In The New York Times Magazine: “Junk”ing up carrots

A vegetable borrows from the junk-food branding vernacular

It’s hard to say who gets the last laugh here. The makers of Doritos aren’t exactly complaining. (“We’re happy to serve as inspiration,” a Frito-Lay spokesman told USA Today.) And the reality is that marketers have long since recognized and accepted that “how your snack looks” makes a difference, to kids in particular.

Read the column in the September 26, 2010, New York Times Magazine, or here.

Discuss, make fun of, or praise this column to the skies at the Consumed Facebook page.

“Significant” Advertising

Those of you who know about the Significant Objects project but who haven’t checked it out lately may be interested in a batch of recent posts over there, in which I show off the creations of a SCAD advertising class that made ads for Significant Objects. I’ve noted before that some observers of the project see parallels between S.O. and advertising, so I thought this would be a pretty cool exercise, and I’m really pleased with the results. Fun.

Object + Made-up story = Advertising?


Early on in Significant Objects, someone commenting on a BoingBoing post about the project opined:

I hate to tell you this, but you’ve basically just reinvented advertising. Good advertising takes a product and imbues it with some kind of story. The only differences are that 1) generally speaking the product is new instead of used, 2) the story is usually less specific to any individual and more generally applicable to the mass-produced nature of the product and 3) the artifice in the story is more or less deliberately concealed.

Another comment-er,  noting those rather extensive and far-reaching “only differences,” replied: “Oh, is that all? LOL. Anyway, perhaps both advertising and the Significant Objects project are stories, because everything is a story.”

It’s a fair point that the difference between the way we bring Significant Objects readers “in on” what we’re doing is distinct from artifice that is “deliberately concealed.” On the other hand, a Chicago Tribune article about the project explored the parallels between Significant Objects and advertising in a more thoughtful way, citing examples that fall on a continuum of disclosure and artifice, from McDonaldland characters to the J. Peterman catalog to high end grocers putting out “little cards at the foot of produce that explain how the farmer who harvested this broccolini owns seven chickens and drives his daughter to school in a biodiesel-fueled pickup truck every morning.” (The Tribune piece is here.)

In the past I’ve defined branding as the process of attaching an idea to a product. There’s not too much logic-torture involved to say that this puts me in the camp that does see some connection between storytelling and advertising. Although I guess I would say that in addition to the advertising’s shortcomings on the honesty front, branders tend to tell nonlinear, abstract stories, as opposed to straight narratives. Especially in recent years.

Long ago, advertising might mean a page of a magazine with a big hunk of text (that often read quite a bit like a short story). Nowadays a brand like Axe, or Burger King, tells its “story” in what Henry Jenkins calls a “transmedia” manner: Across multiple platforms, in ways that might sense however you encounter them, but that are simultaneously cumulative. In fact I think marketers are way ahead of the entertainment industry (Jenkins’ focus) in transmedia storytelling, even if the branding version of it basically shrugs off linearity. The Dove Campaign For Real Beauty, for instance, posits a line of facial creams and whatnot as embodying a set of ideas about the nature of beauty itself, expressed via billboards and commercials, but also via text-message voting schemes, media appearances by its participating models, at least one stage play, and other murketing tactics. The “story” has no beginning, and no end. (It will probably stop at some point, but there will be no finale.) But there’s always a story of some kind — and in fact I’ll but the story always fits the Totem, Talisman, Evidence, and/or Fossil categories that my Significant Objects partner Joshua Glenn has defined.

The way our writers have approached stories has certainly varied. Daily Show writer Tim Carvell’s Round Box story is very much a narrative (albeit one with surprises). Bee Season/Wicket’s Remedy author Myla Goldberg’s approach to giving Significance to a Hand Held Bubble Blower is not. Nor is David Shield’s remarkable Military Figure piece. And those are just recent examples.

