Tony the Tiger at 60 – frosted in time?

August 31, 2011

Congratulations, Tony, on reaching your 60th birthday. You’re still one of the Gr-r-reatest ad icons of all time, no doubt about it. The wonder is you’ve managed to survive the punishing lifestyle of a rock-star entertainer almost unscarred. Not only have you outlived Elvis, you’ve done more botox makeovers than Tom Jones and Colonel Gaddafi combined, and yet unquestionably you look a lot fitter than either.

Sometimes I do worry, though. How many more happy returns can you have? You see the trouble is all entertainers – no matter how versatile, how willing to change with the times – have a shelf-life. Even with an agent as market-wise as Leo Burnett behind you, there will come a time when the Tony schtick no longer connects with contemporary audiences.

I was reminded just how far you had come in your career by a glimpse of one of your early performances. It was an ad from 1962, I think.

Goodness me, how permissive we were in those days with the sugar drug. Why, you and your gang (you did a lot more group appearances then) were pushing it with more abandon than an LSD love-in. The gig was Kellogg’s Sweet-eatin’ carnival time and you were all at it, shamelessly trying to get kids to ingest the stuff with the seductive promise of a brand-new shilling(!). There was Yogi Bear dancing on his Sugar Smacks, Noddy being twicicles as nicicles on his Ricicles, some stick insect who looked a bit like Uncle Sam doing an All Stars routine, and Coco on his Pops prancing about in an ethnically insensitive ‘Black and White Minstrel’ mask. Most of all, though, I remember you fronting the act – a leaner, younger, more whimsical version of yourself admittedly, but clearly identifiable with today’s butch, muscle-bound football persona if only because of the stripes.

They’ve all passed into history now. But you, a reformed user and pusher of the sugar drug, how did you survive and go on to be a leading healthy lifestyle advocate?

Well I guess it’s because you’re smarter than the average Yogi Bear. Even though the health police are out to get you for covertly promoting a sugar-coated cereal to young children, you always manage to stay one step ahead of the law.

I caught up with your latest act the other day and have to say your audience manipulation skills are undimmed by time. Which, sadly, is more than can be said of your moral message.

There you were on American television (ESPN sports network, I think) – Dad, Son, and Tony – tossing a ball about in the backyard, every inch the healthy football aficionados. Then it’s cut to the kitchen for some post-game flakes underlined by the suggestively saccharine voiceover: “Share what you love with who you love.”

All these loaded associations – sport, sugary foods, kids – are close to the line these days. If not illegal, they soon will be. But here, Tony, you and your impresario Kellogg have been very clever. The campaign is not ostensibly aimed at children at all. It cashes in on the brand nostalgia of dads, who have probably known Tony all their lives. It just so happens that more and more American men are doing the shopping these days. And that’s what you are tapping into. Or so you say.

Why Joel Ewanick’s Apple comparison is just pie in the sky for General Motors

August 24, 2011

“Feisty” is the word that most often comes to mind when describing General Motors global chief marketing officer Joel Ewanick.

Since arriving from Hyundai (where he held a similar position) last year, the man seems to have barely slept as he implements a whirlwind catalogue of changes. This month alone, while others absent themselves on their summer vacation, Ewanick has reorganised his marketing department and called a review of the $3bn GM global media account.

But restless energy – commendable though it is – should not be mistaken for vision. The limits of Ewanick’s intellectual rigour, although not his soaring ambition, were also on display earlier this month – at GM’s second annual Global Business Conference.

In it, Ewanick made the extraordinary declaration that his goal is to transform GM not into a better car company, but a future Apple.

Nor was this just a rhetorical trope dished out to a friendly audience. He’s deadly serious. “It’s time,” Ewanick said, “To clearly differentiate our brand and align closer to a true global brand like Apple. It’s time for an automotive company to step out and address consumers and their needs in a way that’s never been done before.”

Admirable sentiments of course. But just what does he mean? Technological innovation is integral  to selling cars, but that doesn’t mean the motor sector is in any way comparable to Silicon Valley. And even if it were, rust-belt Motown marques, with their high social costs and Chapter 11 legacy, are not where you would start. Ironically, in fact, the US car brand with the most potential for eye-catching product innovation and design is not American at all: it’s one whose marketing Ewanick has already captained – Hyundai.

