Don’t Tell ‘Em Too Much

Notice anything about these two campaign signs by competing candidates?

campaign sign

Notice anything missing? Like, everything?

They both tell you virtually nothing. Name and office sought, nothing more. Not a word about their legislative priorities and no indication of political party.

This is typical in campaign signs. Two years ago, among the dozens of candidate signs that I saw around the Midcoast for local, state and national offices, just one indicated the candidate’s political party. That was Eliot Cutler, the gubernatorial candidate whose affiliation was proudly stated as “Independent.”

Obviously, candidates for political office don’t want to clutter your mind with picayune details like “Republican” and “Democrat,” much less brief position statements (For the Working Man; Keeping America Strong) Campaign signs have only one purpose: to make people extremely familiar with the candidate’s name. So that when Joe Voter enters the booth (You know Joe: he’s the only voter candidates care about: the undecided voter who thinks he’s performing a civic duty, even though he doesn’t understand squat about politics or policy.) he votes for the name he recognizes, or for the one whose negative attributes he remembers less clearly than the other guy’s. Political parties? Unaffiliated voters view both of them as negatives, so leave it out.

It’s a despicable approach to democracy, but elections aren’t much about democracy in the USA anymore: they’re all about marketing and which side can afford more of it. (Thanks, Supreme Court!) And the smart money says you don’t want to give the rubes too much information.

That’s sound policy for a lot of nonpolitical marketing too. Few ads or other marketing vehicles should talk price, unless price is your unassailable Unique Selling Proposition. It’s too easy for consumers to compare, and all money is money that people would rather not spend, so best not talk about it. Don’t want to field email inquiries? Don’t push your email address. Is your business one of those “rent-to-own” operations? Highlight the “own” part and never mind that pesky “rent” thing.

Make the message as simple as possible. Focus on just one positive attribute that appeals to the consumer or solves his problem. In many cases, the only other thing you need is a call to action (CTA): i.e., tell the consumer explicitly what you want him to do: buy, call, visit, click, “like,” “share,” or whatever.

And even a CTA is superfluous sometimes. Campaign signs don’t use it because until the polls open, the consumer can’t take action. They’re all about familiarity. That principle applies to many national brands too — think fast food and sugary fizzy beverages especially. Many of those ads don’t try to make you buy right now. They just want to fill a certain part of your brain so that they’re the first thing you think of when you’re hungry or thirsty.

Responding (or not) to Social Media

Social media marketing is a two-edged sword. (That’s a ridiculous metaphor, when you come to think of it. Two-edged swords are about as dangerous to their owners as single-edged swords. A two-ended sword, were there such a thing, might be more to the…um…point.) By enabling a company to engage its audience in real two-way discussions, social media marketing leads the audience to believe that the company cares about them and they, in response, come to care about the company or its product or service.

That’s fine when customer feedback is of the “Hey, love your product” variety, and your company responds with “Thanks Biff! Wait till you taste our new coconut crunch flavor, coming out next July!” It even works when Biff asks nicely for things you can’t or won’t do, and you can respond “Thanks for the input. We never considered a salmon-flavored soft drink before, but we’ll put the idea into the hopper.” Biff comes away thinking that at least you’re listening and that his opinion matters to you. A positive relationship has been established.

But things can get tricky when Biff has an agenda, or if Biff is a troll. Then, nothing but your acceptance or approval of his standpoint will satisfy him, and your reasoned objections to his opinion will elicit only bile:

“Hey, you guys have to stop selling your product in Communist China, because FREEDOM!”

“Biff, UltraCorp believes that the Chinese people deserve the benefits of CyberCrunchies too. They’re an inexpensive source of Vitamin X, they secretly implant pro-capitalist microchips under the skin of consumers, and they generate $2 billion in revenues for our Idaho-based company, helping reduce the US trade deficit with China.”

“Freedom isn’t free you f***face. You think my daddy left his legs on Omaha Beach so that we could trade with Commies?”

Since there’s not no winning this “argument,” there’s no sense in continuing it. Literally nothing you say or do will satisfy Biff, unless you agree to exactly what he wants. At this point, you can delete the offensive conversation from the media. Biff will see this as confirmation that he’s right, and he’ll say so, unless you ban him entirely. Especially if you ban him, he’ll likely spread the conversation across other social media that you don’t control, where it’ll arouse the ire of other Biff-minded individuals who previously had nothing against your company.

A better response may be none at all, leaving Biff’s absurd reply as the last word on the subject. This is a difficult choice for a few reasons. It’s intellectually offensive to allow such nonsense to go unanswered. Absurd as it may be, Biff’s argument will be persuasive to some (hopefully small) fraction of the audience who, like Biff, will be convinced that your lack of a reply is equivalent to consent. At it can be an ego blow: declining to answer, when you know you’re right and he’s wrong, feels like losing the argument.