It would actually be rather exciting to tell the “story” of one of our Significant Objects in a truly transmedia manner. Our writers don’t have quite the budget that Unilever provides its various agencies to tell the story of Dove stuff. One of our contributors, Colson Whitehead, did surprise us by extending the story of his object into his Twitter stream; his Tweets not only amplified what he’d written, but broke the “fourth wall” (as they used to say mass-com classes, and for all I know still do) with Tweets purportedly about the motives of bidders.

It was great storytelling, and at least a little bit transmedia. And, yes, it was almost certainly an effective strategy in boosting the auction for Whitehead’s Significant Object. The wooden mallet that he wrote about, which was bought for 33 cents at a yard sale, sold for $71.

Advertising, entertainment, and what’s for dinner tonight

If you missed it, I really recommend Michael Pollan’s cover story from the Times Mag this weekend, on food preparation as something we watch on television, rather than something we do. It’s really well done. Here’s one side note that’s particularly relevant to this site:

It’s no accident that Julia Child appeared on public television — or educational television, as it used to be called. On a commercial network, a program that actually inspired viewers to get off the couch and spend an hour cooking a meal would be a commercial disaster, for it would mean they were turning off the television to do something else. The ads on the Food Network, at least in prime time, strongly suggest its viewers do no such thing: the food-related ads hardly ever hawk kitchen appliances or ingredients (unless you count A.1. steak sauce) but rather push the usual supermarket cart of edible foodlike substances, including Manwich sloppy joe in a can, Special K protein shakes and Ore-Ida frozen French fries, along with fast-casual eateries like Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

Yes. And of course those advertisers know exactly what they are doing: Associating their processed or prepared-for-you foodstuffs and meals with the vague idea of hands-on cooking. Maybe watching someone expertly prepare a meal from scratch is something that makes you feel good, and if a can of Manwhich can associate itself with that good feeling, nonconsciously of course, perhaps that association will still lurk in your brain somewhere as you wheel through Kroger.

The whole piece is actually full of great stuff about consumer behavior, advertising, and entertainment, filtered through the lens of food. Great stuff.

This coming attraction brought to you by…

Earlier today I saw, on a blog, a reference to a trailer for a documentary I hadn’t heard of but that sounded interesting. I clicked and went to a site called

Before the trailer started, there was an ad (for Axe hair gel). When the trailer started, text ads popped up on the bottom of the video window, advertising other movie-trailer sites I might want to check out. And of course above the video window there was a banner ad, for a movie, and to the right another ad (for Axe).

That seems like an awful lot of sponsorship to deal with … just to watch what is, after all, an ad for a movie.

The phrase that pays

I’m not sure how interested you are — or how interested I am — in Anna Wintour’s take on virtue, frugality, the new consumer, and all that. But I was amused by this:

I don’t think anyone is going to want to look overly flashy, overly glitzy, too Dubai, whatever you want to call it.

Too Dubai.” I have to remember that .

For an (un)limited time…

An interesting bit in an Ad Age story notes how limited-time promotions introduced during spending slumps tend to hand around and become part of the marketplace:

Downtime promotions can be addictive
American Airlines, defending its position, in May 1981 introduced AAdvantage, the industry’s first loyalty-marketing program. United Airlines followed with Mileage Plus, a short-term promotion that was to end in 1982. Frequent-flier programs went on to become a permanent fixture in airline marketing.

Chrysler introduced auto rebates in early 1975 as a short-term promotion to clear its bloated inventory. Automakers have been addicted to rebates ever since.

And zero-percent financing after 9/11 too, right?

Why aren’t there more prime-time infomercials?

We watched about one minute of the half-hour Obamamercial last night. It looked kind of boring, and as it happens we’ve already voted, so that was enough. In listening to and reading the rave reviews later, I was interested to hear that the total cost was, as I understand it, somewhere around $4 million or $5 million, for both production and air time on multiple networks.

