26 February 2001
When Advertising Isn't According to Hoyle
by Ed Ross
The Super Bowl has come and gone. My wife and I are like Jack Sprat and his wife, in that I want to watch only the game and she wants to watch only the commercials. We cross each other quite often going in and out of the room.
Inger says that the ads are much better than the game. Her proof is that she stayed awake during the commercials, but I slept through part of the game. In fact, I did start to find the ads interesting, and I laughed aloud at one about the running of the squirrels, where brave, but terrified, madmen ran through the streets of Pamplona pursued by squirrels.
"Inger," I asked, "Would you like to buy a squirrel? I think they are selling them."
"We have squirrels. We don't need any more," she protested.
It brought back a memory of me as a rookie sales engineer. I was calling on a small electronics company while its president was taking a final look at a fancy ad that somebody from his ad agency had brought for his approval. Spotting me, he said, "Here's a sales guy. Let's see what he thinks about it."
I looked at a colorful layout with many circuit modules spread over a full page. "Are you selling modules?" I asked.
"No," said the president. "We want to modularize other company's circuits."
The president turned to the adman and exploded, "WE'RE NOT TELLING THEM WHAT WE'RE TRYING TO SELL. NOW TAKE THIS DOWN!"
He indicated a broad headline across the top of the page. "LET US ENCAPSULATE YOUR CIRCUIT."
(Cut to the present.) On Super Bowl day plus one, the Boston Globe interviewed ad agency people to rate the Super Bowl ads. The criterion for their judgment seemed to be "creativity." They didn't seem to care how many squirrels were actually sold.
They liked a commercial where a fellow squirts beer into the face of a date he's trying to impress, and they loved one about a car that's up in a tree. I saw both of these, but there was so much going on in the ads that I missed the sponsors' identities. Fortunately, the Globe told me, so now if I want face-squirting beer or a tree-climbing car, I'll know where I can find them. The squirrels are a little harder to find; the Globe said the sponsor is EDS. Looking up EDS (Electronic Data Systems) on the Internet, I found that the squirrels "represent the quick and nimble companies you must compete against to survive in the Digital Economy." I'm not making this up.
EDS's ad agency could counter with the observation that I did in fact find out who the sponsors were, so the ad must have worked. I admit that anybody who has decided to write a column about beer squirting, tree-climbing autos, and squirrels that represent companies is going to find out something about the sponsors, but I doubt if I'm typical in that respect.
I believe that advertising is one of the professions whose members strive to impress one another with how clever they are rather than perform the function for which they're paid: selling the clients' products.
I'm not against cleverness in advertising. In fact, I think humor in ads is great. But for an effective message, you need to make sure your prospective customer knows who you are, what you're selling, how to contact you, and why he should. These are the basic rules of advertising. Follow them and you are, as the old expression goes, doing things "according to Hoyle." (The original Hoyle, Edmond, published his Rules of Games in 1742.)
Motion control isn't immune from vacuous, clever advertising.
When I make up my Ross Guides, I ask motion control manufacturers the question, "Why do customers buy from you rather than from somebody else?" The answer is often something like, "We have the shortest delivery time" or "We give the best design assistance" or "Our product is super reliable." Usually, their advertising has no more to do with their actual capabilities than squirrels have to do with data processing or encapsulation.
Back when I worked at Raytheon, I had the best idea I've ever had. Our big thing at the division was quality. We knew we had the largest and best quality assurance department in the business. We always had great statistics on the products' reliability, but we never felt we got the proper recognition. I tried to get the ad people to trumpet, "ALL OUR COMPONENTS ARE MADE ACCORDING TO HOYLE!" Our quality control (QC) manager was Herb Hoyle. A picture of Hoyle himself, smiling and confident, would have been included. This would have been followed by stories of how hard it had been to find a QC manager named Hoyle and of whether Herb was one of Edmond's descendants. This would have been clever, but it would also have focused the publicity on the key sales problem.
The ad people would have none of it. If you think there's a not-invented-here syndrome among engineers, wait until you deal with ad men.
So if you can't make your company advertise effectively, I won't blame you. I understand. MC
Edward A. Ross is president of Ross Associates in Needham, Mass., and author of The Ross Guide to the Motion Control Industry. Contact Ed at (781) 449-5123; fax: (781) 449-2942.