On Memes: the By-Products of Our Participatory Culture

“Meme” is one of those words I’ve long viewed skeptically.  It sounds egg-heady and vaguely French.  And I always have a nagging sense I’m pronouncing it wrong (it rhymes with ‘dream’).  Still, like Web 2.0, once I actually learned what it meant, it wasn’t particularly intimidating.  There’s a lot of egg-heady, vaguely Greek background information, but a meme basically amounts to to a self-replicating idea; think of it as copy-catting gone viral.  Or think of it as a very high percentage of what you like on YouTube.

Play Them Off, Keyboard Cat

Play Them Off, Keyboard Cat

Actually, don’t think about it too much; just enjoy this recent one; the play them off keyboard cat.  This is not a topic solely of interest to cat people.  Hardly.  This kimono-sporting feline does nothing more than move his paws over a synthesizer keyboard in an entirely unconvincing manner to a simple, ear-catching tune.  This is clearly not about the production value, which–aside from the well-tailored silk garb–is non-existent.  It’s about the idea; whenever someone or something produces a video FAIL (yet another meme), some amateur video editor takes that footage and intercuts this increasingly degrading clip into the situation at the end–literally playing him off ala Doc Severinsen on the old Tonight Show or Paul Shaffer on Letterman.  These video clips often takes on meta status as they add this keyboard cat meme onto already popular video clips like this, this, and my far and away favorite–this

When everyone can participate in the media, when technology makes it easy to make simple edits on a laptop, and when any video that captures the public attention can be forwarded with a few keystrokes, memes like the play-them-off-keyboard-cat will continually pop up like so many smile-inducing mayflies.  Perhaps dancing babies and grape stomp lady and where the hell is Matt? don’t add to the intellectual advancement of the culture, but they add undeniable fun to a Friday morning.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Committees, Cooperation, and Compromise

“Search all the parks in all your cities;
You’ll find no statues of committees.”
David Ogilvy, Confessions of an Advertising Man

In any creative business, the deeply personal nature of aesthetics makes judging ideas highly subjective.  Worse, typical corporate structures layered with levels of administrators each empowered with a small share of specialized brand responsibility creates a highly-contentious approval process where narrow interests, task-specific wants, and individual egos sublimate well-intentioned cooperation into contentious compromise.  And along the way, ever fragile aesthetics collapse as these forces stretch ideas into tortured, accommodation-driven forms.

“Nibbled to death by ducks,”  “Pissing on the tree”: this process raises the cynical hackles of any designer who strives for the exceptional, which explains how last week, a user interface designer named Dustin Curtis generated a dust up among creative thinkers on Twitter and online message boards that far exceeded the usual grumbling.

Mr. Curtis published and promoted this site along with an open letter to American Airlines.  Essentially, he takes extraordinary offense at their website, despising the online experience so much that he vows “never to fly your airline again.”

Dustin Curtis' AA.com Redesign

Dustin Curtis' AA.com Redesign

However, unlike other irritated consumers, Mr. Curtis took the unusual but relatively easily-realized step of taking his beef public.  With high dudgeon, he openly questions how the otherwise respectable AA could tolerate such a ‘terrible’ customer experience, taking personal aim at CEO Gerard Arpey and their board of directors for tolerating such an assault on their brand and its image.  He went so far as to spend ‘six hours’ redesigning their landing page, and his design definitely features a clean, streamlined look compared to the Nascar-esque clutter of the existing AA page.

His indignant ranting vitriol at this perceived confederacy of dunces makes wonderful vicarious reading for creative professionals, but that was not particularly fascinating.

What was incredible was that an actual user experience architect from AA.com responded to his complaint, albeit somewhat anonymously.  Even Mr. Curtis seemed amazed, more so by the fact that this designer’s portfolio featured some great work.

In his response “Mr. X” sets the blame for their underwhelming site squarely on American’s corporate structure and culture: large, far-flunged and heavily, heavily siloed.  Many people touch the site, each with their own vested interests and many with autonomous authority, which results in the eventual dog’s breakfast that is aa.com.

