Stay Tuned/Elapsed Time

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Elapsed Time
6 March 2007

Over the past two weeks, I have re-edited and reformatted each and every old item in this area, all the way back to March 1997 when I first got the idea to take some weird things from a Sunday advertising circular and write some snarky comments about them. One of the things which made the effort take two weeks is that I tried to bring each item up to date ... and in doing so, created a fair bit of work for myself - the "update" portion of some of the old columns is as long as the original column itself.

Things have changed a hell of a lot in ten years. Many of the things which seemed like burning issues back then have since turned out to be much ado about nothing (the :CueCat, Brill's Content, the Women's Link site, Olestra); others turned out to be merely the tip of the iceberg (online privacy issues, web marketing to children, Viagra); and some things continue to be blue-chip topics, reliable and inexhaustible sources of fun and games (breakfast cereals, bad new products, Barbie).

Ten years ago it was hard to find websites for many of the companies and products I discussed. Now it is hard to not be found on the web. On the other hand, ten years ago the disconnect between spurious "consumer" sites and staid "corporate" sites was enormous; nowadays, on the whole, they are better-merged, better-designed, far more frank about admitting who owns what, and more forthcoming with the consumer. In general, commercial sites have realized that the consumer is aware enough to know that the basic idea is to sell them stuff, and the corporations have decided that admitting this is not a deterrent.

This is not to say there's not plenty of wretched excess around to provide us with good ranting fodder. In fact, the idea of the Aware Consumer (and its closely related idea, the Jaded Consumer) has created a category of mishaps all its own, as corporations and advertising firms around the world struggle to come to grips with this problem:

In a world where advertising is more ubiquitous than at any other point in history, and where the consumer has been trained to tune out most of it from birth, how the hell do we get people to pay attention to our sales pitches?

This leads to increasingly blatant attempts at envelope-pushing - which, for our purposes, means: The good ads keep getting better, but the misfires have gotten much, much worse.

Around three PM, when your blood sugar and energy are low, some say Robert Goulet appears ... and messes with your stuff.

That's the beginning of a television spot for Emerald Nuts (the site is Flash and so does not have distinct URLs, but as of this writing you'll be able to find the clip on the website easily).

In a relatively short timespan (they were established as a snack-food brand of Diamond Foods in 2004), Emerald has established a reputation for bizarre yet memorable ads. The strange Emerald ads are even more noteworthy because the parent company has a pretty stodgy past - they used to be a nut grower's cooperative, then realized the cooperative structure had outlasted its usefulness (eventually scrapping it and making a successful public offering in 2005). They are not an edgy young company, in other words, and it's astonishing that they are having the chutzpah to produce the Emerald line at all (their competition is Planter's, which is to say, Kraft Foods, and virtually no one else, because Planter's dominates the snack-nuts market so totally). The fact that they have hired people to make ads like this is doubly astonishing.

They may even achieve what's rapidly becoming the ultimate goal of advertisers these days - to get people talking about, and in some cases even spreading, the ads. Every company dreams of being something that people Under A Certain Age discuss. Some of them (the ones who aren't scared of it) dream that someone will decide to put their ad on YouTube or equivalent. Viral marketing, in other words, is something many companies see as their great hope and salvation, a key to reaching an audience who (so the theory goes) will watch an ad if their friends tell them about it, but not if it's pushed on them any other way.

Of course, nobody really has any idea how to create that kind of buzz, and a couple of attempts - like deliberately sending ringers into clubs, message boards, and other social hubs to create buzz artificially - have backfired badly. Corporations have gotten better at web marketing via conventional websites, but they're not really clear on how to exploit other web tools and services yet (which I find sort of a relief, frankly). So my guess is they're feeling a mite jittery these days; they have a huge mass of people they're not sure how to reach, not sure how to sell to, and whom they believe might suddenly turn on them inexplicably (and expensively) at any second.

