Where’s the wow?

Advertising Isn’t Conning Anyone. We’re Conning Ourselves

by Robert Cormack
Creative Director/ Robert Cormack & Associates

Way back in 1960, Bob Levenson, former VP creative director of Doyle Dane Bernbach, and one of the last true advertising greats wrote: “You can’t fool any of the people any of the time.”

Throughout his career, he would continue this lament, some people listening, others calling it nonsense. Hadn’t P.T. Barnum proven you could fool all the people all the time? What about George W. Bush’s war in Iraq?

We know Barnum was a huckster who believed in audience gullibility. But he did it for one night. We don’t mind being conned for one night. We expect it from a circus (or we used to). Bush’s con was something else again. He paved the way for many other wars in the name of democracy. People died. Democracy died. We’re still looking for WMDs.

Wars have always conned people. Patriotism is a con. Sometimes wars are necessary to stop people like Saddam Hussein. Not all wars, though. Don’t expect us to grab a rifle every time someone says we’re good and others are evil.

We’ve grown immune to seedy rhetoric. Nobody’s buying patriotism anymore. It’s a mug’s game, with the same old stumpers saying: “Follow us, we know best.” We’re tired of it, just like we’re tired of advertising. We hate product patriotism. We hate people waving their silly batons.

One angry reader wrote me saying: “Video killed the radio star but advertising was murdered by its own self-righteous, freakin’ know-it-all practitioners who over-promise, under-deliver and care only about billing and bling bling, not quality ads and meeting client needs.”

He’s right, we didn’t meet client needs, but neither did clients. Back in the seventies, you’d present a campaign and the marketing director would say: “Let’s see how it does.” Today, they say: “Give it to the research department. They’ll tell us what will work and what won’t.”

That’s like saying: “Stock brokers will make us rich.” Even Warren Buffett doesn’t believe it. As he said: “If that were true, all brokers would be millionaires. They’re not, obviously.”

Today, rumors abound that companies are dumping their marketing departments. I can’t say I blame them. If all they’re doing is relying on research (which many do) why not just have a research department?

And if research is no more capable of predicting winners than stock brokers, why have a research department?

What we’ve all fallen prey to — and I mean all of us — is formula. We listened to those “know-it-all practitioners.” We believed analytics. Digital marketing is all about analytics. We might be amazed by analytics, but the consumer isn’t. Advertising to them is like a mindless troop formation.

Interestingly, we’ve lost our taste for war, but not circuses. Why? Because two guys from Quebec, Guy Laliberté and Gillies Ste-Croix, former street performers, decided people don’t need to be conned. They need to be amazed. That’s how Cirque du Soleil was born.

It’s now the largest theatrical producer in the world.


If Cirque du Soleil has taught us anything, it’s that consumers don’t care about numbers. They care about wonder. How often does advertising make us wonder? I think back to the “1984” commercial and the “Think Different” campaign. They told us the world isn’t black and white. Why accept everything? Why not question traditional beliefs? We have brains. We’re not automatons.

Steve Jobs shot down a lot of advertising campaigns. The ones he chose made him wonder. He wanted to be curious. He wanted everyone to be curious. His dying words were: “Oh, wow!”

If advertisers think the mute button is killing their business, it’s bigger than that. We’re not just muting commercials, we’re muting marketing in general. Talk to a seventeen-year-old. They’ll tell you they don’t believe anything these days.

“It’s so lame,” my stepdaughter told me once.

Here’s how lame marketing has gotten… Two researchers, Brett Gordon and Wesley Hartmann wrote the following analysis on election advertising:

“We use the 2000 and 2004 general elections to analyze the effect of market-level advertising on country-level vote shares. The results indicate significant positive effects of advertising exposures. Both instrumental variables and fixed effects alter the ad coefficient. Advertising elasticities are smaller than are typical for branded goods yet significant enough to shift election outcomes. For example, if advertising were set to zero and all other factors held constant, three states’ electoral votes would have changed parties in 2000. Given the narrow margin of victory in 2000, this shift would have resulted in a different president.”

This sort of nonsense is being spouted in boardrooms every day. What are they really saying? If you’re in a neck-and-neck leadership race, advertising might help. Then again, if Al Gore had told Floridians their kids would be getting their asses shot off in Iraq (with Georgie), that would have worked, too.

Years ago, J. Walter Thompson used to have boot camps. Every fall, promising young creatives and account people gathered at a resort outside of Chicago. For five grueling days, they would work around the clock, developing campaigns to be presented to the high brass.

There was so much theory, so much talk, so many people saying: “Here’s how it should be done.” Yet they never came up with a damn idea. My roommate, a British art director, used to come back to the room totally confused. “Nobody’s doing anything,” he said. I felt the same way.

The next day, we were sequestered again. We had fifteen hours to come up with a new campaign for Kraft Singles. My roommate was in another team. Around two in the afternoon, there was a big commotion next door. I thought a fight had broken out (it happened in a few groups). Then I heard the high brass running around. They were all on the phone, calling their respective offices.

When I caught up with my roommate later, I asked what had happened. “Everyone was arguing so much,” he said, “I finally just wrote this.” He unfolded a piece of paper with a hand holding a Kraft cheese slice. Above it was this line: “I choose the cheese that has two cheeses in every single single.”

For all the theory, the know-it-alls, the endless debate about markets, penetration, etc., it took one guy, fed up with the stupidity, to crack what hadn’t been cracked by the entire JWT organization.

We keep asking: “What does the consumer want?” They want the same thing they’ve always wanted. Something wonderful, something memorable.

They want to say the same words Steve Jobs uttered minutes before his death: “Oh, wow!”

Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores. For more details, go to Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Publishing.