The AA.com Website

The AA.com Website

In the end, I bet “Mr. X” vetted his letter with his bosses, providing a response to this challenge that simultaneously sought to explain, excuse and even pre-sell coming improvements.  It was a thoroughly contemporary version of corporate mea culpa: highly-targeted, highly-specific, tolerably supplicating and forward looking.

Mr. Curtis chalks this up to the permeation of bad taste in large organizations, but that’s a bit hysterical.  The real issue is empowerment.  With notably few exceptions, CMO’s lack any real authority in serious businesses.  They may be C-level, but they sit at the child’s table; easily replaced, ignored and overruled.

But its no coincidence that some of the consistently best run marketing organizations have adapted this structure to streamline the process and limit the amount of people with license to effect creative ideas.  The irony of the short-lived CMO tenure is how one individual with the remarkably rare balance of skills that makes them both strategic, sales-focused, and artistically discerning can radically influence a company’s image and their brands’ success.  For years at PepsiCo, that job fell to the legendary Alan Pottasch, who never touched an idea he didn’t improve.  Phil Knight’s role in the creative vision of Nike stands very well documented.  And ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin’s recent emphasis on creative champions in marketing roles signals a powerful new resurgence for his collection of exceptional brands.

In a corporation, just as in society, an individual with vision can make a difference.  Corporations that choose and empower these kinds of exceptional individuals always win.  Those that don’t, inevitably spend too much on their advertising, forced to run more of it since it is of lower quality, and spending more to produce it due to overruns in editing, keylining, and approval.

In the end, not every creative idea or site can be as brilliant as this one, but they can all be better.  And the decision to be better has always been and always will be a personal choice.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Still Confused by Twitter? Think of It As Today's CB Radio.

A lot of people don’t get Twitter.  Actually, that’s okay; you don’t have to get Twitter.  But in these turbulent times of rampant social networking and changing media environment, not getting Twitter can feel awkward and uncomfortable.  Since nearly a third of their demographic is 35-49, it might help to think of it this way: Twitter is the latest iteration of the CB radio, albeit with a far greater reach and diversity of messages.

#Beer In Texarkana with @Smokey @YouLikeMe and @Bandit

#Beer In Texarkana with @Smokey @YouLikeMe and @Bandit

Remember the mid to late ’70’s?  Remember those big-collared days of polyester, pornstar mustaches and a nascent musical style called disco?  Back then, a great portion of America suddenly got all caught up in CB radio.  The Citizen’s Band, made famous by Smokey and the Bandit and a string of other mid-to-low budget movies, basically amounted to a big regional multiparty telephone line.  To join the conversation, people had to learn some words of a new language, christen themselves with a short and preferably memorable name or  handle, and learn some basic rules of participation etiquette.  Sound familiar?  A related offshoot of this phenomenon was listening to scanners, most of them tuned to police and fire dispatch.  People who geeked on monitoring scanners learned about local emergencies first, long before it became general knowledge.

CB radio represented real time media long before marketing eggheads coined  the phrase ‘real time media.’  Twitter too, works in real time.  It is the platform of now; what people are thinking and doing and concerned about right now, this moment.  People on Twitter participate in a huge, ongoing conversation that’s searchable and easily customizable.  You can jump in and talk or hang back and use it like a scanner, monitoring individual reactions and responses to the issues of the day.

Should you be on Twitter?  That’s a personal decision based on what you might want to accomplish with it.  Twitter may be a ‘real time micro blogging media platform that aggregates the collective zeitgeist 140 characters at a time’ but it is also merely a tool.  You can use this tool in many different ways but you don’t have to use it at all.  Personally, I’ve long been fascinated by those little Dremel rotary tools: they seem so precise, so flexible, so perfect for any number of fine sculptural and woodworking projects.  But as cool as they are, I don’t need one so I never bought one.

