The Consumer Republic: Reflected Glory

A lot of ads are aimed at consumers who greatly resemble planners, the very people who surge with deep emotions for brands.
That two Nike campaigns emerged from last week’s meeting of the Account Planning Group-U.S. as award winners is hardly shocking. Nike, goddess of victory, is also the patron saint of American planning. The Nike brand has always been the stuff of planners’ dreams: complex, evolving, a magnet for consumer emotions. More recently, of course, it has been a brand in trouble.
But then, brands in trouble are a planning specialty. Every campaign among the finalists for the APG awards was designed to counter some disturbance in the marketplace that threatened the product’s place in the brand firmament. What more glamorous challenge than setting the great ship Nike back on its relevant course?
Thus, the gold went to the Goodby, Silverstein & Partners campaign that featured a season in the life of the Charlestown Cougars, a re-creation of a girls’ high school basketball team conjured from close anthropological study of a real team in Shelbyville, Tenn. I remember the days when cheeky Nike ads laid the stentorian tones of NFL Films over footage of peewee football–and we all thought it a hilarious goof. Today, such ironic joshing is verboten.
The nether reaches of youth sports are now celebrated, as Nike seeks to purify itself via innocent athletes, grassroots achievers motivated only by the love of the game and untouched by the corrupting influence of market forces like, well, Nike. The target audience is said to have responded to the ads with the ultimate compliment: “The Cougars are real, right?” No,
Virginia, from Nike’s standpoint, they’re better than real. They’re a replica of innocence that can never be corrupted.
In the same spirit, Nike and Goodby found in skateboarding an outlaw sport to reinforce its fading equity as a maverick. In another patented Goodby switcheroo, the “if x were treated like skateboarders” campaign manages to empathize with its don’t-get-no-respect target while making the rest of us laugh. According to the case history, the spots, which shared the bronze with Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners’ campaign for Rockport, blossomed into a “PR campaign for skateboarders with the general public.” I say it’s the other way around: Nike needs skateboarders far more than the skaters need the brand. Running the ads on media that reached beyond the target audience was a smart move.
But the potential weakness in this rehab approach is that sooner or later one runs out of outrƒ or unexploited sports–unless someone plans to bring back those peewee footballers, this time as a symbol of the indomitable human spirit.
Speaking of Goodby switcheroos, the “if x were like y” gambit also won a silver for TBWA Chiat/Day’s campaign for The Weather Channel. This schtick seems to be spreading: There is
“If billiards, etc., were like hockey”(Cliff Freeman and Partners for Fox) and “If men were like women” (Leo Burnett for Kellogg’s Special K, an APG honorable mention). It’s like the shock of recognition in reverse.
Notable, too, is the omnipresence of ads for media outlets in the award shows (two made the cut in the planning awards). It seems as if the industry’s creative center of gravity were moving from advertising products to advertising the vehicles for advertising products. It used be that agencies coveted car accounts to get attention; today, the ambitious are better off glomming onto a cable client to collect a statuette.
Reading the finalists’ case histories, I have to marvel at the way planners, such as the ones at Mullen researching the Sci-Fi Channel, can listen to consumer observations like “outer space is ‘too distant'” and “aliens are ‘too foreign'” without shouting out, “Well, duh!” But then, planners take their jobs seriously. Case histories are filled with soaring revival-meeting rhetoric about “inspiring,” “rekindling,” “sharing,” “celebrating” and “challenging.” Please. This is advertising, not social work. Are we really supposed to believe that the Rockport campaign, honored for taking the fuddy-duddy factor out of the desire for comfortable shoes, “reinvent[ed] comfort itself”? I doubt it. Besides, it doesn’t need to do so to be effective.
After 15 years of being associated with much of the best work in the business, planning is a well-established institution in the American ad business. It’s so entrenched that one can discern its larger influences on advertising’s direction and, from there, on the culture as a whole. Now more than ever, ads urge consumers to feel “passionate” about sports, cars, shoes, computers, the weather and, of course, themselves.
In other words, a lot of contemporary advertising is aimed at consumers who greatly resemble planners, the very people who surge with deep emotions for brands. Consider it just another example in which advertising, even in its rapt contemplation of consumers, reflects itself in the end.