The advantage of this approach, however, is threefold. By allowing him the last word on the subject, Biff thinks he’s won, and he’ll be less likely to cross-post the conversation to other media. For those in the audience who are not already fanatical supporters of Biff’s agenda, the absurdity of Biff’s response condemns itself, and that condemnation then becomes the last word on the subject. Your marketing ego has to be mature enough to understand that.

The most important reason not to respond, however, is simply to allow the subject to die. The shorter the conversation, the fewer people in your audience who will notice, much less be engaged by it or share it. The day after Biff’s last, unanswered response, the conversation will have dropped off the first page of your wall and it will have been forgotten by every reader except Biff. It’s become a blip, not a controversy.

Merry Christmas from the King of Lies

“Captain Atheismo, give me your report on the War on Christmas.”

Yes, Your Eternal Nastiness. This Powerpoint shows highlights of this season’s initiatives:

  • The Yiddish Brigade successfully decoupled Hannukah from December, drawing an estimated 100,000,000 American Jews out of the festivities.
  • Our Moslem allies have so well established Sharia as the law of the land that Allah has become more popular than Jesus in 39 states and the District of Columbia by an average of 14.5 percentage points nationwide.
  • The Fox Shock Troops have instilled fear throughout all remaining true Christians. In a recent survey, 92% cited “fear of retribution by neighbors” as the primary reason for no longer openly celebrating or acknowledging their so-called faith.
Moslems at prayer in a mosque

Hundreds of millions of American former Christians flocked to mosques in December to affirm their conversions and protest the holiday season

Additional results are most gratifying:

  • Christmas music is not heard in any stores catering to the general public
  • Gift buying, Christmas card sales, and UPS deliveries are all down to Depression-era levels
  • Vast forests of Christmas trees remain uncut this year
  • Churches and homes have been successfully prevented from applying both interior and exterior decorations.

In sum, Your Holy Terrorship, Operation Kill Christmas has nearly entirely suppressed the holiday in 2013. Next year should be a simple mopping-up operation.

“Excellent report, Captain. You’ve done your work well. Eggnog?”

Pay for the Photography and Photoshop, Dammit

In an article on web marketing that I wrote recently for MaineBiz, webmaster Al Arthur advised that small business owners cough up the cash for professional web design — advice that I heartily support. But due to space constraints, the article had to leave out Al’s follow-on comment about the comparable importance of paying for decent photography. To that, I’d add professional photo editing, and design for print too. When things don’t look good…they don’t look good. And if customers don’t have a professional’s eye for design, they are at least subliminally influenced by quality when it appears, or doesn’t appear, in any graphic context associated with your company.

Two full-page, four-color ads in the current issue of the Camden Herald (and, I presume, its local sister publications) are good object lessons in how not to do it.

PETA ad shows bad Photoshop and a dead lobster masquerading as a live one.

We really shouldn’t come down too hard on the designer. She lives in Idaho and television ads for Red Lobster constitute her entire familiarity with the species.

This ad by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals purports to show a live lobster being cruelly rent asunder by an uncaring “slaughterhouse” worker. As any Mainer would immediately recognize, its bright red color signals that this is no live lobster. Or as Mr. Praline might say:

‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This lobster is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-LOBSTER!!

So those two hands that are meant to be so roughly treating this poor crustacean are, in fact, only about to start enjoying supper.

Except: those two hungry hands never really touched said cooked lobster. It may not show very well in my photo (and I apologize for that: my scanner’s bed isn’t big enough to take the full page ad), but those hands have been obviously Photoshopped in with all the finesse that you’d expect from an organization that throws blood at people as a means of political discourse.

Walmart ad shows prescription bottles with bad info on labels

Opposite the PETA ad was this one from Walmart, which opened its new store in Thomaston a day or two ago.

The problem here is subtler. Look below at the labels on the prescription bottles.

What’s that? The fictitious prescription holder lives in Anytown, Arkansas. And her refill order expired in two thousand and frickin’ nine!

Now come on, Walmart! You’re one of the world’s biggest companies; you could fund PETA’s operations for a century on last quarter’s profit. You think that just maybe you could pay for 15 minutes worth of Photoshop to update the labels to make the customer a Maine resident of the current decade?

prescription bottle label shows inappropriate content

No way we’re gonna fill this prescription for you, Jane. We stopped selling fen-phen years ago.