Twitter is a tool anyone can pick up and use but before you make any serious investment in it, ask yourself: ‘what do I want to do with it?’

10-4, Good Buddy.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

B•G•B (Bonus Guest Blog): WHERE, OH WHERE, DID "REASONED DEBATE" GO?

Guest Blogger: Chuck Maniscalco

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Chuck Maniscalco spent twenty-one years building success at Quaker Foods and then PepsiCo.  He started in consumer insights and later–as a CMO, President and later division CEO–that grounding served his brands well.  He remains one of the most astute marketers and quality people we’ve been privileged to work with at Element 79, not to mention a scary good guitarist and incorrigible distance runner.  This month, he takes the reigns as CEO of Seventh Generation: a mission-driven manufacturer of earth friendly cleaning and paper products which aligns perfectly with his passion for manifest leadership


A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to see Bill Clinton speak at an economic conference.  He was asked by the conference organizer, ‘What are the three biggest issues facing humanity?’  Talk about a heady question.  Clinton was either pre-primed or just as quick on his feet as is his reputation.  He said, ‘I believe that two of the three biggest issues facing all of us are:  global warming, and access to clean water.  Global warming because it is the sole issue that could literally stop the progress of humanity.  Access to clean water because it is the #1 source of disease and death in the world.’  

He elaborated quite eloquently for a bit on both issues, then turned to his third issue: ‘Whether it be the middle east, India/Pakistan, North Korea, or even Washington, D.C., I believe that local, national and world leaders have fallen into a trap, which is that people who disagree with one another don’t actually TALK with one another about the issues, and when they don’t, there is no opportunity to find COMMON GROUND.’  He elaborated with his own experience in D.C., when he went into his Presidency as an outsider to ‘the beltway’.  He said that he fell into this same trap because he didn’t want to appear naive, nor vulnerable.  Wow!  Having reasoned debates with people you disagree with equated with exposing naiveté or vulnerability!  There’s a sad commentary.

A second thread on this topic came from an analysis of why political parties in the United States have become so extremely right or left, with precious few people in the middle, and with virtually no willingness to compromise.  There were several factors the author pointed to, but the one he argued was most salient was the advent of easy and cheap air travel.  Prior to this, it was a chore for Senators and Representatives to go to D.C., so when they did, they stayed for extended periods of time.  And when they did this, they actually got to know one another; made friends across the aisle; went to dinner.  Now, they fly in and out, and never build actual RELATIONSHIPS.  Without relationships, there is no easy venue to connect and debate the issues.

Finally, the most recent event highlighting this ‘balkanization’ of humanity came when the fact that the sitting President of the United States was invited to speak at the commencement of a prominent university, and it turned into a MAJOR CONTROVERSY. Think about this for a second.  When the person elected to lead our country is not welcomed because he might disagree on a social issue, it is an indication of something seriously wrong.

Think about this in your own life.  Do you actively seek out people who disagree with you?  Do you welcome the debate when it happens?  Are you open to shifting your own strongly held opinions based on a healthy, reasoned debate?  

I am afflicted with a disease that causes me to always see the merits of both sides of an issue.  I used to think it was a strength, because it helped me get to a better place by truly taking advantage of both sides of an argument.  But, in our new world, I’m sad to say it feels like a weakness.  Do I give in and play the game of not talking with people who disagree with me?  Or do I fight to encourage a reasoned debate?  I have no answers, just wishes, probably in the end unfulfilled.

By Chuck Maniscalco, CEO Seventh Generation, Seventh Generation

Have You Friended the Pope Yet?

'His Holiness' Would Make an Epic Twitter Handle

'His Holiness' Would Make an Epic Twitter Handle

 

As reported in various news channels before the recent Holiday weekend, the Vatican launched www.pope2you.net last Thursday to celebrate World Communications Day, or Inter Mirifica: an outcome of the Second Vatican Council.  This year, the Pope’s message directly addresses ‘the digital generation’ through a website, e-mail outreach, and yes, a Facebook app.  No, you won’t be able to poke the pontiff or learn what his Smurf name might be, but this action represents a conscious, if occasionally unwieldy, move by this ancient organization into social media. 

