POV: Nice Brands Don’t Finish Last

WASHINGTON Love or hate the soon to be ex-deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove, but even his detractors agreed his knack for spin—honed by a team of pithy speechwriters—usually yielded a win. His bare-knuckles brand of communications control (brilliant to some, infuriating to others) enabled the Bush White House to clearly define its enemies (“Axis of Evil”) and rally support in times of crisis (“You’re either with us or against us.”)

Rove was the right man for this administration in these times. There was nothing civil about his approach and there is nothing civil about the state of discourse in America.

Why should advertising, which often mirrors our culture, be any different? Maybe it’s me, but the ads lately seem even more uncivil, crass and tasteless. Is this crassness a good thing? The TV reporter’s comment in this Burger King spot by Miami agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky promoting The Simpsons Movie, in which aliens zap people into Simpsons characters and a morphed BK sales representative turned Krusty the Clown tells a customer to “get lost,” sums up the situation precisely: “The line between civilization and anarchy is eroding as we speak.”

The spot was No. 1 on IAG’s top 10 list of most liked and recalled spots for July.

To revive its brand, New Balance favors a roadkill theme in an ad promoting its new NB Zip shoe technology, whatever that is. Why consumers would cozy up to a brand represented by a dead porcupine brought back to life by a kid who rubs his sneakers together escapes me. Maybe this works for the party-girl trifecta of Britney, Lindsay and Paris.

Let’s not forget some of the mean-spirited fare served up during this year’s Super Bowl, from Blockbuster’s tortured mouse, to the axe-wielding hitchhiker holding a Bud Light, to the GM robot who commits suicide. Enough said about that.

Why can’t more ads be civil? The argument is always made that audiences recall the nasty stuff better than the nice. The experts who study advertising for a living have sound reasons for this argument. In politics, they point to the success of well-known political attack ads going all the way back to the “Daisy” spot used by the Lyndon Johnson 1964 presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater.

Legitimate attack ads are considered necessary to help voters differentiate between candidates. As Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has said in published reports, “In fact, a lot of attack is perfectly legitimate and important discourse. If you don’t have attack in politics, you’re not likely to find out about the weaknesses of the opponent.”

I’ll buy that argument in the political arena because it makes sense.

But I’m hard-pressed to fathom how the uncivil, violent discourse used in product advertising makes people want to run out and purchase the goods or services being advertised, even if the messages speak in the language of the target audience.

Nice guys don’t have to finish last. The popularity of Harry Potter among the young and not so young is huge. In Nielsen BuzzMetrics polls, Harry Potter is almost equal to President George Bush.

Nice can also rank when it comes to recall. Consider the JC Penney back-to school ad “Heart” by Saatchi & Saatchi, in which a little girl draws a heart with a boy’s initials on it and then the heart starts appearing everywhere. This gem was No. 2 on the July IAG list.

I’m not alone in thinking there has been a general decline in the state of civility in America. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has a civility initiative. The director, Pier Massimo Forni, a professor in the department of romance languages, says on his Web site, “Social skills are a precious asset: They allow us to enjoy harmonious social interactions as they strengthen social bonds. Strong social bonds are necessary for the building and maintenance of social support and also crucial to success at work.”

Marketers who are truly serious about building relationships with consumers might consider Forni’s words. Strong, smart and nice will always trump a bare-knuckled approach.

Bush’s approval rating is at 29 percent, according to an Aug. 8 CBS poll. The U.S. publisher of the Harry Potter books, Scholastic, ordered 12 million copies of the seventh and last installment in the series for its first-run printing. The series sold 325 million copies worldwide, and the films have grossed more than $3.8 billion.

Whose legacy would you rather have? Goodbye, evil wizard Voldemort. Bye bye, Karl Rove.