Monthly Archives: November 2009

Cavemen, Camel cigarettes and Christmas sales


This is a story about how holiday sales don’t really exist, but that’s OK, because you need the fiction to survive.

Communications designer and caffeine addict Hal Thomas found this classic Camel cigarette ad in a July 1952 edition of Life magazine. Ethics aside (for the record, our agency does not work with tobacco companies and has led anti-smoking campaigns), it reminds us of the basic strategy of framing value for your customers. If you have ever bought something on sale, marked “40% off” a higher price, you’ve been the recipient of framing. All those red tags with discounts in this holiday shopping season are simply attempts by marketers to follow Richard Thaler‘s advice: “frame” the price against another benchmark to convince consumers they’re getting a good deal.

Customers, as we’ve written before, are bad judges of value. We don’t know what a diamond should cost — but if the engagement ring is $3,000 marked down from $5,000, it feels fair. We’ll pay $3,000 perhaps if we see an illusory $2,000 above it in “savings,” even if that higher price point never really existed. This old Camel ad does the same thing to consumers of the 1950s, framing a cigarette choice as a safer alternative by juxtaposing it against images of doctors. Businesses fall for this all the time, too; take the marketing director who demands “30% in value-add” from any media buy; she’s likely getting the same amount of ad space within a given budget, but feels better because the vendors restructure the pricing of ads to give “some” away for free. (Hey, not that we negotiating don’t try.)

We shade truth because we need nuance

Why do people insist on this? It’s human nature. We all tweak communications in a way to make them more appealing to the recipient. If you call home late from work tonight, you will likely explain you’re on deadline or stuck in traffic (late due to outside forces, beyond your control, not really such a bad thing). The message arrives inside a context, and if we set the context appropriately, it sounds better. The dissembling tactic likely has an evolutionary benefit; no one survived in the wild by collecting all the data carefully and analyzing it — a wild lion would eat you before you ran the odds of where to run — so we had to make snap decisions based on what others told us about our environment. Comparing options to other choices also helped humans evolve; the caveman Ooga might not have been handsome by today’s standards, but if cavewoman Booga thought he was the hottest in all the tribe, she passed on the best genes.

Framing is everywhere, when you look for it. Are you buying stuff “on sale” for Christmas? (Suckers.) Does your business judge new potential vendors by their case studies? (If they succeeded there, they may help you here.) Do you get upset when your child gets a B at school? (If others get an A, then he is slipping by comparison.) Is your Twitter follower score above 2,000 yet? (If so, you must be really clever, because other clever people have lots of followers.)

Or — in the most obvious framing device of all — how is that fictitious number with zeros after it in your bank account doing lately; is the personal score we call “money” moving up or down?

So here’s a provocation for your marketing team’s next meeting: Explore all the ways you can compare your product attributes to something else to make it more appealing. Tactics include communicating discounts from other price points (think clothing sale), or bundling your product in an unusual configuration (think candy boxes at movie theaters or auto dealer option packages), or even framing it against other brands (Coke vs. Pepsi). If you focus on the product itself without putting it in context, customers may not get what you mean … or want what they’ll get.

(Thanks, Hal, for inspiring this holiday spirit.)

Doctors on camels: Framing the benefit


Communications designer and caffeine addict Hal Thomas found this classic Camel cigarette ad in a July 1952 edition of Life magazine. Ethics aside (for the record, our agency does not work with tobacco companies and has led several anti-smoking campaigns), it reminds us of the basic strategy of framing value for your customers. If you have ever bought something on sale, marked “40% off” a higher price, you’ve been the recipient of framing. All those red tags with discounts in this holiday shopping season are simply attempts by marketers to follow Richard Thaler‘s advice: “frame” the price against another benchmark to convince consumers they’re getting a good deal.