But if the future is elsewhere, Ewanick has, in a curious way, scored a debating point about the past. GM is comparable with Apple: but only in the past tense. Back in the fifties, when Americana and US global power were at their height, a new Chevvie or Cadillac was a potent symbol of the consumer dream. It encapsulated the freedom to travel anytime, anywhere worth travelling to, on the interstate highway. So potent was this dream that GM – like Apple today – was the world’s biggest company by market capitalisation. It even became a mantra in US foreign policy: “What’s good for GM is good for America.”

No chance of recapturing that distant eminence, now or in the future. Cars are simply not the must-have consumer products they once were; even in fast-growing economies like China’s – where they may well be viewed as status symbols, but not on the level of fifties America. Who, on the other hand, would not break their neck to acquire the latest Apple iPhone?

It’s possible, of course, that I have misunderstood Ewanick’s apparently ludicrous aspiration. All he was really talking about was the much more modest goal of creating brands with universally accepted global appeal. I don’t think so, though.

What’s certain is that neither Ewanick nor his boss, GM CEO Dan Akerson, is the next Steve Jobs – despite the superficial brand-turnaround comparison.

Mafia-free pizza – the ultimate fairtrade product

August 23, 2011

Ever worried that “fairtrade” may be just a label, camouflaging unspeakable exploitation and corruption beneath flimsy ethical sticking-plaster? If so, the latest Human Rights Watch report on South Africa’s booming wine industry will have confirmed your worst suspicions. HRW would have us believe the Paarl and Stellenbosch we glug so freely is produced by workers living in pig-sty conditions.

So where should the ethically squeamish turn for food and drink of unimpeachable integrity?

Fear not: I have the answer. Out with that Stellenbosch and in with Placido Rizzotto, a wine made exclusively from grapes grown on a mafia don’s confiscated vineyard.

And if Rizzotto (named after a famous Sicilian union leader bumped off by the mob in 1948) isn’t to your taste, then how about some bottles of Calabrian olive oil, or Pugliese breadsticks?

All courtesy of a consortium called Libera Terra (Free Land), set up in the last decade to farm the estates of convicted mobsters.

Libera Terra’s success has been based on a simple proposition. However delicious those sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, mozarella and focaccia, you can never be quite sure where they come from. Organized crime has its grubby paws on quite a lot of the Italian organic food industry. Particularly in the south, home of Cosa Nostra, the Camorra and the ‘Ndrangheta.

Legislation passed about 13 years ago has begun to change all of that. Organisations like Libera Terra were encouraged to come forward and exploit confiscated mafia estates for social benefit. Something like 4,500 estates (not all of them farms – villas and apartments as well) have been expropriated and passed into the hands of student cooperatives during that time.

Libera Terra acts not only as a kind of kitemark, offering quality and ethical reassurance, but also as a marketing agency for groups of approved co-operatives.

The latest financial update to come my way suggests a turnover of about $6m. A figure the more remarkable given that it has been achieved in the teeth of torched mafia-free vineyards, vandalised farm equipment and systematic intimidation by the relatives of jailed mafiosi.

All very well, you say, but where do you get this stuff? Ah. Until recently distribution has been confined to Italy – mainly through specialist outlets, but one or two supermarkets as well.

Now, however, Libera Terra is branching out, with a marketing push in the rest of Europe. I gather Germany is the principal target. The Germans are so right-on about these things that they have published a list of 400 Sicilian businesses which refuse to pay the pizzo (mafia protection money). The idea is to give German tourists the option of shopping only at places that don’t line mafiosi pockets.

Whether Britain is also in Libera Terra’s sights I have no idea. For those who can’t wait to eat their pizza minus pizzo, I suggest tackling the organisations’s website, where a number of products can be bought direct (although only by businesses it seems).

How far should advertising be allowed to airbrush reality?

August 19, 2011

When was the last time we had an old-fashioned row over the pernicious effect of advertising on bulging waistlines, cyrrhotic livers and diseased lungs? Well over a year ago, I would guess. Thanks to a change of political regime and, more importantly perhaps, a tightening of public purse strings, many of the advertising industry’s bêtes noires (for which read single-issue NGOs and pressure groups) have – for the time being – beat a retreat to their burrows.