Another TV spot shows people gradually looking up, as if being given a divine signal, and setting off in some unknown direction. They come not just from all walks of life, but from all nations - they are dressed in various national and ethnic garbs. The number builds steadily. They all seem to be on pilgrimage, divinely inspired, gradually converging on some holy place ... which turns out to be a house in Faceless Suburbia where White Soccer Mom is serving dinner to her family. The pilgrims flood into the house, trying to get closer to the source of their inspiration, and finally the family notices this and has the good grace to be somewhat bewildered by it all. Finally a woman in a sari can take it no longer and cries out, "Let me touch your dinner!"

This ad, for Contessa frozen prepared foods ("Convenience Meals") is an example of how bad the misfires can be, in the New Edginess. I won't point out all the flaws, potential offensivenesses, laughable mistakes, et cetera - I don't think I need to.

What else has been going on? Well, bad products are eternal, but in some cases it's as if I never left. For example, I was thrown right back to November 1997, where I snarked about "cheesecake flavor" cream cheese, when I entered the dairy aisle of my local grocery store this weekend and found a big tub of Philadelphia brand Ready-To-Eat Cheesecake Filling. That's right. Just smear it into a pie shell of your choice, optionally refrigerate, and eat. Of course, the dirty secret here is that some people are just going to open the tub and get out a spoon - and don't think Kraft doesn't know it.

Ingredients in the tub o'goo: cream cheese spread (i.e. standard Philly, stabilizers and all), sugar, and water.

Other times I feel like every time I think it can't get sillier, it does. I was not surprised to find that the "smile" experiment on Goldfish crackers became permanent, but I did not predict - would never in a million years have predicted - the Goldfish in garish colors, the "Flavor Blasted" Goldfish, the extra-large and extra-small Goldfish, and all the other nonsense Pepperidge Farm has tried to get even more parents to stuff their children full of these nasty-ass crackers.

(There's something that has not changed and never will: I still think Goldfish crackers are vile.)

While in the local Target, passing by the toy aisle, I noticed a hanging bin attached to the shelves near an endcap. The bin was full of pint-carton size containers of Goldfish crackers, for 99 cents each. The offensive part is that there is one and only one reason for those crackers to be there: For parents to grab to give their kids a lovely non-nutritious snack to shut them up and distract them. Most of those cartons are paid for empty, I'm betting, and meanwhile we wonder why our children are the size of Airstream trailers.

Since Campbell's owns Pepperidge Farm, the crackers are often promoted to go into soup - need we tell you what brand of soup? Thought not - and on the same recent supermarket trip I noticed that Campbell's is hedging its bets - they have a line of soup now which has pasta shaped like Goldfish, built right in.

Line extension springs eternal.

Actually, the problem I have with restarting here is that it's just too damned easy. I brought my notebook with me as we ran our errands, and I could have taken it out and written something in it every three feet. I believe you could blindfold me and drop me into a point in the average supermarket at random, and I would take off the blindfold and reach out and grab something that, once I pointed out how absurd it was, you'd say, "Oh, you know what, that is ridiculous." Any aisle. Any store.

This is why I've added the McLuhan quote out on the main page. The more I look, the more I realize that advertising - and packaging, branding, etc are advertising - just does not withstand scrutiny. When you look closely at any of it, it becomes ridiculous. Which is why, I suspect, increasingly the ads we think of as the "good" ads will be the ones where the ridiculousness is made explicit, right up front.

I have more products in my notebook, and some newspaper circulars, and a little Easter material to talk about. But I'll save those for later and just leave you with a stunning example of the principle above: The Whopperettes!

(That site will play movies at you. It will also make noise - lots of noise - but you want the sound on. Really.)

and now back to our program

The material on these pages is copyright © 1997-2007. All rights reserved.

It is assumed that every brand name, slogan, corporate name, symbol, design element, et cetera mentioned in these articles is a protected/trademarked entity, the sole property of its owner(s), and acknowledgement of this status is implied. When advertising materials are excerpted here it is for express purposes of commentary and criticism, and thereby protected under the Fair Use provisions of U.S. copyright law.

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