Google Search: The Reunion

This Indian ad from Google is REALLY good. Parts of it are in Hindi but you won’t have any trouble understanding what’s going on provided you’re familiar with India’s partition.

This is a fantastically emotive subject, but I think Google treat it with respect here. And as a brand integration case study it’s fabulous. Google has a good track record for making emotionally resonant ads, Dear Hollie perhaps being the best known example. But for me, they’ve often tried to cram too much in, tried too hard to say WE’RE GOOGLE AND WE DO EVERYTING – gmail, Youtube, Chrome, search etc. This makes the ads feel crowded and you’re not really sure what they’re for or what they’re trying to say about why each tool is important to your life. In focussing on search here there is much greater clarity around the brand’s involvement in the story and, perhaps paradoxically, by talking about one thing rather than everything that idea of Google penetrating all aspects of our lives comes through much more cleanly.

Google search is absolutely integral to the story here. In my day job, we have always said that if you can describe what happens in the ad in a sentence without mentioning the brand then it is probably not well branded. I think you’d struggle to do that here.

Of course, it’s 3 and a half minutes long so there’s plenty of space for the story here and perhaps it seems odd to be congratulating such a long ad on its focus. But it also had a big subject to deal with in a respectful way. It achieves that rare thing of being a powerful film in its own right, but still having the brand at its heart in a way that does nothing to cheapen the subject matter.

I’m also certain shorter versions are possible and that this story can be developed across a longer campaign – perhaps bringing in other elements of Google’s portfolio as they go.

I believe Ogilvy India are the people to whom the credit belongs.

David Bailey on Advertising

Over on my new blog, Life Lessons from Desert Island Discs, I have just written my second proper entry on the photographer David Bailey. Bailey has also successfully directed a number of ads, including the classic one for Greenpeace shown above. In his Desert Island Discs, he also reflects a little on advertising. So to cross promote two of my blogs and also because what he says is interesting but not really an important lesson on life, I thought I’d share what he says about ads (specifically, how directing them is different from shooting stills) with you all here.

In a way it’s a luxury. Most of my life has been spent trying to tell a story in a 125th of a second so 30 seconds is quite a luxury and 60 seconds feels like War and Peace to me. Being a still photographer is a bit like being a sniper up a tree, all alone, very lonely. Being a director is a bit like being a General – with all the people around you as catalysts trying to bring things together.

So, next time you think you’re having a hard time squeezing it all into 30 seconds, think of that lonely sniper in a tree, trying to squeeze the trigger on the right 125th of a second.

Big Mac – Think with your mouth

I’m a Burger King man myself, I hate Big Macs, disgusting sauce. I was quite partial to a Chicken Maharajah Mac during my spell in the colonies, but I didn’t have Burger King to fall back on there. I was recently rather critical of one of their recent UK efforts so by way of redressing the balance I’d like to say that I really like these new Big Mac ads from over in that America.

An iconic product given the treatment it deserves – space to speak for itself and be the hero. You don’t need to make claims about something like the Big Mac (if you do about very much at all.) You just need to celebrate it in an interesting way. Also, 15 seconds each. Brilliant. You don’t need 90 seconds to make interesting ads. Don’t let anyone tell you that you do. Not to say, of course, that you can’t also make blinding long ads. Horses for courses (beef/horse substitution pun entirely intended.)

They put me in mind of MTV idents from back in the days when the ‘M’ in MTV actually meant something. A cynic might add that ‘Think with your mouth’ is a sensible way for McDonald’s to go given that thinking with anything else would lead you to avoid Big Macs altogether, but obviously I would never say such a thing.