Slightly off-topic, but back to the PETA ad: at the bottom, the call to action reads: “To learn how you can help stop this suffering, visit” Go to that (home) page, however, and you’ll find nothing about Linda Bean and her red, dead lobsters. Perhaps if you dug deeper into the website you might find something relevant, but an advertisement has to: a) make things as easy as possible on the audience, and b) include a meaningful call to action. There’s no indication of what the reader is actually supposed to do to help “stop this suffering.” Call Linda Bean? Sign a petition? Send money? Throw blood on someone? If the information is somewhere on the website, the URL should lead directly to it. A QR code wouldn’t hurt. But the ad shouldn’t require the reader to go to the website in the first place: it should tell me, right there on the page, what it wants me to do.

Indirect Messaging in Ads

Advertising is not the practice of the obvious. The best ads are often not the ones that address the subject directly. Indeed, an ad that spells out exactly what the seller wants you to buy can be among the worst. Back in the Soviet days, a huge Moscow billboard carried this (translated) message:


That was the whole text of the ad. It said exactly what the state-run tea importing and processing company had in mind, but it was hardly persuasive. Every Russian was already aware of the option — indeed, tea drinking was as essential element in Russian culture as it was in Victorian England — but they were drinking something else (water, vodka… I don’t know) and “drink tea” certainly wasn’t going to do much to make them change. Perhaps it just needed a little tweak: the addition of an incentive, like this one:



In contrast, this Geico ad takes an indirect approach.

Geico isn’t trying to sell you insurance — at least not here in this ad. No one buys insurance because an ad makes it sound appealing. You buy insurance when you find you need it: when you buy a new car, or when your current carrier raises your premiums and you decide to look for a better price.

Geico (or its ad agency) understands this, and they build their ads not to sell insurance, but to make you remember Geico in a positive light. They’ve created a whole campaign of ads that are  funny, well-produced, and based on startling (but not disturbing) visual images (e.g., a camel in an office). So that when you find you need insurance, Geico comes to mind: they’re the guys with the funny ads! Remember the camel in the office? Remember the gecko with glasses who looks like Warren Buffet? Of course you do. And there’s a damn good chance that they’re who you’ll call, rather than some more straightlaced company that preaches to you about protecting your family or your investment and whose name you don’t immediately recall.

The indirect sell isn’t right for all products in all advertising environments. If you’re pitching an engineering product in a trade journal ad, for example, you might need to appeal to the engineer’s specific application requirement: our bearings last 33% longer in agricultural applications; our marine pollution spill response service is available for immediate deployment worldwide. But for consumer products, making the consumer love you is often the way to their wallets.

Marketing Vehicles

I’ve seen a number of motor vehicles used for marketing purposes lately, each with a different approach and, IMO, a different level of effectiveness.


The most “professional” of the three is this authentic antique Harley-Davidson police tricycle, dressed up as a Twisted Tea promotion in Shaws.

The vehicle is beautifully restored, and for people who are into vintage motorcycles, it’s an eye-catcher. However, I wonder if it’s a cost-effective marketing tool. To purchase the motorcycle, restore it, and give it a custom paint job must cost a bundle. Then there are additional display fees to the store. I have to assume that they don’t have a whole fleet of these, so all that investment appears in only one location at a time, and then you have to pay someone to load it onto a trailer and set it up at another store a few weeks later. For anyone who’s not interested in vintage motorcycles, it may not be terribly appealing. (Research into traffic accidents has indicated that car drivers who plow into motorcycles generally have no personal exposure to motorcycles, and therefore don’t “see” them.) There’s no apparent connection between motorcycles and beverages of any kind — although it might be possible to establish that connection through a broader promotional campaign (and for all I know, as a non-TV watcher, they might have a whole series of television ads doing just that).

So bottom line, the owner or marketing manager is probably a vintage motorcycle fan and thought this would be an awesome cool thing, but it’s probably not tremendously effective.


This lovely display is in front of the public safety building at the intersection of Simonton Road and John Street in Camden. In case you’re reading on a small screen, the sandwich board says “Don’t Drink and Drive.” (A couple weeks ago, it had an anti texting-while-driving message.)

Again, it’s certainly eye-catching (and really ugly). Unlike the Twisted Tea promo, it probably cost nothing, and everyone who drives will probably absorb the visual part of the message. I really wonder, though, if this will really help drive the message home to people who do, or might, drink and drive. If I were in the habit, I think I’d scoff at it as nagging. But I suppose if the wrecked cars help turn on the light for just one drunk driver, it’s worthwhile.

duck sign on roof of car

Photo from Penobscot Bay Pilot. Click photo to link to original story.

