Given the degree to which we’re always and everywhere awash in marketing messages, I wasn’t surprised to find that many readers reacted to an earlier column and follow-up on opportunistic advertising with plenty of thoughts and examples of their own. It’s impossible to offer a comprehensive summary of these wide-ranging reactions, but a few themes emerged. Here’s a rundown of some of those themes and the underlying marketing tactics. For this column, marketing is defined as broadly as possible, including not just ads for products but any sort of attempt to draw particular attention to a company or its services.
The Sincerity Threshold: Again because we’re all saturated with ads and pitches pretty much constantly now, we’re all pretty cynical about them. As an example, one reader wondered whether the “remembrance” on marthastewart.com really had to include “photos that look so much like the ones in her catalog.” It’s true, the pictures do look like they need captions with pricing information. But really, businesses are kind of between a rock and a hard place on this: If they fail to somehow acknowledge the Sept. 11 attacks, they seem callous and indifferent, yet if they do acknowledge the attacks, they often seem insincere. I find myself in the very rare position of being less cynical than many readers about this, at least in some instances. I think it’s best to reserve scorn only for the most outrageously transparent instances of unconvincing sincerity. An example: On Sept. 18 reader Dennis B. passed along to me a pitch that had been “making the rounds” among PR professionals. Apparently it was sent on Sept. 11 and begins, “Unfortunately, today’s crisis in D.C. and New York is not the only crisis to hit American families. There is also a HUGE debt crisis in America, which is only augmented by parents’ lack of savings for college …” and then goes on to explain how a company called Upromise can help you save for college. About 10 days later, this unfortunate release was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, which reported that the flak who sent it out had been fired.
Our Good Deeds: A popular variation on simply expressing sympathy is for a company to tout its contributions to relevant charities or other good works. This sounds innocuous enough, but some readers clearly find it galling. One person forwarded me an e-mail from a film-processing service that expressed “our deepest sympathies” and announced plans to match employee donations to the Red Cross; the reader called this “the most repulsive ‘crisis’ spam I’ve seen yet.” I got lots of similar examples from other, similarly upset readers. It didn’t even seem to matter if there was no pitch involved—just sending out a (branded) message at all seemed offensive to some. Again, I have mixed feelings. Is this really so different from telling your friends you’ve donated blood, or whatever, and urging them to do the same? It’s certainly possible to do this in an off-putting and self-aggrandizing way, but it isn’t necessarily off-putting in and of itself.
Having said that, marketers who mix messages of philanthropy into more overt pitches are treading on perilous ground. Always-helpful Moneybox reader Sean R. sent me a full-page ad from the Boston Globe for something called Clear Choice, which offers “Lasik” eye surgery. There’s a photograph of a rugged fireman, or somebody dressed like one, over some type headlined “Our Way of Saying Thanks”—Clear Choice pledges to donate “$50 per patient towards relief efforts.” But a much bigger headline above the fireman says, “When You Are Serious About Your Sight, Choose Clear Choice for Lasik.” And there are quotes from an FBI agent, fireman, and policeman (each identified only by first name and initial) thanking Clear Choice for doing a great job. “On behalf of the dedicated members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I thank Clear Choice Laser Eye Center,” the FBI agent, Paul P., is quoted as saying. Since when does the FBI do endorsements? And what is this ad’s ultimate message? That you should be more like America’s bravest firefighters and law enforcement officers by getting eye surgery? It certainly seems the pictured fireman’s real function is as an endorser. Anyway, the whole thing comes across not as an expression of help or sympathy, but as a shameless attempt to associate a service with other people’s valor.
Sept. 11 = Selling Point: A frequently repeated idea since the attacks is that American life has been fundamentally altered—which of course might seem like a problem if you’re trying to push things that were hatched before those attacks. But maybe it’s not a problem. Maybe whatever you’re trying to push is now more important than ever. A couple of readers have shared some examples of subtle variations on this sort of pitch. I’ll mention two. A reader sent to one of my colleagues an e-mail touting the debut of BlackFlash, a monthly e-mail newsletter from the well-known graphic designer Roger Black. This was obviously in the works already, but an introductory note begins, “In the aftermath of the searing, tragic events on September 11, people have a new sense of urgency in their search for news and information. … More than ever, people don’t have time to read through the avalanche of information that comes at us.” So, uh, read this newsletter? Not convincing! The second example comes from another colleague who got an unsolicited e-mail, the origin of which was unclear (probably it was sent because of a click at a bookseller Web site); it takes the form of a mass-mail letter from Andrew Solomon, author of a book about depression. “In this time when we are all struggling with the tragic events at the World Trade Center,” the form letter says, “a book on depression has a particularly important role to play.” Then it launches into the pitch. What a drag.
“Times Like These”: Another variation on this idea takes a softer-sell approach: Product X or Service Z is especially worth consideration in “times like these.” You know, scary, uncertain times—’nuff said. This might be the most popular tactic of all, and readers have mentioned its use in connection with all sorts of things, from health insurance to car safety features. A couple of people pointed to TV spots touting Monex, “America’s most trusted name in precious metals.” The firm sells gold coins and the like, and the theory, of course, is that gold is a safe haven investment in troubled times. Whatever you make of gold as an investment (and I would say dabbling in metals is closer to pure speculation than anything “safe”), the case for coins is particularly unconvincing when you figure in the dealer’s cut; that’s why pitches like this one fall back on, as reader Bill D. puts it, the “emotional comforts” of owning such things. This, at best, is unconvincing. Here, as with the previous category, the bottom line is that if whatever’s getting pushed really is of greater interest in the post-Sept. 11 world, then that will be obvious on its own. And an overt pitch along those lines—however subtle—is almost certain to backfire.