Complaining about fatuous advertising is a time-honored American tradition, comparable to groaning about the government, moaning about the weather and whining about the refs. Young people seem particularly exercised; my college-age children never stop ridiculing glossy, high-concept commercials featuring dapper middle-aged magnates waxing poetic about the delicate alchemy of the brewing process. These ads celebrate how Central European hops are commingled with the raging cascades from mysterious mountain streams to produce an elixir known as, well, beer.
Sensing that conventional advertising techniques are no longer getting the job done, particularly among snarky, image-conscious youth, a number of companies are lining up consumers to design their own ads. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about teenage girls cooking up deodorant promos, and also cited efforts by Nike and game maker Electronic Arts to recruit young people to design advertising- mainly short, low-budget films-that might appeal to other young people. This would seem to signal a crisis of confidence in the advertising community, which seems to be saying: “We are so out of touch with customers that we not only need them to buy our products, but we also need them to market the products to themselves. Why we’re still here is anybody’s guess.”
In theory, consumer-generated advertising is a wonderful idea. But it is an idea that is only wonderful in theory. Should this latest guerrilla marketing fad catch on-yes, we have heard about the death of advertising before-the airwaves inevitably will be cluttered with cheesy, grainy, tacky amateurish ads dripping with irony: The Blair Witch Microbrewery Commercial. And since the ads that have the most appeal to young people seem to be those that have the least to do with the product-the dimwitted prankster in somebody’s beer pitch, for example-this development could presage a Dark Age of ads where no one can figure out what is actually being marketed. It was bad enough when inane, off-message advertising was being generated by the professionals. Just wait till the amateurs get into the act.
A possible solution to all this is for companies to focus less on finding out how consumers like products to be pitched to them and more on what products they want. Case in point is the mystifying popularity of the Honda Element and the Toyota Scion. These are sturdy, reliable, inexpensive vehicles almost virtually devoid of style, unless you are a fan of rectangles. The cars were introduced as easy-to-produce conveyances that would provide cheap transportation for those in their 20s willing to forego flash and image in exchange for not having to ride public transportation.
But in a case of the Law of Unintended Consequences, the cars were barely out of the showrooms when Baby Boomers started buying them. It may have been the very blandness and functionality of the vehicles that triggered the Baby Boomer anschluss. Perhaps it’s a throwback to the Small is Beautiful, and Ugly is Even Better, values of the 1960s. Moving in with the predatory zeal that Baby Boomers bring, middle-aged Americans decided it was really cool to drive a car that really wasn’t cool.
To keep young consumers buying the products aimed at them, what might work is recruiting them to help in the design. Forget about tricking people into selling themselves your product.
In the end-a happy one for consumers and automakers alike-what we learn from the Element and the Scion is that companies with desirable products don’t need to trick anyone into buying them. If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Nobody ever said the mousetrap had to look kewl.