The Andrex Puppy wants to know how you wipe your arse

So, there’s this. An ad about how people wipe their arses in which you are asked to submit a vote to a cuddly advertising icon stating how you, the viewer, prefer to wipe your own arse. My initial reaction to this was the same combination of shock and despair that you are probably feeling now if it’s the first time you have seen it – this excellent take down in The Vice about sums most of that up. But, for me, this ad was also revelatory. I hadn’t the slightest conception that anyone would ever do anything other than fold. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, his toilet is the Keep, where none shall surely pass except in the very gravest of circumstances. Our reservedness ensures that we keep life’s great pleasures such as having a lovely poo tightly locked away from any conversation. For the most part, that’s probably for the best but it has meant that I have spent my 31 years and some months entirely in the dark about “scrunching”. Scrunchies are 90s female hair accessories, not bum-wiping material.

I am a scruffy man. I do not iron my clothes, my house is fairly untidy – but I cannot imagine for a moment wiping my arse with a randomly scrunched up ball of toilet paper. The uneven surface, the variable thickness and the lack of a uniform size and shape seem to carry with them all kinds of risks that I prefer not to even countenance, let alone bring into play.

In the uncomfortable afterglow of this revelatory experience I thought I would open The Keep to my colleagues and explore further (I don’t mean I actually invited them into my bog, I just decided to discuss it with them.) The findings were really quite interesting (and of course entirely unscientific.) There does not seem to be a gender bias – at first it seemed girls were (unexpectedly? I don’t know) more likely to scrunch, but the more we asked it seemed to be about 50/50. More of my male colleagues were folders, but not to a degree sufficient to deduce a genuine skew given the sample size involved. Personality and outward physical appearance also seemed to be poor indicators. You might expect the scruffy buggers such as I (there are plenty of us in the Global team, we don’t get let out in public much so we can let ourselves go) to over-index on scrunching but they were as likely to be neat, tidy folders in the privacy of the smallest room in the house as anyone. Those with pristine, matching houses who iron their bed linen could very well be untidy (disgusting and risky in my view) scrunchers. There were some mad bastards who would do either, apparently willy-nilly with no clear criteria as to when they would change tack.

I was greatly relieved to discover that my wonderful girlfriend is also a folder, hopefully guaranteeing that our future children will also fold. But is there any guarantee? There seems to be no gender or personality pattern to all this. Who’s to say whether there’s anything genetic? But I can only hope that the combination of nature and nurture will see my unborn children right.

So, on reflection, maybe Kimberley Clark are on to something here. Maybe they will breakthrough our reticence to talk about wiping turd from our anuses and get us all debating the relative merits of the two leading approaches. Maybe people will vote in their droves. Maybe folders will ally with folders and seek to bring down the despicable practice of scrunching? Maybe all these years of toilet roll being a dull, low-interest category are over. I think there is more to talk about – optimum number of sheets, softness, quilted versus smooth, that tracing paper stuff from primary school. LET’S ALL ENGAGE AT INTERACT ON THE SUBJECT OF BOG ROLL.

Or, you know, maybe not.

“Nah, yer alright”, McDonald’s

I don’t have a TV in my house, or at least not one connected to any TV service, so it’s usually via twitter or some other means that I come across new ads. That does tend to mean that I only see ads that are either brilliant or terrible as these tend to be the ones people tweet about online. Last night, however, I tuned in to some live TV on TVCatchup, the UK’s live streaming service for all free-to-air channels. Between the endless re-runs of Big Bang Theory I came across this ad for McDonald’s which doesn’t really fall into either of those categories. It certainly isn’t terrible, but it did annoy me (in fairness to McDonald’s, this isn’t hard to achieve.)

Having never seen it before I didn’t know what brand it was for to begin with. I think the narrative is good, the family dynamic portrayed is familiar to many and the rainy northern setting is well observed. The family members are all portrayed well. You get a good feel for the friction. From the perspective of advertising craft  it is all very nicely put together.

