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'NO, REALLY, I LOVE IT. I'VE ALWAYS WANTED A JUMBO PENCIL WITH A TROLL ON THE END'

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'Nothing compares with the paperweight as a bad gift. To me, there is no better way than a paperweight to express to someone, 'I refuse to put any thought into this at all.' '- Jerry Seinfeld
There's so much dreck out there. I'm not just talking about 'bad' advertising. But stupid movies; lobotomy-compatible TV; honking taxis; mean, icky people. There's no escape. It's like the game dodgeball you played in the 5th grade. You run. You duck. But somehow you always end up getting smacked across the face.
Now think about how refreshing it is when you see a movie you can't stop playing over in your mind. Or read a cartoon that makes you rip it out and tape it to your wall. Or realize you're 3 cents short and a stranger in line just hands it to you.
Or see a commercial that assumes you have a brain.
The respected designer Rick Valicenti once said to me, 'We're in the business of giving gifts.' That's exactly what these rare moments are: gifts. A little gem in the middle of an otherwise blah-filled day. It feels great. You appreciate it. You remember it.
Have you seen the show I'll Fly Away? It's unbelievable. Critically acclaimed. Won every major award. Never mind the fact it was cancelled. PBS, which picked it up for syndication, recently aired a special 2-hour episode. It was absolutely riveting. At the end of the show, PBS did its usual 'If-you-liked-this-program-won't-you-please-make-a-donation' spiel. My husband and I grabbed the phone. Apparently hundreds of other people did too, because the lines were busy all night.
Isn't this the way the best advertising works? We see a commercial (or print ad, or whatever) and it touches us in some way. It's like a gift, from the advertiser to us. And we want to give something back, so we buy the product; donate some blood; call this toll-free number; smile; think.
Instead of asking ourselves the same, unanswerable questions - 'Is this ad good?' 'Will it break through?' 'Will the client like it?' - maybe we should be asking, 'Is this ad a gift?' 'Will it change someone's life for the better?' 'Is it something I would want to receive myself? Or is it a case of 'I sure as hell don't want this, but I think I'll wrap it up again real nice and unload it on someone else'?' (As we all know, making a big production out of the wrapping paper doesn't make a dumb gift any more desirable.)
Creating this kind of meaningful advertising takes a fair amount of generosity and honesty. Take a step back from it. Have you created something the other person (the consumer) truly wants? Or just something you want. Or the client wants.
It's like dreams. I believe dreams are phenomenally intriguing, but only to the person who had them. Other people's dreams are bor-ing. With a capital Zzzzzz. 'It was so weird, we were in this field, there was this guy and all these little cucumbers, and then . . .' Likewise, the story of the specially -formulated thingamajig is truly interesting to the advertiser, but the consumer couldn't care less.
I'm looking at a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies. On the side is an illustration showing how a man looks in a well-tailored suit vs. a poorly -tailored one. The caption says, 'This has absolutely nothing to do with Pepperidge Farm cookies.' I love that. They had this extra space, and instead of boring me with how scrumptiously scrumptious their cookies are, they charmed me with their silliness. I'm left going, 'What a cool company, they made me smile; here, take my money.'
And here's a standard fax cover sheet. What could be interesting about that? I quote, from the bottom of a Mad Dogs and Englishmen fax, 'If you experience trouble with this transmission, it's probably not our machine . . . we got the deluxe model.' I bet their clients smile and think, 'That's exactly why we hired them.'
Even if the smallest, most 'mundane' pieces of communications can be turned into gifts, what's our excuse with 30 seconds or a full-page spread?
The Aztec Indians would have been great at advertising. They were terrified when the sun set each night that it would not rise again in the morning; they were extraordinarily grateful for every dawn. So I bet the Aztec Ad Chief would have approached each assignment thinking, 'We'd better do something special here; this may be our last chance.'
We're really lucky - as the creators and purveyors of advertising, we have countless opportunities to really do something special. We're given all these blank spaces, and what we fill them with affects a ton of people. It would be so much nicer - and much more effective - to tap the consumer on the shoulder and say, here, this is for you, I want you to have this gift.
Amy Krouse Rosenthal is a Chicago-based freelance writer who heads up her own shop, Boy & Girl Advertising, and is a part-time associate creative director at Foote, Cone & Belding.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)