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Nothing Serious, We're Only Engaged

  |  November 11, 2005   |  Comments

Is 'engagement' advertising's equivalent of a one-night-stand?

Ad:tech took place in New York this week. The theme of this conference was "Engagement," something that was already on my mind before the week began.

That's because another viral ad has landed in the inbox. In my line of work, this happens all the time, of course. Only this time, the sender was my dad. He didn't send the spot for professional reasons, but because the ad so engaged him, he couldn't resist passing it on to me, and a few close friends, too.

You may have seen it already; it's Carlton Draught's "Big Ad," and it's been making the rounds lately, just as another beer spot, Guinness' "Evolution," did a few weeks ago. That one was forwarded to me too, by friends and colleagues who were enchanted, and engaged, by the spot.

But is engagement enough? Did these ads move beer, or even purchase intent? Personally, I enjoyed watching both -- way more than I enjoy drinking beer, which happens to be not at all. Never touch the stuff. Frankly, I jumped through a few hoops for the purposes of this column. It was almost impossible to recall which beer brands to mention, or to link to. I had to search terms such as "beer big ad" and "beer evolution" to refresh my memory.

This phenomenon isn't limited to online. There have been plenty of engaging ads over the years that have made more of a mark as slices of entertainment than as movers of client product. In 1987, the claymation California Raisins, with a little help from Ray Charles, moved more licensed raisin merchandise than they did actual raisins.

Is Engagement Enough?

"No!" affirms Jeffs Hicks, CEO of the white-hot agency Crispin, Porter + Bogusky.

The man who brought the world the Subservient Chicken, the most engaging ad of last year and possibly the decade, is adamant on the subject. "Irrelevant engagement on the Internet is no different than irrelevant engagement on television. I've had engagement with an ad for adult diapers, and that's totally irrelevant to me, as beer is to you," Jeff told me when I cited the aforementioned campaigns. "Forward-to-a-friend is nothing more than an awareness generator. There's no guarantee that your sense of humor or your needs are relevant to this. I am a huge believer that great marketing has to engage. Obviously, great advertising has to engage. But engagement doesn't guarantee relevance."

"It's wasted energy," BzzAgents' Dave Balter said when I asked him about engagement. "It's fun; it helps pass the time, but it doesn't even help you to remember the product. Everyone's talking about Paris Hilton, no one's talking about the hamburger," he said, citing Carl Jr.'s recent blockbuster viral hit.

Dave went on to ask me if I remembered which beer was featured in the Big Ad spot. I confessed I didn't. According to studies he's seen, I'm squarely in the majority. Most people don't recall the brand, and most who think they do get it wrong. "No one remembers it's Carlsberg," Dave said.

It's Carlton, Dave.

Viral advertisers want to measure the success of their ads by how many people pass them on. It's a great metric for creative, but a very dubious one for advertising. Even the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's (WOMMA) director, Andy Sernovitz, who believes engagement can be a goal, confesses, "Outcomes are not conversions."

At another ad:tech keynote, Lexus marketing VP Deborah Wahl-Meyer walked us through the launch campaign for the Lexus IS. A major component was featuring the car as a hologram in Times Square. She showed the audience a video of the event, noting how pleased the company was with the amount of sidewalk rubbernecking.

Fine. But did people leave the scene and later tell their friends they'd seen a hologram of a Lexus in Times Square -- or a hologram of a car? I'm betting on the latter. Hard to say, as Wahl-Meyer shared no tangible results of the promotion.

More impressive were the less-ritzy but much more product-oriented online launch elements. Lexus' chief engineer did a Q&A on "Car and Driver's" Web site. General Manager Bob Carter chatted with Edmunds.com site visitors. In both cases, the numbers were strong, and it gave Lexus an opportunity to address complex issues surrounding the new vehicle, such as why there's no manual transmission. It created quantifiable word-of-mouth, pre-launch interest, and visits to dealerships.

What Is It, and How Does It Work?

"Engagement" is, at present, a pretty flabby goal, marketing-wise. Procter & Gamble's very influential Manager of Interactive Marketing Innovation, Ted McConnell, doesn't want to go on the record about it, but he will allow he's "sort of the father" of calling for a more accountable way to measure engagement. Ted was instrumental in spurring Bob Barocci, president of the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF), to create a council to work on the problem.

Until they wrestle it to the ground, proceed with caution if you're on the client side of the agency/partner equation and engagement is what they're touting.

All this delirium about engagement calls to mind a former student of mine who came racing in one morning, deliriously happy and sporting a ring. Breathless, she shared her good news: she and her boyfriend had become engaged the night before.

After making the proper congratulations, I asked if she'd thought at all about a wedding. Her face fell. "Wedding?" she asked, incredulously. "There's not going to be any wedding. We're just...engaged."

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Rebecca Lieb

Rebecca was previously VP, U.S. operations of Econsultancy, an independent source of advice and insight on digital marketing and e-commerce. Earlier, she held executive marketing and communications positions at strategic e-services companies, including Siegel & Gale, and has worked in the same capacity for global entertainment and media companies, including Universal Television & Networks Group (formerly USA Networks International) and Bertelsmann's RTL Television. As a journalist, she's written on media for numerous publications, including "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." Rebecca spent five years as Variety's Berlin-based German/Eastern European bureau chief. Rebecca also taught at New York University's Center for Publishing, where she also served on the Electronic Publishing Advisory Group. Rebecca, author of "The Truth About Search Engine Optimization," was ClickZ's editor-in-chief for over seven years.

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