Customers, as we’ve written before, are bad judges of value. We don’t know what a diamond should cost — but if the engagement ring is $3,000 marked down from $5,000, it feels fair. We’ll pay $3,000 perhaps if we see an illusory $2,000 above it in “savings,” even if that higher price point never really existed. This old Camel ad does the same thing to consumers of the 1950s, framing a cigarette choice as a safer alternative by juxtaposing it against images of doctors. Businesses fall for this all the time, too; take the marketing director who demands “30% in value-add” from any media buy; she’s really getting the same amount of media, but feels better because the vendors restructure the pricing of ads to give “some” away for free.

We shade truth because we need nuance

Why do we do this? It’s human nature. We all tweak communications in a way to make them more appealing to the recipient. If you call home late from work tonight, you will likely explain you’re on deadline or stuck in traffic (due to outside forces, beyond your control, not really such a bad thing). The message arrives inside a context, and if we set the context appropriately, the message sounds better. The dissembling tactic likely has an evolutionary benefit; no one survived in the wild by collecting all the data carefully and analyzing it — a wild lion would eat you before you ran the odds of where to run — so we had to make snap decisions based on what others told us about our environment. Comparing options to other choices also helped humans evolve; the caveman Ooga might not have been handsome by today’s standards, but if cavewoman Booga thought he was the hottest in all the tribe, he and she passed on the best genes.

You’re beautiful is nice. You’re the most beautiful person in this room is so much better.

So here’s a provocation for your marketing team’s next meeting: Have you explored all the ways you can compare your product attributes or costs to something else to make it more appealing? Tactics include communicating higher price points now X% off (Talbots sale), or bundling your product in an unusual configuration (candy boxes at movie theaters, or those collections of food items from Omaha Steaks), or even framing it against other brands (Coke vs. Pepsi). If you focus on the product itself without putting it in context, customers may not get what you mean … or want what they’ll get.

(Thanks, Hal.)

Jay Leno’s DVR crisis

Jay Leno’s audience at NBC has fallen sharply in the past year since he moved to the 10 p.m. slot. While this would seem good news for his rivals, a few numbers should strike fear into other TV networks’ hearts:

– Leno is down 1.8 ratings points (that is, 1.8% of all U.S. television households have stopped watching Leno).
– DVR use in the same hour is up 1.4 ratings points.

Hmm. What those numbers mean is a population the size of Phoenix or Philadelphia has stopped watching NBC at night, and instead replaced it with Digital Video Recorders. David Poltrack, CBS’ chief research executive, told the AP that the DVR trend was “a little bit higher than we thought” — a result of the one-third of all U.S. homes with TiVo-style devices learning to catch up on shows they missed. Since Leno appears to be boring people, consumers are using the 10-11 p.m. window before bedtime to play back better stuff. Will they use DVRs to skip commercials, too?

Just wait until the web gets in the basement

DVR use hasn’t taken off yet; they’re more of a ticking bomb for advertisers sitting in consumers’ basements. Nielsen reported this spring that U.S. consumers still watch only 15 minutes of DVR-recorded television a day, vs. 5 hours and 9 minutes of the live thing. But Leno’s slide shows how fast consumers can change their behavior, and they soon will have even more temptation to avoid broadcast networks. TV manufacturers are beginning to sell flat-panel sets with internet access, and 48% of consumers report they would consider purchasing one in the next 12 months. When the web marries TV, a million alternatives to Jay Leno will be just a click away.

Image: Roo Reynolds

Shocking polar bears

In 1961 Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram began a series of “obedience to authority” experiments to see if people would set aside personal ethics if an authority figure told them to do something. As in, if I tell you to shock someone, would you do it? Milgram rigged a “shock box” and told volunteers that they had to gradually crank up a dial to shock another participant, hidden from view, if the second participant made a mistake on a test. The second participant was really an actor … and was never shocked at all — but as he screamed in mock pain, 65% of the test subjects continued to administer shocks, all the way to a maximum 450 volts.

The study had several goals: to explain the behavior of Nazis in WWII, for instance, and to see if most humans will override personal ethics if compelled to take immoral action by a leader. Religious wars, nationalism, urban gangs, corporate malfeasance and family feuds are all explained by our willingness to obey others more than ourselves.