The Pope’s message invites young people to become instruments for peace and promote a culture of respect built on ‘great synergies of friendship.’  Beyond the dismaying fact that the Pope himself resorted to saying ‘synergies,’ this move by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications drills home just how quickly our media environment has evolved over the past five years.  Obviously, technology has changed, but that’s not nearly as remarkable as how human behavior has changed.  The Vatican’s decision to turn to the internet as a means of spreading church gospel shows a practical awareness of where their congregation lives, plays and exchanges ideas.  With this new site, Catholics can now interact in this rich dialogue environment with a limitless supply of e-cards and banners from the Pope.  They can also follow and forward news and updates on YouTube or through a new iPhone app.  

What marketers refer to as viral messaging is merely a 21st century update of missionary work: a central organization creates a strong message, then sends out true believers with an imprimatur to take that message and spread it to people in far off lands.  The big difference is that today, you can do that simply by pressing ‘send.’ 

As Clay Shirky explains in his engaging, imminently readable book “Here Comes Everybody” (You still haven’t read it?  C’mon…), we live in a time where communications technology makes it incredibly easy to organize without organizations.  Because of this, organizations need to think beyond their own walls and self interests to consider outside communities that might share their thinking, values or interests.  These communities are not officially sanctioned extensions of the organization, because they exist solely on the strength of their members’ passion; call them ‘intramural organizations.’

Every large organization with a message to market must become aware of their own ‘intramural organizations’ and find ways to foster and encourage them.  When done deftly, large organizations can extend their marketing almost exponentially because these intramural groups excel at driving recommendation and word of mouth. 

The best way to spread any message—religious or secular—is to define your brand’s mission, and spread that.  The Pope’s doing it, why aren’t you?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Three Ideas To Fix Radio Advertising As You Drive This Memorial Day

Driving With The Radio On   

 

Driving With The Radio On

A lot of us will spend a good deal of this Memorial Day Weekend behind the wheel, which is an ideal position to consider the sorry state of radio advertising.  Given that people in cars make a truly captive audience for ad messages, the generally abysmal quality of radio ads is as inexcusable as it is undeniable.  Just tune in a few station for an hour or two and you’ll realize most of the messages feel about as welcome as your Uncle Don’s college golf stories: they may mean the world to him, but you?  Not so much…

This isn’t just my opinion; a sad blurb in Mediaweek notes that the radio advertising business posted its worst quarter in history.  Salespeople will blame this on the recession, but radio’s affordability should have perfectly positioned it to profit from media re-allocations.  And they would have, if the end product weren’t so uniformly boring and non-engaging.

But let’s not curse this audio darkness, let’s light three candles, with these three simple ways to boost the quality of radio creative.

1. Let’s end the uninterrupted monologue.  

Yes it’s cheap to park a voice behind a mic and hand him a script, but it sounds cheap as well, and who wants that?  The world of radio lives in the imagination and unlike television, it doesn’t take millions to create rich luxurious vistas in the mind.  The first step is to break up all that yapping.  Find places to work in sound effects and your message will breathe.  Early on in my career as I was hammering out beer ads, now radio legend/then merely radio savant David Lewis introduced me to the ear-relaxing magic of Pops and Pours–simple SFX of beer cans and bottles popping open and pouring into a glass.  That’s all it took to greatly enhance Martin Mull’s monologues on Michelob Dark, bless him.

2.  Let’s cast more interesting announcers

Take a minute and listen to the voices in your world–very few of them have the innocuous Stepford sounds of your typical TV news reader.  So why doesn’t anybody have an accent in radio ads?  When did someone decide it was a smart idea to overcook the great melting pot of regional inflections into an inoffensive but unmemorable reduction sauce of sameness?  Sam Kinison had a voice, Denis Leary has a voice, Samantha Bee has a voice–and none of their deliveries have been ground down into anonymous audio sausage.  Cast voices with singularity and your message memorability will immediately spike upwards.