Then we come to McDonald’s role in all of this. This is the point at which I get annoyed. The idea of McDonald’s bringing people together is a perfectly reasonable one, not an especially original platform for a brand, but reasonable nonetheless. But what this ad boils down to to me is, if you’re having family problems, buy your kids a Big Mac and everything will be ok. That is, of course, an over simplification but it’s certainly what’s at the nub. You don’t need to actually tackle difficult family tensions, you can just bribe your kids’ (or step-kids’) into your affections by taking them to McDonald’s. Really, McDonald’s? REALLY? That’s the best way you could come up with of demonstrating that McDonald’s is a universal bringer of happiness that we all have in common?

Am I being too harsh? It just feels wrong to me to use this kind of family tension in this way.

Nike, Lance Armstrong and Moral Relativism

This is a post I wrote for MB’s internal intranet thingy. Whilst I’ve edited it a bit, for that reason it may have a slightly different tone to my usual Research Geek posts and doesn’t have any swearing in it. But I thought, as I’d written it, I might as well share it in case there are any readers out there that still remember this blog exists:

So, Nike have dropped Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong has also resigned as head of his Livestrong Foundation.

I don’t think Nike had much choice here. Not only is Armstrong a proven cheat but it seems he was also involved in encouraging (or “bullying” according to the testimony) his team mates into doing the same. It seems he may well have been encouraging his team mates to “Just Do It” in a rather different context from that which Nike intends. Armstrong and US Postal were far from alone in their cheating though. I saw a stat recently which said that the fastest up the Alpe d’Huez (the Tour de France’s most notorious and difficult climb) this year would have been 41st fastest in 2001. [EDIT, I had read this stat but hadn’t checked, it isn’t quite right, but it’s not far off – the fastest in 2011, Pierre Rolland would have been 40th in 2001.] Doping was rife, it seems Armstrong was just much better at it than everyone else. I suppose there’s some achievement there at least.

There are also those questioning whether Nike knew more than they are letting on at the time and, indeed, whether they were even involved in covering up the doping. Whether that’s true or not, they would not want any further attention drawn to those accusations which would be unavoidable as the story continues to unravel. A continued association with him would have made the regular resurfacing of these allegations unavoidable.

What’s interesting here from a brand point of view is the decision that his reputation is beyond repair and a continued association with Nike could only be negative for the brand. Contrast that with their handling of the Tiger Woods fall from grace and the difference is palpable (they also stuck by Kobe Bryant when he was accused of rape.) Indeed, Nike trumpeted the fact they were sticking with Woods with a controversial ad.

Many commentators thought this was a mistake and was in bad taste and that Woods should be dropped. Until recently, they seemed to be taking the same approach with Armstrong. Indeed, in 2001 they had explicitly supported him in their ‘What am I on?’ ad. At that time I can’t imagine Nike knew what was going on. If they did, it was a spectacularly risky route to go down.

I think there are three important differences between Armstrong and Woods that encouraged Nike to stick with him. First of all, Woods admitted he was in the wrong and apologised. Granted he only did so after being caught out, but at least he did so. Armstrong, as far as I’m aware, has yet to explicitly admit his guilt and apologise for misleading people. Up until very recently he was still clinging to the “never had a negative test” line and pushing that over and over again. Secondly, Woods’ indiscretions were, shall we say, extracurricular – he was not accused of cheating at the sport for which he was famed. Sure, his clean cut image took a big whack, but his achievements as a sportsman, his ability to ‘Just Do It’ was unaffected. Arguably, one of Tiger’s weaknesses as a brand property was that he apparently had no weaknesses – his continued success was machine-like. The rehabilitation after the fall of which Nike was making themselves an explicit part could make the partnership stronger, the Tiger was human after all. And that brings me to the third difference, that Woods is still playing and still at the top of the game. Of course, it’s a long while since he’s won a major and he doesn’t dominate the sport as he did before, but he’s still easily its biggest name. Perhaps this, in part, motivated Armstrong’s most recent comeback?

