Mystery in Marketing: Advertising and You, Part III

28 Jul

All right, all right, confession time.  Take a deep breath.  Somebody pass me my whiskey; I need to fortify myself for this.  Okay, here goes.

I am not as smart as I think I am.

There, I said it – are you bastards happy now?

For those of you currently gaping at your screens, wondering what could possibly have happened to incur such a pained admission from your favourite Prince of the Internet, let me elaborate.

In my last post I discussed a group called the Naughty Canada Coalition that was ostensibly lobbying to build and develop a Canadian red-light district.  They put up posters all over Toronto (and a few other cities, I guess, if my Correspondents are to be trusted – and I trust them all with my life), and their online presence was significant as well – Facebook page, website, and so on.

I was intrigued, as many people were, because the NCC campaign was deliberately vague and I happen to enjoy advertising that makes you do a little work to figure out what it’s selling (more on this in a minute).  And I have a vested interest in the political and social implications of what a red-light district would do for Canada, so I passed the word on to you, my dear readers.

As it happens, I (like many of you) was fooled.  Bamboozled.  Hoodwinked.  Duped.  The proverbial wool was pulled over my eyes.  It was with considerable disbelief that I visited the Facebook page last Wednesday only to discover the entire campaign was a clever little marketing trick developed by Volvo to introduce a new-model car.

Now, I’m not going to comment too deeply on the idea of Volvo using such a controversial topic to promote their vehicle, because frankly I think that’s a powder keg (and after playing a show last night and not getting home until almost 1:30 thanks to the darlings on the TTC who decided to drive their in-service blue light buses past me twice as I tried to get home, I’m too tired to deal with hate mail).

Leaving aside the more touchy elements of this campaign (which I present to you with no additional editorial comments) it got me to thinking about advertising.  The last few years have seen several emerging trends in marketing that seem to fall into a few categories.

The first of these is quite obviously viral marketing – witness the meteoric success of the recent Old Spice campaign featuring the hilariously talented Isaiah Mustafa – which speaks to the prevailing popularity of one-off comedy with a corporate message.  It’s the kind of campaign that gets people talking; it develops a character in the consumer mind that is so over-the-top you can’t really forget seeing it once you’ve been exposed (another good example is the Dos Equus campaign featuring the Most Interesting Man In The World).

The second, and the one to which I would ascribe Volvo’s red-light thing, is somewhat more insidious, but equally as effective.  It’s not a new concept, but social networking and social media have allowed it to flourish in the digital age.

I remember back in the halcyon days of yore that were the mid-90s when I was but a neophyte internet troll, posting unforgivably bad poetry on public sites (thank Christ under a pseudonym) and delving into the brave new world of instantaneous information.  One fine day when I was skipping yet another high-school English class and loitering in the school library, much to the chagrin of the attending librarian, I happened upon a fascinating website.  It detailed the recovery of a videotape, alleged to have been found in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, ostensibly the work of a trio of film-school students endeavouring to penetrate a local legend about a witch who was said to frequent said woods.

Obviously anyone who didn’t spend the entire decade living under a rock will doubtless recognize this story as the plot of the curiously successful independent movie “The Blair Witch Project”, which introduced an entire generation to a style of filming favoured by college students since the invention of the portable video camera, while simultaneously making legions of movie-goers ill with motion sickness and creating an entire subculture of rabid fans convinced of the films veracity.

Devoted readers of this blog will nod their heads in agreement when I talk about my ingrained cynicism, and will take my word for it when I say I am no more cynical now than I was in my youth, so I immediately poo-hooed BWP’s claims to legitimacy.  The entire premise of the film was – in a word – silly, and the final product wasn’t even all that entertaining – to say nothing of being scary, which it patently was not.  However, the marketing lived up to its expectations and then some – despite my scoffing at the film’s pretentions toward being a factual account, I still went and saw it.  And it wasn’t just me – for a movie made on a budget of less than a million bucks, it grossed over two hundred and forty times that worldwide.  Not bad for a couple of kids with a handicam according to anybody’s standards, including my own lofty (unreasonable) criteria.

A lot of what drove the success of that film was the aforementioned pretention towards factuality, and that’s the thrust of what I’m talking about here.  Have you ever noticed that people tend to gravitate towards stories that are supposedly based in truth?  Realistically, all you have to do is shoehorn in “based on a true story” at the beginning of your shitty slasher film and people will flock like the barnyard stock most of them are to their local theaters, champing at the bit to get a look at something that might have kind of happened, sort of, in a way.