I know everybody says that’s a lot of money, and for a political campaign it is. But in the larger scheme of corporate advertising, it really isn’t. Thirty seconds during the Super Bowl is more than $2 million, not counting production. More to the point, for a company like Nike, or Wal-Mart, $4 million isn’t much. Or how about Exxon Mobile: They just posted $14.8 billion in profits — for the quarter. When you’re looking at numbers like that, a few million bucks is peanuts.

I’m not arguing that, say, some oil company should take a half hour of slick propaganda time on a network near you. I’m just idly curious why it doen’t happen.

The professional amateur

Funny story in the NYT today about a guy who has won 11 “user-generated ad” contests, “earning more than $200,000 in money and prizes.” A great example of the co-promotion theory of what inspires amateurs to make ads: It’s not about hyping the brand, it’s about hyping the maker.

Mr. Levinson has a Facebook group entitled “Yes, Joel, I’ll vote for your newest stupid contest” and he uses Twitter, blogs, e-mail and text messages, asking acquaintances to vote. He even calls 24-hour customer service lines at night, when he thinks the representatives are bored, and asks them to vote for him.

In The New York Times Magazine: Billy Mays

The enduring appeal of the pitchman.

Today in Consumed, a look at the appeal of one of TV’s most ubiquitous sellers.

Much more interesting than the unlikely merchandise he booms on about is the boomer himself. With his slicked-back hair, beard and thunderclap voice, he begins most of his many two-minute spots by proclaiming: “Hi! Billy Mays here!” Usually declarations like this are reserved for those whose achievements or fame in some other corner of culture (movies, sports, reality television) are being leveraged on behalf of a product. Mays is a celebrity endorser whose celebrity is based entirely on having endorsed things.

Read the column in the October 26, 2008, issue of The New York Times Magazine, or here.

Bonus link:

Consumed archive is here, and FAQ is here. The Times’ Consumed RSS feed is here. Consumed Facebook page is here.

To make a point about Consumed that you think readers of The Times Magazine would be interested in: “Letters should be addressed to Letters to the Editor, Magazine, The New York Times, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10018. The e-mail address is All letters should include the writer’s name, address and daytime telephone number. We are unable to acknowledge or return unpublished letters. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.”

McCain-Plumber campaign tries open-source marketing

The campaign wants “to hear from you and share your story with the American public. It’s simple … make an ad telling us why you are “Joe the Plumber” in 30 seconds and your video could end up on the air as a TV ad.”

  • Be creative! The video that most effectively tells why you are Joe the Plumber will be featured in a TV ad.
  • Tell us why you are like Joe the Plumber.
  • How would Barack Obama’s plan to “Spread the Wealth Around” hurt you?


Details here. Via The Stump.

Big Money’s BrandWatch

Slate‘s new spinoff, The Big Money, launches today, and the Dow is down like 300 points. Coincidence?

Just kidding. Anyway I bring it up because the site has one feature in particular that may be of interest to those of you who follow branding and all that, The YouTube BrandWatch:

Every week, The Big Money features a corporate-themed video that’s had significant viewership on YouTube: some approved, some unapproved, some mashed-up combinations of the two. And we’ll ask our readers to vote on how the video affects the brands.

The first one is here.

Magic, the brain, and commercial persuasion

Two items of note on the broad subject of commercial persuasion and consumer decision-making.

First, Marginal Utility points to this Scientific American article about “how making decisions tires your brain.” Essentially the piece cites a number of studies suggesting that “executive function,” a name for a part of the brain involved in decision-making, is sort of like a muscle that gets worn out when used too often, leading to bad decisions even in areas unrelated to whatever realm we wore it out in.

Wow, that was a bad sentence, let’s just try quoting a bit of the article:

University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and colleagues repeatedly demonstrate that the mere act of making a selection may deplete executive resources. For example, in one study the researchers found that participants who made more choices in a mall were less likely to persist and do well in solving simple algebra problems.

