Sunday, August 12, 2007

Arguments with advertising

My Sunday Oregonian arrived on the driveway this morning stuffed in an Ikea wrappper ad that read in big letters, “Home is the most important place in the world.”

Call me a crazy, but to me the most important place in the world is … the world. Without it we would not have our homes. And if we continue to fill up our homes with junk — even elegantly designed Swedish junk — we won’t have the world.


Consider this quote from a Friday New York Times article carrying the headline “Product Packages Now Shout To Grab Your Fickle Attention.” The quote is from a chief executive of a “brand agency” in Cincinnati who thinks off-beat packaging is a hot advertising medium.

“The media is fragmented, and we can’t find people — we can’t get them to sit down and listen to our argument on a television spot.”

Argument on a television spot?

Since when do television spots present arguments. The whole appeal of television as an advertising medium is that it short-circuits reason and goes for gut emotion.

If you look at the new glitzy packaging — Kleenex in oval boxes, Mountain Dew in graffiti-inspired bottles — none has anything remotely to do with making an argument.


Last spring the University of Oklahoma agreed to sell the naming rights to one of its premier campus schools. Voila! Conoco-Phillips School of Geology and Geophysics, the university is only the most recent institution to sell a respected name for corporate money. In this case, for $6 million.

Could it be that one day, public institutions will be so financially starved that this city, this state, and even this nation will sell their names to corporations? I once thought I would be spared such travesty in my lifetime, but now I’m not so sure.

Here’s an idea. Let’s name our major environmental disasters after corporations. Hurricane Exxon Mobil? Chevron Global Warming?

And why not name our wars after those for whom they are being fought? Isn’t the Iraq War really Big Oil War?

Credit where credit is due.


Finally there’s the Oregonian front page story this morning about the explosion of billboards in the state since the passage of Measure 37. The story quotes folks who are rightfully offended by the blight caused by the new signs.

When I ran The Connection newspaper, I launched an editorial campaign to fight a huge sign that went up at the corner of Shattuck and Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, right across from Albertson’s.

My approach was simple and I wish it had been mentioned in the Oregonian story (I’ll write a letter to the editor tomorrow, which may or may not get printed). The solution: Get readers to call the companies advertising on the billboard and tell them that their ads are counterproductive. As in, we don't do business with outfits that blight our community.

As an editorial service over several months I provided readers with CEO names and phone numbers.

After a few dozen calls, the advertisers got the message. The billboard company (now Clear Channel) literally couldn’t give away the space. They tried. When the Oregon Zoo was offered free space and took it, we complained to Metro, which runs the zoo.

The Zoo ads came down and then the sign came down.

The bottom-line message is this: Businesses should be judged by the ways they advertise.

If ads are intrusive (Portland Trolley voice sponsorship ads for instance), if they offend (ever see a sexist ad?), if they blight the Commons (billboards or illegal signs on public roads, for example), if they slap their names on public institutions (buying naming rights — PGE Park and the Conoco-Phillips School of Geology and Geophysics), then we, the public, should openly and repeatedly vow to take our business elsewhere.

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