One resilient exception is the vexed issue of airbrushing, which just won’t go away. Should our model images – whether celebrity or mannequin – reveal their true selves, warts and all? Or should they be allowed to convey, thanks to the alchemy of digital manipulation, an idealised perfection? And if the latter, where do we draw the line?

Vintage image manipulation: Henry VIII fell for it

It has to be said, this is not exactly a fresh issue. The vintage victim of visual misrepresentation was Henry VIII – who became understandably incandescent on discovering his bride-to-be, the svelte young Duchess of Cleves portrayed by court painter Hans Holbein, was in the flesh a wholly unprepossessing ‘Mare of Flanders’.

Much more recently, the charge has been led by Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson, who claimed L’Oréal’s scalp when she persuaded the Advertising Standards Authority that the cosmetics company had gone over the top in representing actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington as airbrushed examples of an impossible beauty.

Of the two, Henry had the better case: Holbein’s portrait blatantly lied. L’Oréal, on the other hand, might reasonably contend (and in fact did, in so many words) that it is in the business of portraying unattainable beauty: it sells a dream, not the fleshly reality. Swinson’s point, and presumably the ASA’s in adjudicating against the campaign, is that the images are of such unblemished perfection that young females – slavishly devoted to celebrity culture – will feel their own bodies wholly inadequate by comparison.

Strangely, what no one has done is to ask the target market itself. Until now that is. Out of Credos, the Advertising Association’s recently founded think tank, comes a new piece of research that tackles the attitudes of 10-21 year-old girls and their mothers towards advertising manipulation. On the face of it (the results have yet to be formally published), the mums seem a lot more outraged than their daughters, who display a cynical insouciance towards the whole business.

In a spirit of mischievous inquiry, AdMatters – the AA’s online house magazine – has decided to extend the parameters of Credos’ research to all comers. Equally mischievously, I pass on their proposal:

“We at AdMatters would like to conduct some research of our own. The Credos survey asked girls aged 10 to 21: which of the models below would you use in an ad aimed at “people like you”?



“Now we’d like to hear from you, our loyal readers. We care not what age or gender you are, merely that you are a person and buy things. Choose your favourite (1-4, left-right) and tweet @ad_association, with #bikinis. Results may or may not be published.”

Google/Motorola deal opens way for game-changing Microsoft merger with Nokia

August 16, 2011

Say whatever else you like about Google’s $12.5bn acquisition of Motorola Mobile, it’s a landmark deal, defining a new inflection point in the evolution of mobile communications.

How it will do so is another matter. Commentators are widely divided over its ultimate objective or even whether, all things considered, the deal will benefit Google.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer: Last laugh?

Let’s start with something concrete: the high price. At $40 a share, paid in cash, Google’s offer represented a handsome 63% premium to the smartphone maker’s share price at the end of last week. Even allowing for the currently flustered state of world stock markets, that suggests a measure of desperation on Google’s part to get the deal done.

Why pay so much? Motorola may once have been a great mobile handset brand. But today it commands no more than 2.4% of the market that matters, smartphones – according to analyst Gartner.

Some would suggest that calling Motorola a brand at all is to miss the point. In their eyes, the deal is little more than a defensive gesture, aimed at raiding Motorola’s 17,000 innovation patents. These will bolster the already near-dominant position of the Android operating platform by allowing Google to segue, for the first time, directly into hardware development (tablets in particular). By so doing, Google thinks it will obviate increasingly destructive IP litigation. Mountain View now sees this as the tactic of choice deployed by its principal competitors Apple and Microsoft to slow up Android’s inexorable advance. Like caltrops strewn in the road to block a triumphant cavalry charge.

No less significantly, the Motorola acquisition will enable Google to improve Android user experience. Complete control over a handset manufacturer will mean, in theory at least, fewer glitches (compared with, say, the already intergrated iPhone experience) when it comes to software upgrades. Which in turn means more happy customers and apps developers.

So far, so positive. But, from here on in, the deal looks more risky. Google may not choose to highlight the issue of brand conflict, but Motorola’s competitors most certainly will. And it just so happens that some of these competitors, namely Samsung, HTC, LG and Sony Ericsson, are Android’s most important customers. Without them, their awesome distribution and massive marketing budgets, the “inexorable” advance of Android would be stopped in its tracks. So Google will have to work very hard at convincing them that Motorola will not get first-mover advantage in the event of some major piece of market innovation.

