Stay Tuned/The More Things Change

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

The More Things Change ...
1 March 1998

Although dated the first of March, this column was actually posted on the second.

The first Sunday Papers column was posted on the second of March last year. So I have been writing about advertising excesses for a year now. I wanted to post on the same date. I'm a sentimentalist at heart.

Looking at a year's worth of ranting has made me realize this fundamental truth: Advertising doesn't change very much.

One of my very first themes was how rotten corporate web sites were ... well, there are more of them now, and most of them are still rotten. Some of the ones I reported on originally have learned their lessons and improved their content; but for every Revlon which is substantially better for wear, there are two or three new StarterLoggs with absolutely no there there.

I love to fuss about cereal packaging, and that silliness shows no sign of abating ... I will probably be able to write material about cereal for the rest of my life, or until I get tired of writing these rants, whichever comes first.

The same movie tie-ins and sports endorsements have been taking place since Jack Armstrong was an All-American Boy, and will never stop. The commentary I wrote about General Mills' Olympics tie-in and their Lost World tie-in is almost interchangeable. So was the cereal.

The same appeals are being made to the same interests ... the same pitches are being made in the same ways ... if things change in this business, they change extremely slowly.

Sure, if you take the long view, things change a lot. No one would try 1920's style advertising now; it's all copy by today's standards, without pictures or pithy slogans or logos.

But in the short term, about the only trend I can see is that advertising keeps getting more daring. As new generations come in which are harder and harder to shock, the bar of what constitutes acceptable advertising keeps moving.

This isn't just evidenced in the "extreme everything" school of teen-oriented ads; it's in the adult ads as well. The famous "if you don't believe me, you can smell my toilet" ad would not have happened ten years ago. And something like the bizarre billboards for Miller's Outpost (if you happen to have seen them, you know what I mean) definitely are a product of the nineties.

So, as I careen into the second year of this, and we all careen into the new millennium, it might be useful for us all to ponder which standards are still standing, and how long it will take for them to fall.

To a certain extent, advertising changes slowly because people change slowly.

People don't like new things, in the world of consumer goods. The release of a new product is always a big risk, and even if there's a market for it, the grocery stores and department stores, also conservative and short on shelf space to boot, may be reluctant to carry it.

Even changing an existing product is risky. I've seen some people making fun of these remodeled packages which basically say "Same product - new package!" on the label in a corner somewhere. This only looks like a stupid idea. In truth, it's the manufacturer's way of coping with a dilemma: Packaging has to be given a facelift every few years or it looks dated ... but they worry that consumers will think the product inside has changed as well, and stop buying it.

The alternative is to change your packages in little bits and pieces. You may have noticed the new look for Kellogg's packages, with an area in the top left that looks kinda like it's been erased, a white splotch where the new version of the Kellogg's logo goes. This is a radical change, affecting every product in their line. Yet they almost have to make it subtle enough that consumers are barely aware of it.

With kids, this is less of a risk - kids are mostly working in short-term memory anyway - but the kids don't buy most of the products for themselves; the parents do. And parents remember.

In fact, with kid's products you sometimes have the situation where the parents are buying products for their kids while being influenced, not by the kid's tastes, but by their memories of what they knew and liked when they were kids. This is doubly fallible since sometimes the parents remember their childhood the way they wanted it to be, not the way it actually was. How many adult readers have made an impulse purchase of some goopy kidstuff they never were allowed to eat as a child?

Occasionally this juxtaposition is amusing. Witness the new "Mikey."

On boxes of Life cereal right now, you can see her smiling face, with the caption, "Hi! I'm the new 'Mikey.'" Her actual name is Marli Brianna Hughes and she's four years old. A brief biography, written for young readers, is on the back of the box. She won a nationwide search for the new Mikey ... as you may or may not recall.

The amusing part is the small sidebar - also in prose meant for young humans - that explains, "So who was 'Mikey' anyway?" You see, this little girl is intended as an attraction for other little children - but it's the parents who will say "Isn't she cute," and put the cereal in the shopping cart.

The small children never saw the Life cereal commercials in question. They have no idea who Mikey was, or why their parents care.

And after the children have finished studying at the box in confusion, maybe they and their parents will sit around the fire, toasting marshmallows, the parents telling them stories of commercials past.

This is our culture. Welcome to year two. I'm just warming up.


[February 2007:] I shudder to think that I may one day have to explain what the original Mikey commercials were about. However, I think that time is not yet. Meanwhile, the "new Mikey" promotion sort of faded away quietly, as I recall, and Life now uses a set of rotating pictures of various kids on their boxes without much comment.

and now back to our program

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