3.  Remember music?  People like music.

Music hath charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.  That’s what William Congreve wrote in 1697 and his point still stands: music can make the difference between passing and failing, between soaring and crashing, between mindsticking memorability and forgettable tan wall paint.  Needledrop may be a cheap alternative, but do you really want to sound cheap?  If you’re creating a radio campaign, spend a few bucks and call in a music house.  If you partner well, the investment will reward you richly.  Maybe it’s this David Letterman/Jon Stewart/Lonely Island post-ironic age we live in, but somewhere, somehow, for some long lost reason, copywriters lost their never for crafting a few lyrics and recruiting a music house to make them interesting.  And the jingle died.  If you think that’s right, I have three words for you: American Family Insurance.  Yeah that’s right, you just hummed those nine notes in your head–don’t pretend you didn’t.  Invest in music–it’s powerful magic.

So there you go: three ideas for punching up the quality of radio creative.  Admittedly, I thought these up three during my morning commute.  If you dream up some during your drive this weekend, send them along.

And of course, click it.  Or ticket.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A Huge Television (and Online and Mobile) Audience Is There For Your Ad, But You Still Gotta Earn It

We’re still watching.  Actually, we’re watching more than ever.  The three-screen audience for video content has never been larger or more active, that is, if you define ‘active’ as sitting still and watching other people do things.

...And Everyone's Watching

...And Everyone's Watching

For advertisers, that’s terrific news. But candidly, it’s even better news for traditional ad agencies that long specialized in television production. Because despite the flurry of new formats and technologies, the fundamental consumer desire to watch video thrives unabated in a platform agnostic manner.  Clients who ran to new media shops based on the strength of their technical prowess alone may want to reconsider; the viewers are there, but you can’t assume they’re an eager advertising audience.  It takes compelling content to earn an audience, and that starts with story.

Two recent posts on this subject actually make for an interesting compare and contrast. Last week, Chris Rohrs, the president of the Television Bureau of Advertising (find their rather hideous website here), posted a persuasive editorial in Adweek where he cited recent Nielsen       time spent data that registered the highest numbers in their nearly sixty-year history.  Nielsen suggests the average American household spends eight hours and twenty-one minutes in front of the TV every day, with the precious Teen demo logging nearly three and a half of those hours.

He went on to cite a March study from Ball State’s Center for Media Design, hailed as the “largest observational look at media usage ever conducted.”  Rohrs takes great delight in that study’s finding that ninety-nine percent of TV viewing in 2008 was done on a “traditional” TV with less than 5 percent of that viewing using DVR playback.  Web video from YouTube, Hulu and all other Web/cell phone media accounted for less than one percent of all viewership.

Obviously Mr. Rohrs has a bias to present but still, he uses these facts well to rebut the conventional bromide of so many new media advocates: “television is dead.”

Of course it isn’t Chris.  Say it with me, won’t you?  “Television is not dead, it’s just diversified.”

And that’s the point Gavin O’Malley made yesterday on MediaPost: viewership on all three screens has never been higher.  Special events added extra fuel to online viewership numbers as people watched the Inauguration and the Final Fours from their desktops.  Again citing Nielsen, US online video usage grew thirteen percent year-over-year while mobile jumped more than fifty percent.

The two mens’ numbers around DVR use seem to conflict but the undeniable truth is that we are watching more video than ever…which must have something to do with this great nation’s rampant obesity, but that’s another blogpost.

Call me self-interested but my takeaway from all of these findings is that agencies deeply schooled in television production can no longer be cast as behind the times.  The collective skill and experience all that commercial production engenders gives us a leg up over any putative content provider, particularly if we’ve moved aggressively into new media anyway.

