Art & Commerce: Ask The Expert

My favorite politician of all time was Sen. S.I. Hayakawa from California, and not just because he constantly fell asleep during hearings and sessions. When he was running for the Senate, he was asked during a debate what he thought of a pending dog-racing bill. He, the former professor of semantics at San Francisco State, said: “I have no opinion about dog racing; I don’t know anything about dog racing; and I think the problem with political life is the political class thinks it needs to have opinions about everything.”

It is something advertising people share with pols. Ask someone in advertising about anything, and you will get a definitive answer.

To confirm this, I thought I would share this e-mail I got from a professor of advertising who sought—and here receives—my opinion on 11 subjects I know nothing about.

She wrote: Tom, these are some things we talk about in my classes and I’d love to read your take on them in Adweek.

1. New forms of advertising, such as “performance advertising,” where someone dressed as a cold germ runs around the city and taps people, saying they’ve now been exposed to the “germ,” and he then gives them a sample of a cold-remedy product. (Sounds like a dangerous concept, especially on the streets of NYC, no?)

First, it’s more politically correct to say “he or she then gives them a sample.” It has not been determined that “germ” is masculine. Second, seems that it would be more dangerous in, let’s say, Hornell, N.Y., than in New York City, where the dress code is latitudinarian. As for the idea itself, it seems pretty stupid. But don’t take that as a pejorative.

2. The ability to order a great outfit someone is wearing on a TV show such as Desperate Housewives. You’re watching the show, you like Teri Hatcher’s outfit, so you click on it, a box pops up telling you how and where to buy it, or you can order it right there from your TV screen.

Terribly intrusive and just brilliant. No reason why everything on television couldn’t fall in, from golf tournaments to Sesame Street to showings of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. A good Brando festival could get you a black leather jacket, a stained T-shirt and a toga.

3. The concept of payola as paid advertising. So record companies can pay to have artists’ songs played, saying it’s not payola, it’s paid advertising. It’s already being done, and artists such as J. Lo and Maroon 5 are doing it, I’m told.

“Defining deviancy down,” as someone once said. Here I was definitely ahead of my time. I mean, if Alan Freed wanted to play “Black Slacks” five times in an hour on his WINS radio show in 1957, don’t bring in the district attorney to prosecute him for taking a hundred bucks for the play, just give 15 percent to the agency.

4. TV sets are now gigantic, but the newest trend is to have teeny tiny screens, as on iPods, watches or cell phones. The younger audiences, my students, say they don’t mind the small screens at all.

Nor should they. When I was 4, I was perfectly happy with my family’s black-and-white 10-inch RCA Victor television, and so were the 20 or so neighbors who dropped in to see Hopalong Cassidy and random test patterns.

5. The newest medium is the “point of interaction,” not the vehicle used to distribute the message.

Nah, it’s the oldest medium. Like the Fuller Brush Man or a mountebank on a wolf-drawn cart.

6. Outdoor advertising is growing in importance because it’s the only place we have a captive audience. So truck sides and billboards are very important now.

Torturing a captive audience may be forbidden by the Geneva Conventions, but there are places on the Long Island Expressway where long-copy outdoor could be tried with 800 numbers if the drivers had “hands-free”phones.

7. Electronic billboards that interact with your car as you drive by, referring to you by name (because of a chip implanted in your car that interacts with the billboard).

“Gov. Corzine, keep your eyes on the road.” Or other appropriate safe-driving messages.

8. Shorter TV spots, 2-second ads called “blinks.”

Y not, WTF.

9. New terms such as “seducible moment,” when the target gets involved with a message and actually tunes into it.

Finally, something I do know something about. Not a new term. Goes back to the ’90s, a little riff on the educable moment, where teachers spot in their recalcitrant students a momentary openness to learning. People designing those first Web sites back in the 20th century saw an opening to selling something, but only after the “targets” had satisfied the initial reason for going to the site. It is so old a term it has probably been updated in 2007 to something like “scammable moment.”

10. Political ads through YouTube, such as the polished “1984” satire involving Hillary Clinton, supposedly produced by an Obama supporter. I was told it had over 600,000 hits within the first two days. Is this the new political advertising scheme?

Something else I presume to know about. Negative political advertising is effective when the voters are told something they didn’t know or forgot—e.g., Dukakis did favor furloughs for convicted first-degree murderers whose sentences forbade parole (Bush ’88); Dole-Gingrich did force the closing of the federal government (Clinton ’96); Kerry did say he voted for the $87 billion just before he voted against it (Bush ’04). The Hillary Clinton spot is useless for Obama, and more defamatory in its lack of substance than the stuff done against Dukakis, Dole and Kerry. Probably useful for the career of the guy who cut the spot. Unless Clinton wins, in which case, he could try to peddle himself to the RNC.

11. Viral advertising, where students are paid to go around campus with a message temporarily tattooed to their foreheads.

Make it a permanent tattoo. That’s viral.