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Teasers: Look Before You Leap

  |  April 17, 2002   |  Comments

Launching a new campaign with a tease? Better ensure you can deliver the payoff.

I can't think of any creative concept that's wasted more client dollars than the "teaser." Not that all agencies botch all teaser campaigns, but it sure seems likely something will go wrong.

Teasers are those ads that marketers sometimes use to flood a market before a product is introduced. Often used in outdoor and print campaigns, the teaser is designed to create buzz by deliberately not revealing any details about what product it represents. The theory goes that people talking around the water cooler will start ask each other what those ads are that just say: "Mugwump" on a black background.

A month or two later, when the new Mugwump Restaurant opens, everyone feels compelled to check it out. I've seen this work a couple times -- always when it was the only teaser campaign running and always when the product introduced was actually a new product.

Teasers were relatively popular in the very early days of online advertising. Marketers quickly discovered teasers tended to produce much, much higher click rates. In the dark days, when click rates were still assumed to be a useful metric, it took us a while to understand exactly what was going on with online teasers.

Disappointment was going on. People would see a tempting, unbranded banner and click on it, hoping for something fun, interesting, or profitable. Instead, they'd see my Sprint ad for long distance service.

That campaign didn't last long, once we realized we were annoying potential and existing customers. That didn't stop many, many other companies from continuing the folly.

Some real losers come to mind. Readers may remember the Dodge truck campaign that ran just a couple years ago. It was launching its new "Different" ad campaign. The executions amounted to a lot of ads with the word "Different" in bright red letters on white backgrounds. There was no mention of Dodge. People saw the ads online, in print, and all over the place outdoors.

Perhaps because the marketing whizzes at Dodge never get out of Michigan, they failed to realize Apple Computer was almost finished with one of the great marketing campaigns of the decade, "Think Different." The Apple campaign used the words "Think Different" in bright red on a white background... in the same Palatino font!

I don't know how many tens of millions of dollars Dodge pumped into that campaign, but Apple should have written the company a thank-you note. Heck, Dodge probably should withhold the campaign costs from the IRS as a "tax-deductible gift." Everyone I know was convinced the ads were promoting the then-new iMac.

A different type of catastrophic failure hit Amtrak when it used teasers to promote the supposedly impending bullet train service from Boston to New York. The new service, called Acela, suffered from many, many engineering delays, none of which were apparently known to the marketing team. They pushed out extremely high-concept (I'm generously not using the term "non sequitur") teaser ads out about six months before the service was to launch. A few tens of millions of dollars were spent. Then, the trains didn't come.

Every teaser campaign needs a punch line. After weeks or months of teasing, provocative ads, a company needs to associate that buzz with a newly released product. Amtrak had no product. The money was wasted.

Which brings us finally to the most recent nationwide teaser campaign, the mLife ads that flooded the market prior to the Super Bowl. Oh, where to start?

AT&T's advertising was very aspirational. The creative spoke of hectic lives and important life events. It pulled heart strings, showed weddings and children and all the things its audience (men and women, ages 24 to 44) hope to experience. Then, it left not just a mysterious product name, mLife, but also an implied promise this new mLife thing would bring all this wonderful stuff into the lives of the viewers.

I was absolutely certain mLife was a teaser for Met Life, so I was taken aback when the Super Bowl revealed (at a cost of millions of dollars) mLife wasn't a product, but a concept from the wireless phone company. I figured the campaign would eventually reveal what it was I was supposed to buy to get this new, enriched life, but I was disappointed to see that there really wasn't any follow through. Moreover, it drove me to a Web site that was down on Super Bowl Sunday!

Not only did AT&T lose the big gamble of employing a teaser, it did it with a product that failed to deliver on the buzz. Worse still, it did it trying to push a new, high-concept branding element -- an even bigger risk.

Clearly, it was having problems with the Web component of the campaign as well. Some of the TV spots drove viewers to the site, but later ones didn't (perhaps due to the tech problems?). It's hard to send someone to a site when you're not supposed to reveal who you are. The early teaser site reminded me of Monty Python's "Cheese Shop Sketch," where the cheese monger has no cheese to sell, but it takes the customer 10 minutes to figure that out.

Teasers are a lot like the creative we saw in the long distance service ad wars of 1995. There was a lot of high-concept stuff, such as little Australian girls speaking techno gibberish on remote beaches. I'm willing to bet if the CEOs of those companies had the option of continuing to "benefit" from the branding done with those ads or have their hundreds of millions of dollars back, they'd take the cash.

In the online world, teasers work particularly poorly. If viewers click on a teaser ad, where do you send them? Most often, I've seen companies develop sites that continue to tease. This is sort of like having a billboard tell you, "Mugwump: Take the next exit." When you take the next exit, you realize there's nothing to see, and now you have to find your way back to the Interstate. The marketer has only succeeded in aggravating the user. Sure, it creates a buzz. Just not the sort of buzz you want.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tig Tillinghast

Tig Tillinghast helped start and run some of the industry's largest interactive divisions. He started out at Leo Burnett, joined J. Walter Thompson to run its interactive division out of San Francisco, and wound up building Anderson & Lembke's interactive group as well.

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