John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
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October 2008

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October 31 2008
Yup, more bleak economic news: “evidence”  that we’re in a recession. Well, everyone who wasn’t an economist probably already knew that. Here’s the story, from the Associated Press via Yahoo! News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Lest we poke the economists unfairly, they are as a group constrained by a definition that sort of doesn’t allow a recession to be declared while it’s in motion, only after it happened. It sounds like the economic version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

At any rate, most savvy retailers have seen this coming despite optimistic predictions of eensie-beensie sales increases over last year (see October 22 and September 23). They know they need to keep marketing through a recession, but they may not know where or how.

I have opinions, yes I do. Major retailers still have the buying power to set up the bargains and pull people in. So the key factor is the customer experience once in-store rather than any form of advertising. It’s cross-promoting the heck out of everything, making sure the staff is happy and well taken care of, and the restrooms are clean.

But what about smaller retailers and niche brands? I think there, the #1 factor is the Internet. A holiday re-theming of the home page is essential, as is an overall freshening up of content – partly to give returning customers something new to look at, and partly to entice new customers through organic search (ah, yes, the e-tailer’s #1 prospect is Google). The #2 factor, by the way, is probably relationship marketing – revisiting and recapturing customers and using them to get more customers.

Unfortunately, if you didn’t have an Internet strategy before now, it’s going to be all but impossible to implement one by late November. The best shot at this late date is going to be a strategy of borrowing, using existing tools and tapping into existing audiences. For instance, getting and promoting an eBay store should be automatic.
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October 30 2008
Here’s another great personal collection of ads and brochure pages. This time, the focus of the collection is watches, particularly Seiko watches:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Like most of these amateur advertising archives, this one is a labor of love, and love is often indiscriminate. So, you have to wade through numerous catalog clip-outs to discover actual consumer ads. They are, well, reflective of the advertising trends of the time. The classic Ogilvy Layout #1 is amply represented, (“Seiko Time in London,” half-way down the page, is a particularly good example) as is the hero-shot layout of the 80s. There’s even a clever headline referring to the dismal economic climate ...  two decades ago.

These ad collections are fun to browse, either for historical study or inspiration. Check this one out now because, like a lot of these personal collections, it could suddenly go offline.
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October 28 2008
Hot Wheels cars! Here’s a great look at the rise, fall, and resurrection of a great American toy brand, from Newsweek:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The company, like many, diluted the brand in an effort to broaden its appeal and gain market share and money. The result was a dismal failure; it wasn’t until the brand refocused on its core audience with core attractions, that its fortunes began to rise again. Well, that and some well-timed nostalgia. Currently, the maker of Hot Wheels, Mattel, is worth more than General Motors.

I was more of a Matchbox car geek because of the authentic scaling and the boxes (yes, I kept the boxes – even as a kid I appreciated package design). But I had Hot Wheels cars too, and enough track and accessories to fill the family room. I stopped buying them when the dies had gotten so obviously cheap, and the quality control so loose, that the cars looked terrible. In recent years, though, there’s been a vast improvement in production quality, and the current stuff looks pretty good even if it is made in China. However, the instant collectible thing – the Treasure Hunt series and its ilk – is downright silly, right up there with self-proclaimed collectible plates.

Anyway, Hot Wheels has a great brand story, and the mistakes made along the way are well worth paying attention to because they seem to be made over and over again when times are good and companies get greedy.
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October 27 2008
Oh, this is too cool. A killer rant on advertising, ideas, and what passes for creativity today, from advertising legend George Lois. Here it is, from Fast Company:
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It’s one thing to act like one of the Mad Men, and another thing entirely to be one. George Lois is the real deal, a creative visionary who earned his bona fides when today’s creative elders were still in diapers. Key snip, straight from the master:

Most advertising today is group grope. The marketing people decide what a point of view should be, then they go out and test it and they come back with all kinds of opinions about strategy. That’s fed down to the copywriter and art director who are stuck with that whole approach. It’s an art but they’ve made it a science.

I’d say that they’ve attempted to make it a pseudo-science, but there you go. Lois goes on to say: “You can’t test great advertising. You can only test the mediocre.

