We're Not Selling Anymore, We're Bartering.
Anyone watching (or, let’s say, enduring) the presidential debates must realize these candidates aren’t selling platforms and programs. They’re only bartering, essentially trading one candidate for another, hopefully of equal value. In fact, you don’t actually get greater value with either candidate. One is a slick politician, the other is a slick businessman. They’re both dealing with the same issues. So you’re really voting on which “slick” you prefer.
Like presidential candidates, we accept what people want (or appear to want), and give it back to them in a form they’ll like. We’re not trying to be better, we’re just trying to be more noticeable. With each comment Donald Trump makes, he isn’t selling you on issues. He just wants you to remember him more than you remember Hillary Clinton. The rest is inconsequential.
The same goes for everything we market these days. For example, since the fifties, car manufacturers have focused on the look of the vehicle. It doesn’t matter that the engineering is significantly better. Even Elon Musk’s Tesla, as remarkable as it is in battery technology, still relies on the “beauty shot.”
The reason is simple: We’ve been brought up to rely on packaging. Anything we buy must look nice. Apple can come out with any number of new features, but these features have to be surrounded by what we find appealing. Sure, you’re interested in RAM, USP ports, camera resolution, etc., but it’s the overall appearance we buy. We don’t buy ugly. Ugly is a dog.
Remember the Aztek? It was introduced in 2001 by Pontiac as the mid-sized crossover for Gen Xers. This was supposedly a model of new engineering, designed entirely with computerized rapid-prototyping/rapid-visualization tools. Trouble was, it looked atrocious. As one GM executive, Bob Lutz, famously said, it reminded him of “an angry kitchen appliance.” The Daily Telegram in August 2008 ranked the Aztek number one among “the ugliest cars of all time.” The Aztek used in “Breaking Bad” sold at auction for $7,000.
Now, GM could argue that the Aztek had everything people wanted. Research showed a “good receptive audience.” But it was nothing more than an automaker trying for a greyhound and getting a camel. That’s what being all things to all people gets you. On The Simpson’s, Homer’s long-lost brother asked him to design the ultimate car. Wasn’t Homer the average consumer? The result was a disaster. It looked like an Aztek.
When we move from selling to bartering, we give up trying to be better. For all our exhortations, we’re simply shifting attention from one product to another. Marketers believe nobody’s interested in buying better anymore. After years of inflated and false promises, we’re skeptical. We don’t expect any significant improvement. Ultimately, we just don’t want a lemon.
Even reality television today relies on bartering over superiority. No reality show is promoting itself as “the best on television.” There’s no need. Each network has decided to share the market, since it’s big, the shows are cheap, and there’s enough audience to go around. So it’s a static marketplace, only introducing new when one show essentially wears out its welcome.
For advertising agencies, this is met with a small shrug. “That’s what everyone’s doing,” one account director told me. “The economy’s so lousy, all you can do is split up what you’ve got. As long as you don’t step on the competitor’s toes, they don’t step on yours.”
Interesting analogy, but let’s look back at what was happening in the early 70s. Agencies at the time—particularly small, hungry ones—weren’t bartering with the existing marketplace. In fact, Scali, McCabe, Sloves decided to stand out, making their advertising not only noticeable, but strongly competitive.
Take the example of Perdue Chickens, an account they picked up in 1971. Faced with a similar problem we face today, meaning everyone was copying everyone else, Ed McCabe decided to do something different. He took Frank Perdue and made him a household name with “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.” In 1967, yearly sales for Perdue Chickens had been $35 million. By 1972, sales had leapfrogged to $80 million. The advertising budget for the first year was $200,000.
Other agencies like Doyle, Dane Bernbach were doing the same thing, challenging competitors, making their advertising aggressive instead of defensive (this wasn’t to get into annuals, folks, this was to sell). In essence, advertising took the unprecedented move of moving the economy. And, guess what, it worked.
In 1972, for instance, the annual GDP growth rate was 6.86 percent, compared to today’s “bartering” economy of 1.2 percent. In Canada, we went from an annual GDP growth rate of 5.4 percent in 1972 to 0.6 percent in 2016.
I’m sure economists will blame this on any number of factors, whether it’s the price of crude or worldwide instability. But the fact remains, as long as we’re bartering instead of competing, our economy will remain in the ditch. Even our latest trade deal with the EU is bartering. We’ll increase our exports by billions, but under our international agreements we’ll have to spend the same amount.
This doesn’t represent growth as much as commodity exchange. In other words, it’s good on paper, but it does nothing for real economic stimulus.
If advertising executives want to shrug and say, “There’s nothing we can do with the present situation,” I’d suggest they stop looking at the news and start looking at history. Advertising is defined as “the wheel that drives the economy.” We’re in a position to turn that wheel. We’ve done it before.
As I showed earlier, SMS took Perdue Chickens from $35 million to $85 million with a budget of $200,000. Those are 1972 numbers, but it still shows what can happen if we use our creativity. Either we stop bartering, or we’ll be like those reality shows, each agency waiting until they wear our their welcome.
Anyone who says now isn’t the time for creativity is crazy. This is exactly the time for creativity. It’s what makes us stand out. It’s what makes sales grow. Agencies should realize that—so should clients.
What do you think? Are you happy bartering or do you think it’s time advertising started driving the economy again? Let me know at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details (you can buy the book directly from them).