Did anybody see “The Strangers”?  It came out in 2008 and starred Liv “I Can’t Believe I Still Have A Career” Tyler as one-half of a romantic duo trapped in a remote summer home by a couple of nutters wearing bags over their heads.  If you missed this cinematic gem, count yourself lucky – like many films of the genre it set the bar on horror films low enough to frustrate even the most Lilliputian of limbo dancers.  Why did it garner even moderate fiscal success, especially when Liv doesn’t even get naked?  The filmmakers trotted out that wonderful “based on a true story” trope in all the film’s marketing.  The reality was that writer/director Bryan Bertino “drew inspiration” from, of all things, the Manson murders – which bear about as much in common with the events of the movie as I do to a credible writer with a future in the industry.

But it doesn’t stop there.  When you can’t base your marketing on the assertion of realism, you cloak it in mystique.  A shining example of this was another mid-90s success story in the form of the incredibly lucrative Wachowski film property, “The Matrix”.  For months before the release of the film, and probably due in part to the script’s sci-fi “cyber” themes, Warner pursued an aggressive online campaign that was one of the first examples of an in media res viral marketing.  The phrase “what is the Matrix” became ubiquitous and led many moviegoers to see the film in theaters and then endlessly pontificate on the significance of the scripts’ assertions that we are all, in fact, plugged into a machine that simulates life while feeding on our energy to sustain itself (ironically, that’s a pretty solid description of the internet itself, but I digress).  The fact that the question itself – the question that drove Keanu Reeves to immortalize himself as the terminally clueless Neo and usher in a new era of disenfranchised youths garbed in long coats and itching to recreate the lobby scene in high school classrooms the nation over – became the overriding catch phrase for a hugely successful marketing campaign speaks to the efficacy of the mystique angle.

My point is this: advertising is all about dressing something relatively banal and of questionable utility in peacock gear, making it look bigger, shinier and cooler than it actually is.  In film the assertion of realism is incredibly magnetic to core audiences, so advertisers will do everything they can to ramp up the hype by insinuation – vague promises that “this really happened, for real”, and when they can’t, they’ll titillate you with the nebulous promise of something very interesting happening just behind the curtain.  That it turns out to be just another false wizard with a 3D floating head and some pyrotechnics is secondary, because you’ve already peeked behind the veil and bought into whatever it is they’re selling.

The overriding question we’re left with is no longer one of advertising morality – that the techniques exist is proof enough that they’re functional and therefore beyond castigation in many ways.  In this writer’s humble opinion, the question that remains is do we want it?  It’s a chicken-or-the-egg scenario: are advertisers pandering to our boredom gene by making their advertising a priori interesting and engaging, suggesting an innate cultural desire to be entertained even as we’re being prompted to buy into stuff we may or may not actually need, or is our desire for that entertainment prompting advertisers like Volvo to rethink their time-tested marketing methods in favour of a new direction that panders to the ADD-riddled modern consumer landscape?

Opinions and comments are encouraged as always.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In the interest of redeeming myself in eyes that may or may not belong exclusively to me, I actually went out to Volvo’s “Night of Naughty” event that was the driving force behind the Red Light District campaign.  I won’t say one way or another, but if video footage surfaces of me drinking scotch with a bunch of burlesque dancers, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

2 Responses to “Mystery in Marketing: Advertising and You, Part III”

  1. Megan July 29, 2010 at 6:00 AM #

    First of all, there’s a CBC radio program that I love that tackles this very subject. It’s called “The Age of Persuasion.”

    Second of all, in the case of Volvo anyway, the point in the end isn’t selling the actual PRODUCT, it’s about selling the BRAND. Basically because their logic is that customers don’t just buy products, they buy brands. (Results may vary)

    And if Volvo is trying to sell it’s brand to a bunch of Internet-savvy 20-something social media junkies, then they have to prove they “get” their customers. Would you want to buy a car from a company that still thinks we like Brittany Spears and AOL? These campaigns are supposed to speak to the collective character and reliability of the company itself.

    That said, the campaign would be a waste of money if people our age weren’t already somewhat attracted to the brand. If they were trying to sell us on, say, a Hum-V or some car brand nobody’s heard of, there’s more of a risk.

    Of course, there’s always a risk involved that deceptive advertising will confuse, embarass and enrage various numbers of people.

    I also highly suggest looking up the story of the Cottingley Fairies if you haven’t already- a pre-technology example of basically the same thing.

  2. Alex James July 29, 2010 at 7:52 AM #

    Thanks for your comments Megan…I will definitely be checking out both “The Age of Persuasion” (which I’ve actually heard of, but never listened to) and the Cottingley Fairies…possible follow-up blog to come after I’ve done so.

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