Man, this is mandatory reading for anyone even remotely connected to advertising.
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October 24 2008
Just in time for the weekend, a lighthearted look at – or, at least, a positive spin on – the current crop of negative political advertising, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

It’s an interesting, thought, that because political advertising is so transient, it’s easier for newly elected presidents and recently defeated candidates to distance themselves from their campaigns. That permits a gracious acceptance, a graceful bow-out, and a quicker reunification of The People after a divisive campaign.

Yet, thanks to the advertising, the voters can’t help but be at least somewhat informed on where each candidate stands on the issues nearest and dearest to them.

Which brings up yet another way in which most political advertising is not like real advertising. Typically, there is little effort to communicate a message that will live beyond Election Day; there’s little or no branding going on. It’s all retail-oriented advertising designed to get people into the voting booths to purchase – um, vote for – a particular candidate.
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October 23 2008
Greenwashing is wrapping an advertising message in a cloak of eco-friendliness. I last mentioned it on February 18 2008. And now, as environmentalism goes way, way mainstream, there’s more of it about than ever before. Here’s the story, from the Guardian (UK):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Well, I have a little problem with the author’s premise, that there was ever a time of “no-holds-barred advertising,” when “anything went.” There were any number of censorship standards applied to advertising, as well as moral codes and a variety of certifications to boot. Remember, advertising in America lacks Constitutional protection. So it has long been held to a higher standard of strict truth than, say, political speeches, placards, or slogans on T-shirts, which is why so much of advertising relies on the power of implication.

That said, I agree completely that the vast majority of efforts to adopt the green label range from the silly to the bizarre, and that most claims of corporate environmentalism amount to nothing more than a shell game.

As to the question the article poses, “Can we shop our way to sustainability?” I say positively not. As I said back on April 26 2007, over a year ago, consumerism is innately not green.
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October 22 2008
Here’s yet another story forecasting a gloomy holiday season for retailers, from my beloved, beleaguered San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

OK, let’s look at the data. The surveys say that people will spend less on holiday shopping this year than last. There is an 11% drop in spending predicted among young adults. This isn’t retail economic theory, these are real people, saying that they are really cutting back. Furthermore, the shopping season is five days shorter this year than last. 

And yet, the International Council of Shopping Centers forecasts that sales will increase a “mere” 1.8% over last year.

Once again, there’s that corporate entitlement thing showing up again, where companies think they have an inalienable right to growth, even in an environment in which survival, not growth, is the key concern. (See my Ad Blog entry for September 23 2008.)

That goes double for companies that have diluted or squandered their brands pursuing “growth” (GM, anyone?) and now find themselves without a unique position in the marketplace. These companies have willingly turned themselves into yet another parity product.

If anyone is listening to a little ol’ advertising copywriter who is hardly a retail analyst (but who has 25 years of real-world experience tapping into what actual consumers feel and accurately influencing their behavior) here is my prediction. Retail sales will fall  this holiday season, barring a wildly optimistic swing in the economy. Even if the credit markets loosen up, (a) it probably won’t trickle down to ordinary consumers fast enough and (b) ordinary consumers are gun-shy. Oh, and (c) there’s nothing all that exciting to buy. As far as consumers are concerned, the rug has already been pulled from under their feet; the roof has already fallen in. So, when they look ahead, it’s easy to imagine far worse in the near future. So they’ll hunker down.

Which spells opportunities, for those brands (and marketers) nimble enough, and insightful enough, to seize them.
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October 21 2008
Having firmly planted in Microsoft the core concept for its “I’m a PC” ad campaign, Apple is now having fun detonating its conceptual time bomb. Here’s the story, from the E-Commerce Times (Encino, CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Is it branding? Yes. Is it marketing? Um, kinda. That’s because the ads are aimed at its own partisans, who now get to cheer their side while jeering the opposition.

Sort of like political advertising. Except without First Amendment protection.
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October 17 2008
I was leafing through a magazine and came upon this salient snip:

So long as employment stays high most families will be able to carry their present high debt burden. However, the present size of that burden is, of itself, a threat to employment. As families like that described by Banker Joseph R. Jones go under, the market that family represented for cars and TV sets is gone for a time. In place of a market for goods, there is, instead, a repossessed home, used car, and TV set added to the supply of goods competing for buyers, and if that supply should grow very heavy, production would be cut back, employment fall off, and the downward cycle would be on. If that time comes, many a family whose installment debt load was reasonable, as long as employment was high, will be pushed into bankruptcy by the unforeseen loss of jobs.

