Hey Congress: your messaging strategy sucks.

Congress weighs in on advertising again.  Clumsily, again.  In a new post on Adage.com, Nat Ives & Rich Thomaselli detail new efforts from Congress that attempt to either strip tax benefits of DTC pharma ads, or add heavier guidelines in several online and offline connection points.  The main takeaway is that there’s NO ORGANIZED APPROACH to what Congress is doing, making it less and less clear as to why they’re enacting all this “stuff” in the first place.  If it’s about consumer protection, they should say so.  If it’s about fiscal concerns, say so.  But as you read this story, it’s clear:  there’s no rhyme or reason.

What the government needs right now (aside from a vacation and a valium,) is a stronger messaging strategy.  When you’re talking about tens of millions of jobs, hundreds of billions of locally generated (and taxable) dollars, and badly-needed trillions churned in the domestic economy, you had better be on point.  And these new reports of heavier-than-usual-legislation-in-a-recessed-economy-trying-to-pull-itself-by-the-bootstraps do not produce a juicy tagline whatsoever.

On this blog, we’ve already discussed how Congress is adversely affecting the consumer in the process of all of this.  Ad targeting (online or offline) helps put marketing in context, and makes it less “noisy” for the consumer.  Putting these opt-ins and opt-outs and “are-you-sure?” buffers in between consumers and ad messages isn’t just messy, but it may ultimately cost the country billions in lost revenue.  See the post below:  Check Your Privacy – On the Floor.

This latest wave of government bureacracy is fueling the stereotype of Democratic government – we look wasteful and petty in the face of a tidal wive of really important agenda items.  The marketing community could be HELPING the cause right now in a big way by doing what it does best:  keeping the conversation on point, filtering out the noise and making a lot of this easier for American consumers to understand.  But every day Congress flings another dart in the agency world’s direction, they’re – we’re – going to be less and less inclined to do so.

Meet the new advertising. Same as the old advertising.

This morning, I started my day by reading several articles, blog posts and emails.  And it seems that all of them were about “viral video.”  Did you see those cute little babies on roller skates?  (How did they do THAT?)  Or the naked stewardess?  How about the viral video that EXPLAINS how the Samsung viral video was filmed?  Did you hear that the ad world is anxiously awaiting new web videos from FedEx?

Viral, viral, viral.  And this stuff is way out in the open.

But here’s the thing.  It’s all been done before.

The online revolution has been a liberating force – inside and out of the marketing sphere – particularly for the information consumer.  Companies large and small cram their value propositions into an 800 pixel frame for the world to see.  Politicians can clearly (sometimes) lay out their platforms for voters.  And millions of people (including yours truly) with opinions on millions of topics, blog the days away, blasting and re-shaping the editorial and cultural landscape.

But what about advertising?  Why is it that advertising is ALWAYS about making these little movies?  In the three and a half decades since the early 1970’s, the television :30 or :60 has remained the absolute pinnacle of creative output.  TV wins the big awards.  TV drives the big budgets.  TV, TV, TV.  It puts radio and print ads and direct and outdoor and promotions out to dry.

So here comes the new new economy.  And the new new Internet.  And the new new advertising opportunities.  Anything goes, right?  Flash.  Ajax. New banner sizes. Peelbacks. Ads that “fly” across your website.  Wow.  So many possibilities for creativity.  So many opportunities for engagement.  So many ways to measure!

And yet what is the new new advertising form?  The teacher’s pet of them all?  TV spots, disguised as “viral” videos!

Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss.

A smart channel choice doesn’t have to be online.

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal discusses how some movie studios are a little miffed with Redbox, the hot rent-a-movie-for-a-buck-from-a-kiosk-at-your-local-grocery-store distribution vehicle that has taken the nation by storm.

There are about 17,000 such kiosks across the country, and they all feature scores of new movie titles that are either hard to find or harder to get via the DVD rental channel (e.g. Blockbuster,) or more expensive via the direct-to-consumer channel (as in Netflix or several carrier on-demand programs.)  For instance, my wife and I just watched “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” via our programming carrier’s onDemand option.  It cost us five bucks to watch it on the spot with a few clicks of our remote.  We had a 24-hour window in which to view the film.  (Helpful, since it runs nearly three hours.)  For $1, I could have driven two blocks to the grocery store and rented it for the same 24-hour period.  I could also opt for additional 24-hour periods, each at a $1 increment.

