Monday, November 10, 2008

Mad Melo Men

The photo above shows the side of a bus stop shelter near my apartment in Chicago, taken on November 8th. It struck me because I have never seen any advertisement wherein Carmelo Anthony endorses Powerade, other than this image. This industry trade article from earlier this summer announces the participation of these three guys (including Merriman and Howard) in Powerade’s latest ad campaign.

I’ve always thought that a good advertisement needs to be clever, memorable, and tell you something about the intrinsic qualities of the product. Even in a commodified industry where the product has little intrinsic to distinguish it from its competitors (really, what the hell is the difference between TAG body spray and AXE?) the “package” of the product can include an enticing set of cultural memories and associations. I still have no clue what makes Flintstone vitamins better than CVS brand, but their jingle is incredibly warming; why would I want to miss out on the 10 million strong and growing? And I almost feel like a New England aristocrat when I take the time to taste the Welch’s and savor all that Concord flavor.

The Powerade ad reminded me of two other recent ad campaigns that involved no creativity. In 2005, Fidelity Investments signed up Paul McCartney to license stock footage of his image and music in several print and TV ads, and a few years earlier Accenture signed Tiger Woods for similar purposes. You’ve probably seen the Accenture ads at airports: an image of Woods playing golf and looking thoughtful, with a lame caption like “10% imagination, 90% perspiration”. Any company on the planet could publish that ad, so why should I believe that Accenture is uniquely resonant with the Woods ethos?

For each of these campaigns, one can always find business school professors or marketing practitioners willing to drop fancy quotes about brand synergy or strategic partnerships. But my first question when I see one of these ads is, why was the star willing to sell out his image for cold cash and nothing more? If a representative of Coca-Cola or BMW came to me and asked to use my name and likeness in advertising, I would insist that they craft a brilliant campaign around me, possibly involving me training first to put on 20 pounds of muscle and to sing classical opera. I would not say, “Sure, how much?” While I am sure Woods’s agents have carefully negotiated how Accenture may and may not depict him, he creates no new self for the campaign. We learn nothing new about him from the arrangement.

Ads with basketball stars, though, are not known for this frozen depiction of the talent. The best ad campaigns involving NBA players have drawn upon real feuds, real character, and real charisma. I think everyone who watched the 1992 Super Bowl remembers the one with Jordan and Bird attempting to make increasingly outlandish shots, each attempt ending with the brash prediction, “Nothing but net.” The early irreverence of Young Shaq was summarily dealt with in an ad by his shoe company where he paid proper homage to the great bigs of old. More recently, Nike and even VitaminWater have rather expertly employed the acting chops of LeBron James in varying roles including messiah, CEO, and crusading litigator. I don’t know a thing about LeBron as a person (other than that he named his first son LeBron Jr., which at age 19 was fairly obnoxious), but from his ads I have acquired the impression that he is a cool guy, and it makes me want to follow his career and buy his stuff.

So why do we see these lame campaigns involving McCartney, Tiger, and Carmelo? Why didn’t the client bother to obtain a measure of creativity, rather than just sticking the likeness of some famous dude on a billboard or a video? There is a school that holds advertising to be nothing more than a conspicuous form of money-burning: a way for high-quality sellers to signal their goodness in a market where consumers can’t tell the difference between VitaminWater and Kool-Aid. The theory is that high-quality sellers anticipate repeat business, so expensive advertising is worth it for them, but it’s not worthwhile for low-quality sellers; thus, if you see ostentatious advertising, it must be a high-quality seller. Many Super Bowl ads are like this. Only one Internet domain name registrar advertised during the 2006 Super Bowl, and their ad, while clever, said very little about the product. And what could they say? You go to a website, you type in your desired URL, you give your credit card number. There’s not a lot to sell there.

So what motivated Fidelity and Accenture here? I can’t imagine it’s because the client was stingy with its advertising budget and didn’t want to pay the ad agency to spend the time thinking of something creative and producing the content; the hourly rates charged by the ad firms surely are dwarfed, or at least equalled, by the compensation given to these athletes and entertainers. Presumably the advertising houses came up with these ideas and somehow convinced the marketing chiefs at the companies to sign off. The marketing chiefs apparently think that a display of pure money-burning, with no obvious effort to entertain, must be enough. It’s certainly not enough for me; I find myself actively repulsed from such a campaign.

More importantly, there is a great onus upon the star himself to decide how his persona shall be constructed and interpreted in the public square. Tiger Woods has been content since becoming a superstar to remain a mystery: he rarely talks of anything other than golf. The Accenture deal thus seems perfect for him. McCartney, I think, has shepherded his image very carefully (even trying to change the old “Lennon-McCartney” songwriting credits to “McCartney-Lennon” on the songs where he deemed that appropriate) so it is less clear why he would turn everything over to Team Fidelity. Perhaps at age 63, he just didn’t care anymore.

Carmelo, though, has no excuse. He is hardly a folk hero, after he lost face with bourgeois America in the Stop Snitching episode and he lost all his street cred when he slapped Mardy Collins (who?) and quickly ran away before Collins could parry. This is a time for Carmelo to rebuild his image, particularly after successfully bringing a gold medal home. He should not agree to have his image in lights doing nothing, allowing others to shine their own avatar of Carmelo Anthony upon bus stop shelters across the land. He should actively be sketching a new Melo. Why does LeBron get all the cool ads? My impression from watching Melo’s interviews is that he is less articulate and outgoing than LeBron, but surely a campaign could be crafted that relied on his non-verbal strengths. If Colin Powell is now a revered elder statesman once more after lying at the UN, anyone can have a second chance, no?

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