In other words, easy credit in combination with the hard sell has prepared for much swifter tragedy should the deflation already under way quicken. ...

The magazine? Consumer Reports, in an article highly critical of the aggressive marketing of easy consumer credit. The date? May 1953. Yes, 55 years ago, lest anyone think that what is going on in the world today is something totally new or impossible to have anticipated.

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal quoted in the CR piece, some 75% of auto sales in 1953 were bought on credit, compared to a “normal” 50-55%. It is not said whether that percentage included used vehicles; I’m not sure. But the point is, we have been far above that percentage for some time, possibly ever since, and that number didn’t include things like automotive leases.

I’ll let a ghost of the past have the last word:

“Not since the old days of the depression and ‘balloon’ contracts,” said one dealer, “have we had so many 30- and 36-month contracts.”
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October 16 2008
Personal ads have been around for centuries, but enjoyed a nationwide surge of popularity and creativity during the Civil War. Here’s the story, from The Fort Morgan Times (Fort Morgan, CO):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I think it’s interesting that the number of W4M ads exploded in 1864, a leap year (which made it proper for women to ask men out). Also, that many of the M4W ads were placed by groups of soldiers who clubbed their funds together to place a single ad seeking correspondents. No NSA ads, though. Although the situation probably existed, human nature and desire not having changed much in the 150 years before or after the Civil War, it didn’t have a name. That I know of, anyway. Doubtless some history buff will write to straighten me out, which would be great. I still regret not having bought a book I leafed through at a used bookstore, filled with love letters from the Civil War. Some of them were breathtaking in their explicitness. Hey, these people grew up on farms and there was a war on; they knew what they were about.

A personal note about personal ads: I met my wife through a personal ad. The best ad copy I ever wrote, and it had nothing to do with feeds and speeds or even features and benefits. Just pure connection. Which is what advertising is all about.
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October 15 2008
Advertisers are walking that fine line between tragedy and comedy, as more ad concepts feature economic themes. Here’s the story, from The New York Times:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Some of these concepts work better than others. However, borrowed interest is still borrowed interest. People will get tired of so-called creative connections between cookware/frozen dinners/Brazilian wax jobs and the economy, especially when they will soon get tired of hearing anything at all about the economy.

Right now, there’s a horrified fascination with what’s going on; we know we’re taking a place in history and are hyper-aware, already priming ourselves for stories to swap. Heck, we didn’t have to get shot at taking a beachhead or advancing a line in a jungle; for two generations, this is our hour of glorious suffering and it’s hard not to flash forward and imagine how noble we will be.

But that fascination will pass a lot quicker than the recession. So, like all fads, if by now you don’t have a bailout concept out there, it’s probably too late to develop one.
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October 14 2008
Newspapers are scrambling for ad dollars, and even their online editions are struggling to gain traction. Here’s the story, from CRM Daily (Woodland Hills, CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

It’s like I’ve long espoused*, you have to own the channel. I’ll go a bit further: it is strategically essential to own the channel as a means of tactical communication.

The media properties that have their own online channels – like the BBC, the New York Times, many of the television networks – are better positioned to take advantage of their content. Those that have failed to build their own channels, like my beloved, beleaguered San Diego Union-Tribune, are dependent on third-party ad networks to deliver the advertising they need to be sustainable. Once that relationship starts, it becomes impossible for the media property to build its own brand exclusive of the network; its content has become commoditized.

Owning the channel isn’t everything. Obviously, online channels like YouTube and eBay**  offer tremendous reach into a massively large audience. However, if that audience isn’t parsed beyond standard demographic groupings down to the Most Desirable Individual, then the new media opportunities are being squandered in a return to the old-school concept of mass media; none of the exciting possibilities are used as well or as much as they should be.

Perversely, by owning the channel you dispense with the need for a mass audience. You attract (and intrigue and persuade) only the Most Desirable Individuals, almost by definition because they seek you. Yeah, that sounds passive, but it’s not. Barring sheer luck, it takes a fair amount of marketing to be discovered.