Finally, there’s the Duck Derbymobile, promoting a fundraiser by the West Bay Rotary. This is the most modest of the three, and I think it’s probably the most effective, due to i) its mobility — it’s seen all over the place, ii) the fact that the sign’s image relates directly to the event it’s promoting, and iii) its silly unpretentiousness. Rubber ducks make people smile, and a grown man driving around with one on his car just adds a bit of humor to one’s drive. Will it persuade anyone to attend the event? No. But will it make people aware of the event? Yes indeed.

Why so Little Originality in Auto Badges?

Drive anywhere in the USA, and the preponderance of Toyotas and Fords on the road will have you thinking that almost all cars sport oval badges. But it’s not so! Some of them are round.

Actually, there is a bit more variety in badge shapes, but the great majority are, in fact, either oval or round. I suspect there may be some good design reason for that — I’m surely no designer — but to me, it seems like a lack of original thinking. Why do badges have to fit into a circle or an oval? Come on, automakers: break the mold.

Now, the badge isn’t necessarily the same as the brand’s logo. Sometimes it is, but often it’s a variant of the logo (like, say, the logo with a CIRCLE around it!). Anyway, here’s the result of my investigation, mostly conducted at the local Big Box Emporium of Cheap Plastic Crap (where, I defiantly acknowledge, I do a fair amount of my nonfood shopping). Images are in random order; all are mine, except the following, which I’ve borrowed from other sources: BMW, Audi, Cadillac, Lexus, Infiniti, Mini.

Toyota badge.

Toyota: two ovals in an oval. Dull.

VW badge

VW: as round as round can be.

Volvo badge

Volvo: mostly, it’s a circle, but the arrow at 2 o’clock gives it a certain..masculinity?

Suzuki badge.

Suzuki: the courage to have the initial letter, in a dramatic font, standing all by itself, with no border of any kind.

Subaru badge.

Subaru: The collection of stars is a pretty strange logo which really does need a border to contain them.

Nissan badge.

Nissan: The horizontal bar breaks the circle a little bit, making it just a little bit more interesting than a logo entirely contained by a circle.

Mitsubishi badge.

Mitsubishi: some of this conglomerate’s companies go by the name “Three Diamonds.” Doesn’t need no stinkin’ circle, does it?

Mini badge.

Mini: a circle with wings. Right. Circles have wings. Little boxy cars can fly.

Mercury badge.

Mercury: a boring round badge for a boring brand with no sharp edges.

Mercedes logo.

Mercedes: yeah, it’s round, but it’s different. The circle doesn’t encircle a symbol or logo: the circle is an integral part of the symbol. For this reason, we call it classy, not dull.

Mazda badge.

Mazda: the border isn’t quite round or oval: it’s kind of squashed. And it’s really a part of the design, as in Mercedes’s badge. So we’ll give it a B.

Lexus badge.

Lexus: an L (or is it a nose?) inside an oval. Boring.

KIA badge.

Kia: a name in an oval. Kind of dull. Could the  logotype stand by itself, with no border?

Jeep badge.

In comparison to KIA, Jeep’s all-typography badge seems to work fine without a border. And each letter is affixed separately.

Infiniti badge.

Infiniti: basically an oval. Who took the first piece of pie?

Hyundai badge.

Hyundai: an H in an oval. How do you say “boring” in Korean?

Honda badge.

Honda: another H in a border; this one a rounded, vague trapezoid. The border still makes me snooze.

GMC badge.

GMC: the big, masculine letters closely spaced have good design integrity, don’t need a border to hang together.

Ford badge.

Ford: the ultimate oval logo. Since it’s probably the oldest badge on the road, we’ll give it a pass. Heck, they might have invented the oval badge!

Dodge badge.

Dodge badge: the big bad ram (um, it’s really just a sheep) in a shield-shaped border. OK, it’s not round. And I like the pretty baaa-lamb.

Chrysler badge.

Chrysler: those are some big wings you put around that round badge there, Grandma.

Chevrolet badge.

Chevrolet: The logo is plenty intact and self-supporting, needs no border to set it off. It’s a cross, but it’s so different from the “usual” cross that probably few people associate it with Christianity.

Cadillac badge.

Cadillac: GM is always tweaking the Caddy badge. At its heart, it’s a heraldic shield. The current iteration, however, is flanked by a garland that damn near encircles it, and then the whole thing is placed on a circle, thereby making it solidly dull.

Buick badge.

Buick: I think those heraldic shields could stand on their own, without a round border. See also: Cadillac.

BMW badge.

BMW: the logo itself is round; there’s no round border encircling it. Works for me.

Audi badge.

Audi: it may be made of circles, but it’s definitely not a logo within a circle. Pretty much one of a kind.

My takeaway is the obvious one: Don’t let the design ideas of your competition steer your designs. Think outside the oval.