You folks may not know this, but I used to be something of an advertising guy. I was blessed to have a boss and an environment where I could define my position by my strengths rather than a recruitment ad. And I did: I got to play in business development, marketing strategy, even a little copywriting and creative direction. I once sang in front of a prospective client during a pitch; we didn’t get that account. And I taught Contemporary Advertising for a few years at the college level.
What I’m saying is, I am probably in the top-third of people who are qualified to have an actual opinion about advertising. I mean an opinion deeper than which GEICO commercial is the best. (It’s the Hump Day one, by the way.)
So when I saw this article a while ago I wanted to talk about it but then I thought, “Nah, it’s kind of inside baseball. There are real things going on in the world that need reflection and exploration, things like Trader Joe’s and…well, that’s it really.” But then for some reason the story cycled up to the top of the rotation again and this time I am biting.
What is wrong with people?
Audi, who makes some darn nice cars by the way, which is why it’s what Tony Stark drives in the MCU, decided to pull an ad from Twitter that consisted of a little girl, in a denim jacket, eating a banana, leaning against the grill of a very fast-looking, red Audi RS4. The caption (not a headline, mind you) says, “Let your heart beat faster — in every aspect.”
The outrage was palpable, everything from noting that the girl would be killed because she couldn’t be seen over the hood by a driver, to one person describing the banana as a “phallic symbol.” There were people on Twitter who said the reclining position of the girl was “suggestive.” Now, to be fair, there were also people on Twitter saying what I’m saying, which is basically, “If you’re looking at a 5-year-old in a jean jacket and seeing a Whitesnake music video in your head, you need immediate, acute clinical help.”
So not everyone was bananas about the “ad,” but just the same, Audi took the ad down and went on the Great Summer of 2020 Apology Tour, saying, “We sincerely apologize for this insensitive image and ensure that it will not be used in future.” The company added that it would examine how the campaign had been created, “and if control mechanisms failed in this case.”
Look, everything is subjective, right? I can’t say, categorically, that there wasn’t anything “insensitive” about that ad. I can’t say with absolute certainty that it didn’t evoke some kind of inappropriate, sexualized vision of a child. I can’t say it didn’t in any way suggest that the car was anything but parked, relieving the concern that Audi is somehow advocating mowing down children.
But, you know, yeah. I kind of can. I mean, it’s not 100% but I believe these people are in a bubble tea-fueled rage over nothing. (Sorry, that was the most bougie thing I could think of in a pinch.)
God bless Joe Tamney. Joe was president of Boyd Tamney Cross, a Philly area marketing firm. He was my boss and mentor for nine years. He taught me lessons about advertising and about life. He also gave me my first substitute teaching gig at Villanova University when his business travel schedule and class schedule collided.
Let me go back into my virtual Joe archives and pull some conventional wisdom that supports my position:
1) What drives results?
There are only three moving parts to an ad that determine 100% of its success. They are: the audience, the message and the creative. Said a little differently:
- How many of the people who you want to reach have you actually reached?
- What do you want them to think or do?
- How do you go about getting them to think or do it?
Taken in turn, the first two requirements drive the great – some would say overwhelming – majority of an ad’s success. Yet every man, woman and oversexed 5-year-old with a banana typically associates advertising with the third bullet and wants to expound on what is “good” or what “works.”
Let’s look at this a second. The funniest, most creative, breakthrough ad does nothing if the target audience doesn’t see it. The most targeted, clever ad without a call to action might as well be a nap: I mean, it’s nice, I like naps. But it means someone is paying a lot of money for nothing to happen.
So the only way for an ad to “work,” objectively, is for it to reach the people it’s supposed to reach, with a message that is believable and/or a desired action that is attainable. And, by the way, it needs to be clever or cute or controversial enough to get us to actually notice. Which brings us to number two:
2) The first requirement of advertising is to be seen.
Today, especially, there are thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of marketing images and messages assaulting us daily. I abstain from social media (other than for professional requirements and this blog) so I can only imagine the cacophony most people, especially younger people, have to deal with. What I drown in each day is plenty, I promise.
The net result is that most of what’s out there, up in our face, is noise. Everything is indistinguishable from everything else. Posts and tweets get a glance at best, Instagram photos scroll up at warp speed. As aggressive and committed as we are as consumers of these messages, all this information, we are absolutely inadequate to consume it all.
So in order to be effective at all, an “ad” (let’s just call them all ads for simplicity) has to be arresting. It has to get you to slow your scroll. It has to stop you, just for a second, and get you to notice. If you don’t actually see it, you can’t consume it. This sounds like common sense, but I would die way before I could recount every time someone, a client – internal or external – wanted to put up an ad with more words than any book in the Bible.
If no one sees it, does it exist? Conventional wisdom says, “no.”
3) Kids and critters.
Women are an important demographic class. Obviously, they are not the target audience for every ad – for example, Audi isn’t selling their RS4 pocket rocket to women. But they are the buyer in many instances and a complex, powerful influencer in, I’ll say it, most instances. (Again, for simplicity, I’m talking about consumer advertising, not B to B.) Women like kids, and they like cute little animals. Not just women – most people like kids (the notable exception being Twitter trolls who salivate over benign Audi ads) and cute, furry, fluffy, adorable animals.
So it’s become a kind of shorthand. When you’re in a bind, don’t have a big idea, the clock is running down, you can almost never go wrong by inserting kids and/or critters. It’s a cheat, to be sure, but a time-honored and proven one. I would be lying if I said I never leaned on this one in my career. I tried to bring something more to the table, something worth your attention, but the baseline concept is the same.
So let’s do a quick tally, and see the Audi ad for what it really is. Let’s look at it objectively based on the insights above.
1) The ad was placed on Twitter, which hosts millions of messages each day and uses algorithms to send both paid and unpaid messages where they are most likely wanted; in the case of paid messages, it’s where they are most likely wanted according to the advertiser, and with unpaid messages your own history and practice determines what you’ll see more of.
Gittelman’s grade: C There’s no way to judge the efficacy of targeting. At a minimum, online advertising is cheap, so it hurts less when nothing happens. But look at all the free looks Audi got by getting bitch-slapped and then pulling the ad.
2) The ad was a still shot of a hipster youngster, leaning on a car in a driveway, eating a banana. The car is red, the kid is designed very specifically to look like how a cool chick might look if our adult selves could reimagine our child selves. The caption is nonsensical and instantly forgettable; as an actual ad, it would have been rejected as a headline by a first year copywriter. The banana? No idea, but I have a hard time believing it was a penis analog. Pun intended.
Gittelman’s grade: C- The image uses the kid to get me to look at the car, which I already want to look at. But there are so many images of cars, they don’t think I will look at it without a hook, and they are right. Had they not pulled the ad and bent over, I never would have seen it.
3) And finally, with no headline and no concept and no ability to portray the car as hero, they resorted to the second oldest trick in the toolkit: put a kid in there. The first oldest, in case you’re interested, is the word “FREE.”
Gittelman’s grade: F Come on, guys.
So you can see that what is being lambasted as subversive and insensitive is really just a lazy ad that got lucky: It pissed some people off and got them distracted and talking. Like jingling your keys when the baby’s crying.
Maybe Audi isn’t so dumb after all.