Unfortunately, there’s little reason to discover most newspaper websites beyond checking the local weather for an upcoming trip or looking into local coverage when a local story goes national. The situation is circular; that’s the content issue these media properties back themselves into once their own brand is compromised by the lack of a channel to call their own.

* I’ve believed in owning the channel since my innocent academic days, when I developed the Advertising Ecosystem, a ecologically based model of communication. I voiced it here as far back as December 4 2003, and as recently as September 1 2007 and, contradicting myself a bit, July 22 2008. Owning the channel is why this blog isn’t syndicated or on a feed. I don’t want to talk to everybody; I want to talk to you.

** Yes, eBay is a retail channel, but it’s also a media channel that offers real-world, real-time message and market testing capabilities.
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October 13 2008
This article in Adweek bemoans the lack of creativity among today’s major advertising agencies:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The active presence of Bogusky in the upper management of Crispin Porter + Bogusky indicates that creatives today are leading hot shops. I think the problem, if there is one, may lie in perception. First, because you can’t draw conclusions about history going forward. Second, because a senior-level old timer who writes for Adweek and longs for the Good Old Days may not be aware of the latest hot work because he or she is no longer personally targeted by the ads, and, going further, may not know where to find them. 

Also, I think the new breed of hot shop tends to keep a lower profile than its predecessors, either out of a genuine lack of desire for publicity or an equally genuine fear that a proprietary process might be cloned or a client might be swiped. And, I think more clients are relying upon a nimble virtual shop made up of a stable of freelance talent, directly availing themselves of senior-level talent without an agency name.

There will always be hot creative agencies with entrepreneurial hunger. What may have changed, is the media environment. The ability to micro-target means more people than ever (including advertising commentators and critics) are being specifically and strategically excluded from receiving advertising messages. And, in the glory days of mass media, ad agencies would scramble over each other for a mention in the trade pubs, especially with photos. Now, not so much.
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October 10 2008
Coldwell Banker, a major real estate brokerage, is trying a retail tactic to move inventory: putting properties on sale for a limited time. Here’s the story from my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

The sale begins today and runs for ten days, and includes some 25,000 homes nationwide including 275 here in San Diego. However, unlike retailers, Coldwell Banker isn’t doing a lot of advertising support for the sale. Yes, this article probably began its life as a corporate press release, but there needs to be more ground support than newspaper articles (especially since newspapers are losing readers left and right). While an ad campaign is allegedly planned, the company seems to be relying on its agents to promote the sale. That strikes me as misguided. This should have been a coordinated, nationally advertised effort. Having developed a potentially powerful tactic, the company is leaving it up to individual agents scattered across the country to implement what should be a national sales drive.

On the other hand, perhaps the reality is that 10% off isn’t a big enough sale to get people excited on a national level. Consumers are so used to seeing large percentage price reductions on sale merchandise, that a smaller increment may be viewed as ho-hum or even ignored completely.

One note about the agent’s commission. It seems to me that if a home is put on sale for, say, $50,000 less, the agent is already taking a $2,500 reduction in his or her commission, since it’s tied to the selling price. So cutting the price is cutting the commission.
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October 9 2008
The credit squeeze is tightening, the stock market is lurching downward, and financial institutions are scrambling to reposition themselves from innovators to safe havens. Here’s the story, by the New York Times’ Stuart Elliott, from CRM Daily (Woodland Hills, CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

On a retail level, it’s easy to understand the push to promote deposit-focused products like CDs, especially with cash in increasingly short supply. Those retail efforts work within the brand to support the entire business – indeed, times like these are when the investment in branding can really pay huge dividends. In a crisis, there’s no competitive edge like starting out with an image of credibility and strength.

However, it would be hard to justify new branding in response to recent events. With the situation so fluid, a position that looks like a winner today might be obsolete in days, and branding must be consistent to be effective and ultimately successful.
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October 8 2008
This is a cool development. The state of Massachusetts is trying to lure companies in creative industries, such as advertising. Here’s the story, from the MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, MA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

According to a press release from the Office of Housing and Economic Development, quoted in the article, the “creative economy” in Massachusetts provides jobs for 109,000 people, or roughly 3.3% of the employed workforce. That’s not only quite a few jobs, but it also represents a huge growth potential. Growth? Here’s an intriguing snip:

During the Great Depression, Schupbach said, the creative sector did not fail but in fact grew, with the help of government programs such as the WPA, or Works Progress Administration.