Like so many things, the means don’t matter nearly as much as the ends.  Facile skills on specific platforms mean nothing if the content isn’t there.

Stories, drama, ideas always come first.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Mastering Integrated Marketing Is Nice, Mastering Dis-Integrated Marketing Is Far More Useful

As a direct result of Web 2.0 and media fragmentation, consumers have dissed advertisers.  Specifically, they’ve dis-integrated marketing.  Over the years, advertisers accumulated and adopted new media for their messages, and their agencies worked to integrate all of them around a common look, feel and tone. All of which made a ton of sense in a push media environment; in the best cases, common elements made the sum of all these integrated parts greater than the whole.  Advertisers appreciated and encouraged the growth and perfection of integrated marketing.

You Have A Choice: Choose Well

You Have A Choice: Choose Well

Consumers however, had their own ideas.  They may understand that commercials are the tax they pay to enjoy free entertainment, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.  So in recent years, as the internet and DVR’s and DVD boxed sets allowed them to consume media of their own choosing from specialized niche programming channels on their own schedule and terms, they quickly adopted new platforms and technologies.  Even as advertisers worked to integrate marketing, consumers effectively dis-integrated it.

This is one reason social marketing experts are so loathe to use the “campaign” word; traditional campaigns are hardly adequate to span our hyper-fragmented, disintegrated media environment: an environment extending far beyond paid media to include earned media like recommendation and word of mouth.

That’s also the key reason why the means to organize and link all of this dis-integrated marketing lies in brand missions.  Not simply brand stories–those inform the mission, but are not enough by themselves.  We consider advertising an active verb–communication that works, that creates, that does something; specifically, Element 79 thinks it should Incite Interaction.  That’s why a brand mission makes sense–it’s something to do.  Somewhere in the intersection between the authentic brand story and the relevant consumer truth lies the brand mission.

Once you determine that, once you define it and make it real and begin seeding it across all of your paid media, consumers begin to understand the brand’s mission and what it means.  And if your insights are correct and your brand truths are genuine, they take up that mission on their own and begin spreading it on the brand’s behalf.  And disintegrated marketing no longer looms as a scary threat.  Because now people can rally around an idea, which travels much further than an execution.  And they can adopt missions, which they take in much deeper than mere messages.

All of which means that today, the ultimate question for agencies is: “Do you know your brand’s mission?”

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

B•G•B (Bonus Guest Blog): WHITE TYPE ON RED

Alan

Guest Blogger: Alan Spindle, E79 CD

Alan Spindle is an intensely curious and fascinating man with a near encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Vespas to foreign films to 70’s era music and stereo hi-fi components, and yet very little with any practical application.  Perhaps not surprisingly, all that makes him an incredible skilled advertising creative.

 

 

A mini-industry has sprung up around an old British WWII poster, and it’s made me realize not just the power of words and simple design, but especially the power of white capital letters on a red background.

image

These posters were meant to reassure the British that living under a Nazi regime was something to be faced with a stiff upper lip and Arthurian resolve.

The English Government destroyed the posters after the war, since Germany didn’t take over (story here):

This message has struck a chord in today’s turbulent, tempestuous, tripped-out, terrifying, tumultuous times, and has been reinterpretated and mutilated and spun out all across the blogo-cloud.

image2

 

 

 

Long ago, when Swine Flu surfaced as a Trending Topic on Twitter, we saw this:

 

And, of course the various American spins on British Reserve below.

 

2postersResident Type Nerd Lindsay Stevens thought at first this typeface was Gill Sans, but it seems this was hand lettered by some Skilled Ancient Being back in the 1940’s (story here).   

Having helped produce a couple thousand ads for Harris Bank over the last few years….

image5

I’ve become attuned to the many wonderful, subtle possibilities of such a graphic look.  You don’t always need a seizure-inducing flashing visual to get someone’s attention.

To paraphrase Howard Gossage: “Do people read ads? People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

Carry on.

By Alan Spindle, Creative Director, Element 79