But we also think Milgram gave a second lesson: how people feel they must try harder and harder to get your attention if moderate shocks fail. This explains children stamping their feet, or Hollywood movies with explicit sex and violence, or advertising campaigns that attempt to startle.

All of which reminds us of this PlaneStupid.com ad campaign to convince you that flying via commercial airlines is bad for polar bears. It’s shocking, perhaps too much.

The comical falling forecasts for mobile ad spend


√úbertechnologist Bob Cringely suggests mobile phones are leaping ahead of personal computers and will inevitably become the dominating communication platform on the planet. (He also says digital displays will someday float before our eyeballs, but let’s not go too far just yet).

That could be bad news for advertisers. If you want proof, let’s look at the silly history of predictions for mobile advertising:

– In August 2007, mobile ad spend was projected to be $14.4 billion by 2011 by Strategy Analytics.
– In April 2008, mobile ad spend was projected to be $6.5 billion by 2012 by eMarketer
– In February 2009, mobile ad spend was projected to be $3.1 billion by 2013 by the Kelsey Group…

14. 6. 3. You get it. The reality is mobile spend was $160 million in 2008 and may top $900 million in 2009, solid growth but still far, far from the inflated expectations. The analysts who make money with hyperbole keep stroking it, even if they reduce their forecasts every six months. Mobile advertising has turned into the Great Pumpkin of the advertising industry, a powerful apparition who never quite appears on time.

But people like mobile, don’t they?

Yes, the devices are proliferating — there are now 4 billion cell phones on the planet vs. just over 1 billion personal computers, and the technology of mobile is leaping ahead faster than PCs. Cringely notes that manufacturers of computers, such as Apple and Dell, push major improvements every year and a half and “most of us are unwilling to be more than two generations behind, so we get a new desktop or notebook every 36 months.” Mobile devices, on the other hand, cycle through design improvements in less than a year, and consumers typically upgrade them every 18 months. This dynamic of consumers buying new mobile toys twice as fast as computers keeps interest focused on them. Mobile also fits into the peripatetic lifestyles of the majority of the world’s workers who don’t sit all day behind desks.

Yet advertisers continue to trail behind. The problem is both diminished advertising inventory and fragmented ad media. Inventory is tighter because mobile screens contain 90% less visual space than PC screens; inventory is fragmented because smartphones hold thousands of single-tap apps to get online. (We call this the Google Visual Inventory problem and detailed it in BusinessWeek here.) Add the dynamic of mobile users having less patience to be interrupted on their tiny screens as they try to communicate with friends, and ad space inside mobile doesn’t look pretty.

More targeting, less shelf space

Despite all the fanfare about mobile, we think there’s a reason mobile ad dollars have not yet taken off. Yes, mobile advertising can enable pinpoint targeting, geographic proximity to a retail location, just-in-time marketing, augmented reality to overlay your current visuals. Groovy. But all that targeting has a tradeoff of much less space, and thus fewer ad dollars in the market. Mobile could become the most efficient form of advertising yet … the problem with efficiency, though, is it tends to push older inefficient supply out of the way.

Google, arguably the world’s biggest advertising network, is not taking the threat lying down; its Android OS operating system is not an off-strategy stretch but rather an attempt to build a new mobile ecosystem to house Google advertising. Google also purchased mobile ad leader AdMob for $750 million in stock this month. Google wants in.

We’re sure Google will make it; question is how much. Mobile is a small box and a lot of ads just won’t fit. God help us if consumers ever move to digital eyeball displays.

The world will end in 2012. Or not.

We were debating healthcare reform with our brother-in-law over an early turkey dinner tonight when we realized … two intelligent people with the same set of data can come to two vastly different conclusions, just as the well-educated policy wonks on Fox News and MSNBC could all be Mensa members and still yell at each other. Humans aren’t really clear judges of the world after all, since some other combined forces of genetics, training, environment, education, culture or homophily warp our conclusions. We all have access to the same mental inputs, yet Republicans and Democrats, or Americans and the Taliban, tend to fall into polarizing we’re-right-and-you’re-not camps. Every culture that has ever gone to war with another has firmly believed they were backed by God.