All of this raises an issue of moral relativism for brands – when is an indiscretion sufficient to cut your ties with a celebrity? Is an indiscretion against your sport really a worse thing than one against your wife? Morally, of course not. Do I care about that one way or the other, or am I simply worried about the continuing credibility of a celebrity to endorse my brand? I suspect the latter is true, though few would admit it. There is no moral judgement, simply a brand value judgement. For many brands, their values would determine that the call may be seen from outside as having been made on moral grounds but the cynic in me suspects that, in reality, that’s not the case.

I was dubious about Nike’s strategy with Woods. I didn’t like the way is father was used in the ad above. But in the long term I think they were right to stick with him. I think brands are usually too quick to pull the trigger when their endorsers fall from grace. Celebrities are human. Providing they acknowledge their mistakes and apologise in an appropriate way, they can often come back stronger. But you do need to be brave to stick by them.

India Transcends the Jingle

When I was actually in India I didn’t post much about Indian advertising. Maybe I should have done more. A significant contributory factor was our conscious decision not to have a television so that we actually experienced India rather than watching endless re-runs of Friends. This meant that, aside from the ads I was working on, I wasn’t actually exposed to a huge amount of (TV) advertising. In contrast,when we were on our six month travelling stint, most hotels had a TV. Even some of the real cheapies (INR300 a night) provided one. Our narrow channel profile coupled with the Chinese water torture approach of Indian media planning (again, again, again, again – same ad break? don’t worry, drip it again) means I’d rather gouge my eyes out than see most of ads I was (over) exposed to in that period ever again, let alone write about them. But some, including the two discussed here, were more than worthy of recollection.

These two ads stand out because of the way they use jingles. Given that when I talk about jingles in the UK you probably think of terrible local commercial radio ads from your youth (in my case, T.C. Harrison and Stechford tiles, I’m sure you can think of your own examples) or at best the sort of Go Compare! and stuff that makes it to the national TV stage, it seems almost disparaging to describe the music in these two ads as mere jingles. They’re certainly “short tunes used in advertising and for other commercial uses” and whilst they may not go so far as to include “one or more hooks and lyrics that explicitly promote the product being advertised” – there’s some pretty heavy hooks with implicit promotions going on which is probably as close as it gets for service brands.  Whilst irritating memorability has long been the raison d’etre of jingles like those in the UK ads above, these ads go way beyond that, seeking to use a jingle to for genuine brand impact – repositioning and strengthening the brand as opposed to just making people remember it.

The first is from Airtel:

Now, Airtel are India’s biggest mobile network providers. They were amongst the first movers and had long been associated with having the best network coverage and all those boring but essential type of things. They felt fairly austere to me. They seem to have been aware of this and with increased competition in the market started to push the relationship button. They did so in what I felt was a fairly gentle, wishy washy and ill defined touchy-feely family kind of way (e.g this and this) – all very nice but not especially coherent nor consistent. India’s demographic is such that there is quite a rush to target the “youth” market. It’s a sensible policy seeing as there’s so many of them and for a brand like Airtel they’re far and away the heaviest users. So in comes the beast of an ad above. All of your friends are important. They might be cheeky, gossipy fucks some of the time, but they’re still your friends and that matters. It does ‘relationships’ in an instantly more engaging and resonant way than the earlier efforts and shakes the Airtel brand back to life. It does so almost exclusively through a catchy jingle which manages to sidestep irritation which even manages to incorporate and refresh Airtel’s sonic brand mnemonic.

The second example is an altogether more epic affair from Hero Motorcorp:

Hero-Honda was India’s largest motorcycle brand. Hero took the decision to end the joint venture and fly solo and needed to relaunch.  To help them do so they convinced legendary singer-songwriter AR Rahman to take time off from helping to besmirch the reputation of one of my heroes (no, not Joss Stone, Jagger, you cheeky scamps) and pen them a tune. He did not disappoint with this number that gradually builds and suggests more before eventually resolving itself with a lovely drop around the 1:38 mark (or course, we get there much sooner in the more oft seen cut-downs). The lyrics talk about there being “a hero within us” – stirring up India’s easily inflamed patriotic fervour. Alongside the images of everyday Indians rising heroically to various personal challenges it makes for pretty powerful stuff. It’s also nice because it eschews the typical macho stuntsmanship of this category in India. Even when Hero motorcycles are featured they’re not pulling mad stunts, they’re enabling the bravery and heroism of the rider (cf. the bloke edging across the dodgy bridge) rather than themselves being the hero.  Again, the jingle here is an absolutely integral part of the story-telling – with the brand a direct and memorable reference point throughout it.

