And the Winner Is…

One of the popular topics of traditional media these days is the onslaught of dot-com ads during the Super Bowl. As the story goes, it is the big chance for these companies, some 17 dot-coms in all, to break through the clutter and be heard. With all the noise, it’s a wonder anyone can hear at all. But I digress from my main point.

A closer look at the Internet-related ads that will appear during the Super Bowl broadcast and the virtual avalanche of e-commerce ads we see nightly on our TVs during prime time and business shows reveal a deeper, more disturbing trend in advertising: the sacrifice of brand-building for awareness. Maybe I missed the day it happened, but when did shocking, irreverent and brash take the place of relevant, emotional and witty?

Not to say irreverence doesn’t have its place. I spent some time at Sega of America, the company that along with Nike almost single-handedly invented the in-your-face style of advertising in the early ’90s with ads for its Genesis Video Game System (hats off to Goodby Silverstein, Sega’s agency at the time).

But it made sense – for the category, for the target audience, for the product and for the company. It helped make Sega the world’s top video game company at the time, and a perennial top-five brand with its core target audience.

So while irreverence may work for pubescent boys, tell me why it makes sense for pet owners, homebuyers and users of health and beauty aids. With the lack of a clear brand strategy and compelling story to tell, the dot-com community (along with a number of analog counterparts) is leading with its mouth, hoping if it shouts loud enough, someone will hear, and maybe even understand what it’s saying.

If this seems like a pet peeve, well, there is not a better place to start. The pet category advertising for the dot-com set is among the worst out there, with the amusing – but off-target – pets.com ads leading the bunch.

Hey, I laugh at the silly hand puppet too, but humor on its own doesn’t make or build a brand. For example, what does “Because pets can’t drive” mean? Is this the single, most compelling area of pain that they solve, delivering pet stuff? And if so, why do they show products being delivered by a pets.com truck and deliveryman when they ship everything through UPS and FedEx?

When you consider the web site execution of the strategy it goes further downhill, with their site virtually identical to rival petsmart.com – right down to the pet food promotion as the opening focus. (By the way, petsmart also features a delivery truck but doesn’t deliver. Go figure.)

My personal nod for worst advertising to date for an Internet company goes to the enigmatic and patronizing TV spots for More.com, which features people you love to hate who must use More.com because they have everything in life they need.

I’m so turned off and puzzled by these commercials that I just don’t know where to start, so I won’t. Add to that the lack of integration with their outdoor campaign (at least be consistent) and you have a company searching for a brand identity relevant to anyone who uses the Internet.

Compare these miscues with the flawless brand execution of eToys, which tugs on the heartstrings of parents everywhere by tapping into their primal need to bond with and provide the best that they can for their children. Not only that, but the “Where great ideas come to you”TM theme is delivered through their site construction and impeccable customer service (an often forgotten part of brand equity).

Kudos also go to Monster.com, which still sports one of the best ads on television. The sepia-toned spot shows children talking about what they want to be when they grow up with a witty, sarcastic, and dead-on perfect tone. Even if you are not looking for work, the message hits home to everyone who has ever worked for a less-than-satisfactory boss.

Even after a year, it still holds up well, bringing on a wry smile with each airing. Both Monster and eToys have well-crafted messages based on a sound brand strategy. They focus on messages relevant to their customer base, creating clear concise communication that lays the foundation for building awareness and building a unique and compelling brand for years to come.

Unfortunately, the good is the exception, not the rule. More money is being pumped into wasteful advertising that focuses too much on attracting attention, and not enough on holding it. What passes for branding in today’s advertising is little more than the media equivalent of a two-year-old’s temper tantrum – you can see it, you can hear it, but you’re not exactly sure what to do to make it stop. The message can’t get through all the mayhem.

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