We can’t all be right. It’s confusing. So we leave you with two looks at the end of the world in 2012.

31,594,000 ways to avoid your content portal


Facebook became the third most popular venue for watching online video in October, signaling the end of content portals. In our age of a million channels where making choices is difficult, the recommendations of our peers are becoming the new TV Guide.

What do we mean? There are three ways that content is distributed: First, producers can push — say, NBC’s old Seinfeld appointment television viewing on Thursday nights in the 1990s. Second, users can search — Google’s rise in the early part of this decade, and more recently the popular YouTube engine that allows you to find funny cat videos. But the third wave is when people you trust do the finding for you.

Here’s a test: Think of all the content your business puts out that you want people to see — your web site, your press releases, videos, ads and marketing communications. Now, add up all the ways you enable others to share your content with their networks of people. Is the sum more than zero?

Homophily at prime time

Human networks amplify the dynamic of “homophily,” the tendency of people you like to enjoy the same things you do. This is why people in cliques tend to wear the same clothes, watch the same movies, discuss the same politics, and now … share the same content. We trust our friends and loved ones. When they share something, we want to watch.

The strategic lesson for marketers is if you want your message to go viral, you have to find ways to entice networks of users to share it with others. For example, Facebook is no Hulu or YouTube yet, but the numbers for video access there are rising. In October 31.5 million unique users watched videos posted inside the social network, vs. 13.4 million on Hulu (the leading site for professional video content) and 105 million in YouTube (top site for user-generated video).

The “sticky” portal strategy of the 1990s is dying a deserved egocentric death. The center will not hold because you are no longer the center. You have to find ways to pass it along.

Speaking of heaven

We beat up on augmented reality a few posts back, so let’s be fair and think where a visual internet could go when unhinged from flat screens. No, not holding magazines up to computer cams, but instead, a world in the future where you wear glasses and see a newer reality with appendages you want. Tiny computers would project images onto your lens, overlaying perfectly with the real world behind like the magic yellow line on NFL football fields. The first step would be adding information about contacts or products; nimbuses of stats about colleagues, halos of data surrounding each soup can in the aisle to aid your navigation through life.

Of course we would take it further, tweaking our perception of reality for greater self-pleasure just as we now tint the world blue or orange with designer sunglasses. If you’re into goth, you could make the world look like a vampire flick. If you’re into self-image, you gaze down and see a fitter you, trimmed and tucked. No one would have to buy fashionable clothes any more, because we would see everyone else in the fashions that we, the visual receivers, want.

This isn’t fantasy; we already alter our audio reality with iPod earbuds, piping in fictitious sounds that set dream moods that don’t exist. So why not adjust the eye vision, too? Say with virtual rings around the Earth — like the view from Paris at 1:01 in this clip.

Via MTLB and Nerdcore. Inspired by @tsand, who reminded us that augmented reality is just a baby with a long ways to go.

Death and social media


We were on a plane between Nashville and LaGuardia last night when, on a whim, we punched up Wi-Fi for $10 and found a surreal update from our brother on Facebook. “RIP Uncle G…. you were a good, good man and will be missed.”

People die every day. People are then missed. Uncle Gordy is now one of them, and while we weren’t close social media had played a strange role in making us miss him more. Gordon Halley was born in 1926 in New England and moved to the western United States years before we were born. We hardly saw him at all, until about six months ago his photo popped up in Facebook as a friend recommendation. Activities: Wild bunch (Seniors at church). Interests: Aviation, photography. Favorite TV Shows: Jeopardy, Dancing with the Stars.