There may be more seasoned ad-watchers than I out there who can think of British work that has jingles that transcend the traditional understanding of the form in the way these two examples do (please shout if you are one) – personally I’m stumped for anything that comes close. I strongly suspect the reason for this is that the India’s film syntax beyond advertising relies so heavily on music and dance as storytelling devices. Songs in Bollywood movies are often employed to suggest (regularly without much subtlety, but still) what cannot be said explicitly due to cultural sensibilities. People are used to hearing and decoding from narrative songs in a way our audiences aren’t. There are also fewer people around who could execute songwriting for ads of this type credibly and of those that could fewer still would agree to do so.


It's not the tool, it's what you do with it that counts.

In my last post I wrote about the ethics of using neuroscience techniques for market research.  I’d like to broaden that out to make a wider point about the nature of tools.  Any type of tool, research tools included,  is value-neutral – they are neither moral nor immoral.  Morality only comes in to play at the point at which we, as humans, make use of the tool.  The manner in which we use it determines the morality of the action rather than the nature or utility of the tool itself.  Morals are, after all, rules that judge the acceptability of human conduct.

Of course, moral absolutism is  a dangerous thing, even if the absolute proposed is that an object is without moral valence.   Some would argue the tools of warfare are a clear exception to the rule – if a tool is specifically designed to cause death and destruction in the most efficient way possible then it’s harder to argue the value neutrality of all tools.  However, the tools of war can also be used to defend yourself against crazed invading ideologues trying to impose a morally corrupt way of life on a population (like Hitler in Europe or the US in South East Asia).  There are also those who argue that the military industrial complex acts as a deterrent and, ergo, the tools of warfare actually prevent death and destruction.  I don’t necessarily agree with all that, but as there’s some debate around it, it seems that even for a tool actually designed for a fundamentally immoral purpose is only really immoral if we use it to that end.

Think of an axe.  An axe can be used to chop firewood and sustain your life.  An axe can also be used to hack someone you don’t like very much to bits, or even hack someone you do like to bits for kicks.  Now forget the axe, it’s the 21st century.  Think of a chainsaw.  You can use a chainsaw to do both the wood chopping and the person hacking with significantly greater efficiency.

There are two things I’d like to draw from this and, hopefully, you’ll see the parallels to what I was talking about in my last post.  Further, we should also be reflecting on what this means for advertising and brands as tools (this value-neutral business is actually something I trot out more often to people who argue brands are evil that it’s something I say to research haters).

First, both axe and chainsaw are morally neutral.  You can use them both for good or evil and any number of layers in between.  In essence a chainsaw is a more efficient axe.  This means that it can be more effective for doing good or for doing evil but it doesn’t make the chainsaw itself any more of one or the other.

Second, there is another interesting effect of the chainsaw being more efficient.  I am of course using the wood chopping to represent the  ‘good’ extreme on my moral axis – but once you mechanise and industrialise wood chopping and you’re not just chopping the firewood you need to sustain yourself, the moral waters become much more muddy (or at least, they get filled with logs, making them equally hard to navigate).  It’s still the human action that’s at question, but a more effective tool facilitates excess and thereby brings questions of morality to the fore even when considering actions where previously there were none.

So in short, what I was trying to say in my last post is that if you think advertising and brands are evil then of course the research tools that help facilitate them will make you equally uncomfortable.  They’re not evil, but the way we use them is where we should stop and think about ethics.

