Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Sanity makes a comeback

Here at The Ad Wizards, we're not usually about reasoned, objective critique of every major ad campaign that comes down the pike. We find ads we think suck, and we dick on them to expected degrees. (Occasionally, just to mix it up, we do praise ads we like, but that's accounted for roughly three percent of our posting output so far.) But we're not exactly, I don't know, Ad Age or anything.

Well, recently, I posted about Wendy's finally admitting that their "red wig" campaign was just not doing it. In that post, I mentioned the new Wendy's campaign and wished them luck on it being an improvement. The campaign just hit YouTube and I have to say, it's definitely an improvement.

It's a little slow-moving, and I find it odd that it seems like the cartoon Wendy is supposed to be talking to us but we never see her mouth move. But other than that, I like this ad - it focuses on good things, has nice folksy music and mannerisms, has a slogan that's fairly distinguishing if a little dopey, and, most importantly, it doesn't try to blast your face off with its "coolness." Wendy's senior VP of marketing strategy admitted in a conference call - as reported by AdAge - that trying to be cool was not really working for Wendy's.

Wendy's has decided that it shouldn't base its strategy on cool, and said food-buying decisions are based more on taste than the hip factor. "People don't go to Wendy's because it's a cool place," said Paul Kershisnik, senior VP-marketing strategy and innovation. "They'll never go to Wendy's because it's a cool place."

Bra-fucking-vo. Seriously. Usually that indicates sarcasm, but I am dead serious here. Given that a lot of advertising aimed at the coveted 18-to-34 set has devolved into a contest to see who can do the most random "funny" shit, it is incredibly refreshing to see a company of Wendy's stature decide that it should get back to basics, and then do so with a classy ad that gets its point across and actually advertises its product without being incredibly obnoxious.

Here's what I don't get: people who get paid to analyze ads - in particular, Teressa Iezzi over on AdAge - seem to have liked the "red wig" series and hate this new series.

Love it or hate it, the red-wig campaign was a step forward for forgettable Wendy's. The new spots? It feels wrong to blame the agency for this silliness, as it's clear that the ads are the sole responsibility of the client. But the effort is so spectacularly terrible that it warrants some discussion. Where to begin? The anodyne tone; the insipid voice-over uttering lines such as "If hamburgers were meant to be frozen, wouldn't cows come from Antarctica?"; the empty chatter about "authenticity" and "honesty" surrounding the campaign. The food shots aren't even that great.

I close with an earnest question for the marketers out there: Does this kind of advertising work?

Um, didn't we already see that the red wig ads didn't work? The voice-over for this one could probably be better and yes, the "Antarctica" line (in the other ad I didn't post) is cringe-inducingly homespun. But I liked the food shots and overall tone and, while I don't get paid for this, I think I'm probably closer to the average consumer than someone who actually works in advertising is. I suppose if your only concern is people recognizing the commercials, then the red wig ads worked like a charm. By virtue of their stripped-down nature, the new ads are never going to do that. But where's the proof that ads like the red wig campaign actually get people in the door? Weren't Wendy's sales down under that campaign?

In the earliest days of television advertising, it was pretty much just a bald-faced pitch - frequently the host of a show would step aside in the middle of a program, hold a product up to the camera, and give a little spiel about it. While this may not be the ideal scenario, it seems to me like we've gone to pretty much the exact opposite end of the spectrum - many commercials these days are just 30-second movies with product placement, and what the product is isn't always even important. Take a look at virtually any Bud Light ad - you could replace the Bud Light with any other beer, or in a few cases just about any other object in creation, and the commercials would run exactly the same. Sure, Bud Light doesn't really need to sell itself at this point, but that's merely one example. This blog is littered with ads whose first concerns are "Do something funny or potentially memorable" and whose product pitches lag way behind in terms of importance; the Sobe Life Water Super Bowl ad that we lambasted is a good recent example. Does it have anything to do with Life Water? Does it tell you anything about Life Water? Of course not. It's 60 seconds of insane dancing lizards designed to do nothing more than get people to notice the dancing lizards. I wonder how many people could even tell you exactly what product that ad was for, two days after it aired.

The thing is, McDonald's makes friendly, folksy commercials all the time. When are they ever criticized for doing so? Is Wendy's somehow obligated to make distinctively annoying ads just because they're running third in the burger race? Since when does that make a difference? Just look at the cola wars. Pepsi has spent significant chunks of its time attacking Coke in the last 25 years or so; in 1987, Pepsi had gained 32% of the overall beverage market, while Coke was barely a point ahead. In 20 years since then, Pepsi has made it all the way to... 31.2% in 2006, with Coke now almost 12 points ahead. How did 20 years of negative advertising work out for you, Pepsi? And Pepsi's commercials haven't exactly been unrecognizable - everyone knew who Hallie Kate Eisenberg was back in 1999-2000, and the "Joy of Cola" jingle was quite familiar. On the other hand, if you're like me, you hated ads like this one. As I often say on here, is that kind of smug-ass pitch really selling anyone on your product? The answer, according to market share, is: no. (And yes, I know that encompasses all brands. So here: in 1996, Pepsi-Cola trailed Coca-Cola by about six points in market share, 20.8 to 14.9; in 2006, it was 15.9 to 10.2, a difference of 5.7 instead of 5.9. Clearly all those "Joy of Cola" ads really moved the ol' needle.)

I should probably wrap this up, so let me close with this: I don't run focus groups, but I see little evidence from my perusal of articles on the subject that "hilarious" ads like the red wig campaign do much for sales. Brand recognition is all well and good, but there's positive recognition and negative recognition, and it sure seems to me like Wendy's felt it was getting way too much of the latter. So why are we - by which I mean a lot of people who aren't me - firing on Wendy's for trying to fix the problem? They've had marketing issues ever since Dave Thomas died; in lieu of ghoulishly propping him up like Orville Redenbacher, maybe it makes sense for Wendy's to return to the homey style he brought to the proceedings, rather than new-school junk like Mr. Wendy and the red wigs. I say, good thinking.


Quivering P. Landmass said...

A big problem is ad agencies like Crispin Porter, whom I've railed on previously in this blog. You can thank them for the Redenbacher spot, btw. You're exactly right about these uber-hip commercials just being 30-second movies with product placement. I'm sorry, but isn't the whole point of spending money on an ad that you get to TALK about the product? That's how you get people to buy things -- by swaying opinion, not be trying to get a cheap, irrelevant laugh.

Windier E. Megatons said...

Almost forgot:

Wendy's new ad campaign is, in my estimation, truly thrillicious.

Anonymous said...

I love the current Wendy's ad campaign as well. The red wig one sucked.