Etc. Meanwhile, Wired summarizes research that looked at magic tricks and apparently extracts lessons to “advance our understanding of the brain — and perhaps help inoculate us against advertising.” The underlying article/research is not online, so I can only quote from a bit of Wired’s summation; here’s one interesting bit:

Psychological misdirection. Just as the attention of our eyes can guide, so can the attention of our minds. A casual motion belies its importance to a trick. Heightened suspense muddles the audience’s focus on the mechanics of a routine. The mere mention of a false explanation precludes notice of the real one.

So… to be glib … if commercial persuaders are magicians, and we’re taking in their tricks with exhausted executive-function muscles … how likely is it we make the best decisions?

I’ll leave it to you to sort out what you make of that. Hopefully your brain is less tired than mine.

Re: Converse marketing

Eyecube wonders what I will make of this Converse ad site, and, turns out, I’m taking requests.

Well, up to a point. I only watched a little bit of the material in what seems to be a pretty extensive pile of Converse mini-movies. In a way, the content echoes the brand’s earlier strategy of getting fans to make ads on the brand’s behalf — but these seem pretty obviously to be pro jobs. The one I watched some of, Out Of Your League Girl, seemed, to be honest, pretty lame. I got bored really fast. But maybe the target demo will be into this.

Who is the target demo? Read more

Saying something nice about Nike (part one)

So there’s this thing in the book where I mention how bummed out I was when Nike bought Converse, and pretty much every interviewer asks me about it, so I kind of feel like I’ve been on a Nike-bashing tour lately.

Even so, as I say in the book, speaking as a business journalist who writes about branding, I am in awe of Nike: As a capitalist success story, and as an exercise in the raw power of image-making, it is truly astonishing.

Here’s a case in point. The other day I got a call from Eric Neel at He was writing about some ads Nike had going during the U.S. Open, featuring Tiger Woods. Being totally indifferent to golf, and kind of busy, I knew nothing about this, but he told me the basics. I’ll quote here from Neel’s subsequent June 12 article:

In Nike’s new Tiger Woods commercial entitled “Never,” Earl Woods’ recorded voice plays over clips of his son, as a boy and as a man, practicing his legendary swing. Full of gravitas and pathos, it’s at once the voice of the guru who raised the greatest golfer who has ever lived and the voice of the absent father who died of cancer a little more than two years ago.

While Tiger starts and stops his swings, Earl explains the way he often intentionally distracted his son in order to make him stronger, sometimes dropping a bag full of clubs when Tiger was at the top of his backswing.

“I’d say, ‘Tiger, I promise you,'” Earl says as we look upon his son’s unmistakably steely gaze, “‘that you’ll never meet another person as mentally tough as you in your entire life.’ And he hasn’t. And he never will.”

See the ad here if you like.

Earl Woods, as you may know, is dead. So this is a pretty intense ad. Also possibly creepy, but never mind that. What Neel was curious about was, given that Woods went into this tournament recovering from knee surgery and not in top physical condition, wasn’t there a risk that he would stink up the joint, and both he and Nike would look bad?

In my role as a totally uninformed pundit, I responded that I didn’t think the risk was all that great, or rather that whatever risk there was actually made sense for Nike, which has long taken risks with its advertising, and has been almost impossibly effective at keeping its image fresh and relevant year after year. If this effort failed, well, so it goes.

But — what if Tiger wins? If he does, surely the coverage will be all about his awesome mental toughness and so on. Just like in the Nike ad! In fact, the ad would seem like part of the narrative of the tournament, almost like real-life Tiger was taking his cues from the inspiring marketing campaign.

And of course, Woods won.

Needless to say, I didn’t watch a single second of the coverage, so I don’t know how it all came across. But if Nike took a risk, they sure got the payoff. My musings had nothing to do with any guesses about Woods’ performance. But I will admit I followed a particular instinct: Don’t bet against Nike marketing.

So there’s that. I’ll say something else nice about Nike tomorrow. And it’s not about their ads. Or not exactly.