Needless to say, Redbox represents a smart and tidy little distribution channel for entertainment, and a super-convenient choice for consumers.  And imagine this:  it’s NOT online!  And yet, some movie studios are griping about the channel, claiming that it’s cannibalizing sales that it could otherwise realize.

When a consumer rents a DVD via Redbox instead of Blockbuster (for instance,) the studio is losing commission.  This is simply based on different channel revenue models.  Blockbuster has a deal that pays the studio a percentage of EACH rental fee.  The Redbox model acts like a more independent intermediary:  it buys the title at face value ONCE, and then recoups that expense and realizes a profit as the film is rented multiple times. (It even gets bulk rates on some titles from some studios, so they may pay even less than face value.)

Movie studios need to learn a lesson from their music studio colleagues.  When the RIAA tried to block new channel choices for consumers (heck, the recording industry even tried to get a percentage of sales from cassette tapes, claiming that they were being used to duplicate music without authorization!) it blew up in their faces.  Out of the ashes of the Napster and Limewire explosions rose iTunes, a new channel that provided great value and convenience to the consumer and worked a good backroom deal for the recording institutions.

Today, movie studios need to realize that Redbox is a channel choice that’s really good for consumers, too.  Instead of blocking and litigating (which is what Universal is doing right now with Redbox,) they should embrace and engage.  There may be smart and very creative marketing angles that studios can take using ONLY the Redbox channel.  Imagine that – a new marketing plan that drives people OFFLINE.  What is the world coming to?

Microsoft advertising is HELPING Apple

Microsoft is pretty happy with their new ad campaign from Crispin Porter & Bogusky.  After all, what could be better than pairing one of the biggest and most venerated technology brands on the planet with the creative weirdos who brought us “subservient chicken?”

In a survey of some of the recent ads in the PC Hunter campaign, “Lauren” says “I’m just not cool enough to be a Mac person.”  “Giampaolo,” a tech-savvy and demanding user, says “I don’t want to pay for the brand, I want to pay for the computer.” “Sheila,” a filmmaker, says “this Mac only comes with 2GB of RAM.”

So, what’s the big deal?  First of all, they’re factually inaccurate, but that’s never been a huge concern in television advertising anyway.  In fact, Microsoft COO Kevin Turner is now confirming a rumour that Apple called Microsoft and threatened legal action if they don’t pull the spots, based on some erroneous lines.

Second, someone should probably tell these “users” that in all of the Microsoft empire, you won’t find a single laptop being produced.  Not one.  Not anywhere.  But I suppose that an ad campaign comparing operating systems would be a bit much for the prime time audience, even coming from Crispin.

Okay, enough about the spots.  What about the marketing behind them? It seems like Crispin is doing more for Mac than they are for Microsoft in this very un-Crispin-type campaign. First of all, they’re positioning apples (nice pun, eh) against oranges…Microsoft is an OS only, Apple actually MANUFACTURES and BUILDS laptops and desktops. It’s like comparing GoodYear Tires with BMW cars and then bragging that the tires are cheaper.

But of all the marketing strategies that were considered, and for all the aura and creative mystique of the agency, and all the inherent attributes of the Microsoft brand – and its history of success – that were laid on the table, they went to war with a “we’re cheaper” strategy? Wow. Suddenly those old ads from Mc-Cann Erickson – the ones with the kids and the drawn-in rocketships – look really good right now.

Want to know how the Internet really works? Ask a 12-year-old girl.

I was recently in Tampa conducting focus groups for an exciting edu-tainment website that’s set to launch in the Fall.  Over the course of two days, I met with more than fifty young Tampa area residents between the ages of 11 and 19. During the course of the discussions, we used an open format, so attendees could stop me and ask questions or pose comments as they arose.

One young girl, a 12-year-old named Allie, had more questions and comments than any of the youngsters I saw that weekend.  And they weren’t just silly questions like “what’s the URL again?”  or “why did you choose green?”  There were no forced comments like “I think your site is cool.”  No, these were pointed, insightful, investigative questions and pithy and mature comments that followed a clear and curious narrative line.