Jason Schupbach is the state’s appointed “creative economy industry director,” the first person in the nation to hold that particular job function. In addition, the state is developing a “Creative Economy Initiative” and a 23-member “Creative Economy Council.” It seems to me that 23 people in a committee is overkill and may hinder performance, but every facet of the creative industry wants representation, in particular the arts and media.

Finally, to put Schupbach’s comment in context, the creative sector jobs that were generated by WPA projects included a lot of low-paid labor – breaking or laying concrete for public art installations, for instance. Although artists, filmmakers, and publishers reaped income from the WPA, the primary mission was less about the art and more about providing employment for skilled and unskilled labor. It’s not like the government was subsidizing ad agencies, although it looks like this new organization might be open to that.

It’s been a while since I’ve pointed to a cool archive, so this might be the right time. Here’s a searchable collection of WPA posters, from the Library of Congress:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Check out the Collection Highlights section for a categorized overview of a few dozen posters created over seven short years. It’s eye-opening to see how talented artists could push the envelope with two or three colors.
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October 6 2008
As Election Day draws closer, the gloves come off and the consciences take off. Here’s a report about the state of the art in sheer, bald-faced falsehoods in political advertising, from the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH):
Advertising copywriter blog link

A few key points. First, and in this context, lying works. Political lies have worked in the past, and they continue to work despite – or perhaps because of – increasing consumer cynicism about messages in the media. Second, there’s a difference between negative and untruthful, and what we’re talking about here is untruthfulness.

Third, and this is the missing piece that’s not covered in the article, lies in political advertising exist because political advertising is the only form of advertising that’s fully protected by the First Amendment. In other words, we hold our junk food and junk bond advertisers to a higher standard of truth than our elected officials.

Hey, you think maybe that’s part of the problem?
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October 3 2008
Here’s some unexpected excitement in the world of audience metrics. The State of New York is going to sue Arbitron over its new radio audience measurement methodology. Here’s the story, from Mediaweek (NY):
Advertising copywriter blog link

There are two probably irrelevant side notes. First, Mediaweek is owned by Nielsen Business Media, which is connected to Arbitron competitor Nielsen Media Research. Second, Arbitron PPM was being promoted on the article page with a banner ad (or, it was when I read the article today).

Although audience metrics is an area of advertising that is going through some huge and truly exciting advances, the last thing you’d expect is for a methodology to land one in court. This one, which requires panel participants to wear a device that captures encoded signals from broadcast radio stations, seems more-likely to capture genuine habits than a diary. However, it’s impossible to tell, just by measuring the duration of encoded signals, whether the panelist was actually listening, and that’s still the key elusive metric for radio. You sorta-kinda get that information, along with audience feedback, from a diary, but the diary methodology has its own issues with separating actual from imagined listening habits.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
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October 2 2008
Enough already with the bad economic news. Bud Light is coming out swinging, launching a new $50 million campaign aimed at rival Miller Lite. Here’s the story, from the Associated Press via
Advertising copywriter blog link

This play has more to it than the conventional wisdom that maintaining or increasing advertising during economic downturns better positions your product or brand for the recovery. It also takes advantage of a tactical lull while MillerCoors sorts out product positioning for its two competitive products, Miller Lite and Coors Light.

Too bad the ad creative sounds so trite.
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October 1 2008
In the late 1990s, many financial institutions paid enormous sums to plaster their brand names on sports arenas. And now, the financial meltdown has many of those naming deals unwinding. Here’s the story, from the Associated Press via
Advertising copywriter blog link

For one of these venues, Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center, a new name would be the fourth in 14 years. That, folks, ain’t branding. Those sponsoring companies, whatever they were, didn’t get much for their investments.

I think corporate naming of quasi-public facilities is a waste of money for the sponsor. There’s smarter branding that can be done for those dollars, including – assuming it makes business sense to be in the sporting arena in the first place – game-day and in-game branded promotions and sponsorships.
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Backwards in time to September 2008

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The Tightwad Marketing project
When you should consider hiring a freelance copywriter
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
6877 Barker Way
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