Cynically, Google may well have calculated that Android’s other “carriers” have little choice but to toe the line, there being no visible alternative to its own operating system at this moment.

But that would be to underestimate Microsoft (never a wise thing to do) and what is likely to be the most significant and unforeseen consequence of the Motorola deal. Which is: Microsoft buying Nokia – still the biggest, if no longer the best, mobile phone brand.

That would indeed be an irony. Without the catalyst of the Google/Motorola deal, Microsoft and Nokia might never have been able to convince their shareholders to go the whole hog and commute a peripheral collaboration deal into a fully-fledged merger. With what consequences for Google and Apple we can only guess.

Grazia and News of the World – they’re as bad as each other

August 12, 2011

Once again, the media has been caught hacking into our Royals’ most intimate details. In this case, it’s Grazia, the fashion magazine, that has been forced into a red-faced confession.

The hacking was performed on Her Most Gracious Highness the Duchess of Cambridge’s vital statistics. The magazine’s publisher, Bauer Media, have fessed up to wilfully carving at least an inch or two from their cover girl’s waist in a blatant attempt to boost circulation.

Unlike the revelations surrounding News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman’s attempts to hack into the voicemails of Harry and Wills’ aides for salacious tittle-tattle, this particular exposé is unlikely to rock the nation to its marrow.

That said, it’s worth asking why these two incidents merit a different scale of reaction. To be sure, one is deemed illegal while the other is not. On the other hand, both activities imply a similar, depleted, set of moral values. Both use cynical deception and dishonesty to achieve their ends. Both parasitically exploit the lives of celebrities, one by attempting to degrade them, the other by fawning and flattering their figures. Both deploy lame and implausible excuses when caught in the glare of exposure – betraying a smug belief in the public’s infinite gullibility.

Grazia, whose May 9 issue was in the dock at the Press Complaints Commission (soon to be decommissioned after doing such a sterling job in tackling the phone-hacking scandal), is not of course alone in perpetrating this kind of thing. Doctoring of images is a widely condoned practice, in advertising as well as editorial.

From time immemorial the Advertising Standards Authority has inveighed against advertisers, usually in the health and beauty sector, who impossibly idealise their models, sometimes to the extent of manipulating their skin tint. With little effect it would seem.

L’Oréal, a recidivist with multiple offences on its ASA charge sheet, has recently been caught at it again. This time for digitally touching up images of actress Julia Roberts and supermodel Christy Turlington.

The ads were withdrawn, but the offence had already been committed. And it will be committed again, albeit in a different guise.

What we are talking about here, to highjack a buzz phrase used to explain the recent riots, is a culture of impunity.

Flash Rob rioters hijack Blackberry brand

August 9, 2011

As if losing to Apple and Google in the duel for mastery of the smartphone and tablet markets were not bad enough, RIM’s Blackberry brand now has another problem to contend with.

Just as the upmarket Burberry brand was once appropriated by Chavs desperate for those trademark Rupert Bear scarves, so Blackberry’s slick image has been hijacked by rioters wreaking havoc across much of Greater London.

I don’t mean the phones have been looted from shops (though that may be true enough). No, this is far worse. The brand is now the communications weapon of choice for spotty hoodies texting their plans for countrywide mayhem.

The Telegraph notes laconically:

The BlackBerry phone, one of the first devices to offer mobile email, was once the preserve of business leaders and political aides but has become increasingly popular with members of urban gangs and teenagers.

And all because the BB Messenger service has a superior edge to other forms of social media. Twitter and Facebook leave a smoking gun for the police to pick up. Not so BBM, which can spread battleplans virally without them being traceable to individual perpetrators (apparently). RIM has always had a thing about security, now it’s obsession has come back to bite it in the bottom.

BBM is not the only marketing tool being turned to good account by rioters, however. Say hello to the Flash Rob, a pathological variant of the Flash Mob, in which sundry groups of delinquents meet up via social media to loot and burn specially targeted shops.

When it comes to social media, rioters are always going to be one step ahead of trundling Plod. After all, they’re the only ones young enough to really get it.

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