Allie asked about security and wondered if her private information would be shared.  She wanted to know about the pricing model, and would the company consider “tiered” pricing?  (She didn’t use that word, but that’s what she was driving at.)  Allie asked about how much savings she would realize by opting for the subscription model.  Allie wanted to know about merchandise, and if she would be incentivized for participating in the viral spread.  Allie suggested that the client add content to the offering to appeal to different demographics and that they use YouTube as a place to promote the platform.  Allie thought adding a Skype-like chat feature would really put this thing over the top.  Allie thought integrating mobile would be really helpful, so she could get updates about the site whenever and wherever she was.  Seriously, this is ONE kid.

More than anything else, Allie’s comments illustrated the key point about the web:  more than any other medium before it, it has put the user and the user experience at the center of the marketing universe.  This has been written about many times before.  But for some reason, the disposition of a pre-teen female may be the optimal example: generally aware of herself and her surroundings, slightly self-serving, insanely curious, quaintly creative and wildly and unabashedly participative when encouraged.

As I prepared my summary to the client about the findings, I found that almost all my comments back to the partners and their development team had Allie written all over them.  Next time you’re thinking about launching a site (for any target audience,) consider inviting an Allie over for tea.  You just might get the key insights you need.

Check your privacy – on the Floor

The federal government is preparing to introduce a bill on the floor of the House of Representatives to determine how and how much information websites and web advertisers can or should collect.  The current option includes an FTC recommendation that would give consumers control over how much information is collected [via a widget or checkbox,] and even allow them to opt out of sharing such data.

The ironic part of this story is that this is one of those big and simple ideas that make the web great, and Congress is about to bungle the whole thing into a legislated, crap-tastic mess.  The key reason sites and advertisers collect data is so that the user is served ads and results that are contextually relevant.  (Note that the verb is “served.”  Not “offered.”  Not “blindsided.”  Not “broadcast.”)  The web’s most identifiable and profitable USP is exactly what the Federal Trade Commission is trying to undo.

Historically, advertising has gotten remarkably better (at the work and the results) as it has gotten more targeted.  In media buying, we used to buy males 18-25.  Now we buy males, aged 19, who live in one of five ZIP codes within five miles of my retail location, like heavy metal and pizza and are thinking of attending a technical institute.  The ads have gotten better.  The ROI has improved for advertisers and the rest of those boys just outside the detailed segment are getting LESS ads that they don’t want to see.

Behavioral targeting is a very good thing.  The web monitors my searches, and the sites I visit, and uses that data to send me RELEVANT and TIMELY marketing messages.  It helps me shop (Amazon welcomes me with “Recommendations for you!”) It helps me fill out online forms.  It sends me email updates on stocks I’m following.  It also saves me from a slew of ads for hosiery, or country music, or geriatric footwear.

If we begin walking down this slippery slope under the oh-so-noble guise of “privacy” and “protection,” we’ll end up hurting marketers, media, agencies and – worst of all – consumers in the process.

Next up: the new, new, new, new web.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, I read that Google is working hard to push adoption of the HTML5 standard, the next horizon of the language that basically runs the Internet.  In HTML5, software developers and web designers can build more advanced applications that can run more efficiently – and in some cases ENTIRELY – on a web browser.  Generally speaking, it’s probably part of a larger plan by Google to gain new ground and build users of Chrome, its proprietary browser.  And if we’ve learned anything about Google, it’s probably something even larger still, like a wholly-hosted software environment on the web. (That Google owns, naturally.)

Among many aspects to consider, a major factor at play here is compensation.  Software development companies large and small make considerable investments in research and development and testing and modeling.  The payoff of course is in selling that code to consumers or business customers.  What will the new compensation model look like if all software creations and updates report directly to the web? For users, could it mean not shelling out hundreds (or for most Mac designers even thousands) of dollars on boxed software?  I think the Adobes and the Microsofts of the world (and their shareholders) will have something to say about that. Google has weighed in, and the battle for the new, new, new, new web is underway.

And what about the users and the user experience?  Is the computing world ready for a new set of standards?  The goal of pursuing an HTML5 agenda seems to be creating a web structure that allows all computers to run these applications on the web as easily as they do on your desktop. Sounds like a blessing. However, there are limitations to hurdle in the online environment.  Simple tasks that we take for granted (copying and pasting text, for instance) are no small feat in a hosted environment.  Converting software developers is one thing.  Selling this to millions of finicky Internet users is entirely another.