effort to actually bring Jornet into my living room. The company made this extraordinary athlete’s feats more believable, more accessible, and even more attainable, all the while subtly reminding me that he did it in Salomon products. It’s ultimately up to my brain whether I reach the limit of my athletic abilities, but I’m not ashamed to say that two billion-dollar companies have helped push me in the right direction.

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