Remorseful that we hadn’t connected with our mom’s brother in at least two decades, we friended him back, then picked up the phone and called. Gordy had a warm, gravelly voice. He also had cancer, a rare blood thing, something to do, he thought, with cleaning engine spark plugs with no gloves for hours a day as a youth back in the Army. We got off, said what the hell, booked a plane ticket and took mom, aging herself with cancer, in a wheelchair through connecting airports across country to reunite with her brother. It was a spontaneous trip, inspired in part by the silly Jim Carrey movie “Yes Man” in which one opens oneself up to the world to experience new things. Yes, we said, let’s go.

At the end of that California visit we somehow got Mom back up the steps of the small plane for the return flight home. Los Osos, Calif., has an airport about as big as a Chili’s restaurant. Gordy had shown up a few minutes too late to hug his sister good-bye, so he and his son, a tall grown man himself, stood by a chain link fence in the predawn light, up an embankment above the Tarmac at the little California airport, waving at us. They looked like two cowboys, a scene out of romance film, two silhouettes with arms in the air. We’d just spent four days with a good man we’d almost forgotten; seen his leathery tan, his quiet humor, the way his grandchildren out West drove hours just to spend time with the man they loved. We’re cool with all this, we thought. This isn’t too sad. And then our mom started to cry.

Social media is hyperbole and lunacy and silly pokes in comical graphics, perhaps soon to fade as the ham radio fad or the telegraph years before. But it does connect people beyond their circles in ways we do not expect. It also leaves a digital legacy, how permanent, we don’t know, but we wonder about our own trail of online breadcrumbs as we read now that Gordy liked Mexican and Chinese food, and women too, and has a granddaughter going to school and had gray hair, blue eyes, a good smile and a core belief that the west coast is fabulous!

No one wants to hear someone has died on Facebook. But if you listen closely, you may find voices worth visiting even if they are not next door.

This Esquire download should take only 5 minutes


Picking on the new Esquire augmented reality cover is a bit too easy. Sure, we could laugh at the idea that consumers will carry the physical magazine over to their home office, boot up the computer, spend five minutes downloading software, and then hold the magazine cover up to the web cam to get an enhanced experience. Of course it’s crap, a 2009 rendition of the 1990s’ :CueCat barcode reader that Forbes and Wired tried to get you to use at the tail end of the last internet bubble. Remember that? You plugged a device into your computer, which took about five minutes, and then held the magazine up to the device to get an enhanced experience …

The :CueCat bombed, of course. Wikipedia rattles off the disaster: PC World called it one of “The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time”; Jeff Salkowski of the Chicago Tribune wrote, “you have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can.” By 2005, a liquidator web site tried to unload 2 million of the ugly plastic devices for 30 cents each.

So here we go again; a national magazine asking people to jump through hoops to connect a print vehicle with a web communication. Why are we repeating history, the mistake of interactivity for interactivity’s sake? Magazines, like books, have their place in life, and no one wants to hold one channel (Esquire) up to another (a computer) to get an enhanced experience. The augmented-reality chore is like walking into a restaurant and having the waiter give you a burger sans bun, and then inviting you back to the kitchen to help the cook finish the ensemble.

It’s not a facelift, it’s a positioning strategy

Esquire is not led by dummies. They know they are asking too much, that augmented reality is a fad that will too pass, and that most users will never see the super-web-cam result. (Someone said risque women posing as elves are involved, but that’s just hearsay.) Esquire’s editors also realize print is under pressure — the once uberhot Maxim magazine recently shuttered its print edition in the UK, and Esquire’s total ad pages booked are down 24% year over year — and anything they can do to differentiate themselves in the marketplace helps. So Esquire is rolling out a series of physical gimmicks (such as the recent E-Ink cover), all good for PR, which generates buzz among readers, which gets advertisers to consider pushing media budgets Esquire’s way.

Sure, we don’t want to hold magazine covers up to web cams any more than we want to build hamburgers at a restaurant. But Megan Fox can only go so far. Esquire, all we can say is well played — you’re resonating with a stupid technological gimmick that makes us view you differently in your competitive set. No, we won’t head for the web cam … but we may just sign up for a subscription.