If you have a new research tool that is more effective in exposing people’s desires, then the chances of a chainsaw massacre of consumption increase exponentially.  If neuroscience is giving us more effective (indeed, more  mechanised) access to thoughts, feelings and emotions, even if we don’t think the every day wood chopping of building brands is morally questionable, the questions around how we implement neuroscience techniques ethically are still valid as mass deforestation won’t be good for any of us.

Black Magic

When I wrote about the barriers to neuroscience adoption a while ago there was one issue I skirted which probably could have been fleshed out a bit more – ethics.  When I did the talk at XLRI I basically lumped it in with ‘Scpeticism’ but I got asked about it again in a meeting yesterday so thought I’d note a couple of thoughts.

The reason that neuroscience/biometric methods are appealing to researchers and marketers is also the thing that makes people unsure as to whether it’s ethical to use them.  It’s well known that people don’t know why they behave the way they do and find it hard to talk about the way they feel about things – so cutting out the middle man and going direct to source for that info is pretty valuable.  But those worried about this stuff would say that the middle man we’re cutting out is sort of the bit where our  humanity resides.  People may, justifiably, want to keep some things under wraps for any number of reasons (although most often we’re learning things that people can’t tell us rather than things they won’t).  As a result, those who doubt the ethics of biometric measurement would argue that we are taking knowledge that people have not volunteered and, like black magic, using it to control them.

Those are potentially valid concerns.  My argument, however, is that they are not concerns specific to neuroscience/biometric research but to all research and, by extension, any advertising that draws learning from that research.  If you have an ethical problem with research and advertising generally (which some do) then fine – but people raising these concerns with me in meetings are usually people spending a lot of money on advertising and research, so I assume they don’t.

Let me illustrate my point.  As Tom Ewing has ably pointed out, what those critics of research who roll out the ‘all research is wrong‘ line fail to understand is that we already know that it is (in an absolute sense).  As such, we have all kinds of ways of finding stuff out about people’s thoughts, feelings and desires without asking them directly.  Take one of Millward Brown’s many hundreds of tracking studies, I don’t ask people to rank the associations they have with brands by how important they are because I know they’re not very good at it (and often, they just don’t know whether sexy or easy to use is more important to them).  Instead, given that I also ask them about their preference for brands, I am able to run myself a lovely regression model from which I can infer which of these associations are the stronger drivers of preference either within the category as a whole or for specific brands.  They haven’t told me why they like Persil better than Surf, but sneaky researcher that I am, I’ve found out – and maybe Persil will use that information to better target them and people like them.

(Before you say so, I know that’s not perfect, I know my model is only telling me about the relative strengths of relationships between claimed brand preference and a set of associations that I chose to put to the sort of people I chose at the specific point in time, by now already in the past, that I deigned to ask them. But I’d ask you to focus on the matter in hand, this isn’t a question of which [if either] of these approaches is most valid it’s about whether or not they are ethical).

So research has, for many years, generated insights into human behaviour without people necessarily volunteering them directly.  People are no more aware of my regression models and how brands are using them to sell them more soap powder, than they are of the brainwave outputs they voluntarily hand over and how clever boffins run those through an algorithm to give me something I can use to understand advertising better.  Is either of those things deceitful and insidious?  Maybe, but if so, I say they are equally so.

Further, some perspective is required.  We may be increasingly tapping into people’s deep, unspoken desires – but we’re not homing in on a magic bullet that lets advertisers push a button that has a definitive and predictable consumer response at the other end.  We are gaining a better understanding of why an ad has worked when we do get it right of course and therefore narrowing the odds of us being able to repeat it – but we’re a long way off complete mind control.  People still have agency.  That’s not going anywhere.

As long as the usual rules apply – we’re doing this at an aggregated level, we’re not using it to target the specific people involved through direct use of their personal details or data, they have given us their express, informed permission to collect whatever data we’re collecting through whatever method and so on – I really don’t see how neuroscience and biometric research is any different from ‘traditional’ methods.  If you object to one, you object to it all.