Score One for MassMutual vs. Russian Trollbots

I’m an unabashed fan of films that feature people being nice to people. When all of Bedford Falls shows up to support George Bailey, I tear up. When the ground support team works around the clock to create a hack for the overburdened CO2 scrubbers in Apollo 13 because failure is not an option, I tear up. Heck, when H. I. and Ed McDunnough get caught returning Nathan Jr. to the home where they stole him, only to have Nathan Sr. free them both with a wave of his pistol and the admonishment “Before you go off and do another foolish thing like busting up, I suggest you sleep on it…at least one night“–yep, waterworks. I just like seeing people being nice to people. So you can guess how I reacted to this epic, affirming, inspirational ad on the Olympics last night…

The perfect song and amazing true life stories, all told with many of the people directly involved in them, this ad exemplifies genuine emotion powerfully realized. If you want to read more about all the individual stories, you’ll find them here.

At a time when broadcast networks, self-interested lobbies, and foreign operatives actively work to divide us, this spot serves as a wonderful reminder of America at its best and how we can all do and be better. Mass Mutual, their agency collaborators at Johannes Leonardo, and Radical Media should take great pride in this work.

Yep, I teared up a bit. And I don’t care who knows it.


Why Procter and Gamble is Winning The Olympics

I’m not sure why I have been so engaged by these Winter Olympics but lousy weather must be part of it. Normally, I couldn’t be bothered with the mundane mysteries of curling or bobsledding’s overfunded soap box derby–though I could watch Snow Cross all day. Apparently NBC’s ratings are down but that’s not my fault. I’m so there.

Advertisers should really study how these Olympics have treated their sponsor brands. Or more importantly, how the best brand sponsors differentiate themselves from everyone else.  After ten days, it’s pretty obvious that Procter and Gamble is way out front on that leaderboard.

Sure others have amazing television ads: Visa’s nighttime downhill Torin Yater-Wallace spot is visual poetry, Chevy’s SIRI-themed father awkward moment is wonderfully scripted and performed, and GE’s fantastical depiction of a young girl’s describing her mother’s job is all stellar piece of storytelling.Dennis Ryan, Advertising, Olson

But they’re just TV spots. And after a week of heavy rotation, every line, every subtle performance has seared into our minds…and we start resenting them. Seriously, the baby sitter spot for Chevy Tahoe aired no less than seven times last night alone.

One solution for this would be for advertisers to fund more executions.

But Procter and Gamble is demonstrating world class marketing by  relentlessly expressing one powerful, relevant idea: that Moms form the foundation for Olympic success.

The “Thank You, Mom” strategy is brilliant on dozens of levels, but better still, the idea translates to hundreds of platforms and relates to every brand in their portfolio. It provides the theme for NBC’s behind the scenes looks at the athletes. And videos show almost all the winning athletes expressing thanks to their Moms after their big winning moment, in a wonderfully emotional update of the old “I’m Going To Disneyworld” PR stunt.

Yes, there are hashtags and mobile extensions to drive this experience even deeper into the brands, but fundamentally, “Thank You, Mom” is a big organizing idea, one that speaks to a very large, very relevant market. And one that can link back directly to whatever we are watching. Even if that’s Skeleton.

And for crying out loud, why do I watch Skeleton?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson

New Treasury Secretary May Spur Federal Rebranding Effort

Dennis Ryan, Advertising, OlsonSee this? No, it’s not a proposed Olympic city mascot, it’s the remarkably unique signature of White House chief of staff Jack Lew who President Obama plans to nominate as the replacement for the departing Timothy Geithner. Apparently, there’s a hue and cry inside the beltway over this ‘squiggle’ because the Secretary of Treasury’s autograph is on every bill the government prints. He’s being urged to replace it with something more…decipherable.

And there’s precedent for this kind of action because apparently, they made Geithner improve his too before printing it on dollar bills.

But does it really matter? Should we change someone’s personal brand for no other reason than legibility? I don’t think so. Because if you’re the kind of person whose day is shattered because you can’t read the small print on a twenty, you should work on re-prioritizing.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Olson


A Thirty Second Lesson on Context and Branding Scores

The problem with conventional wisdom is that by definition, it’s little more than assumption. Never questioned, never truly measured, just blithely accepted as fact.

That makes it dangerous.

During a recent production, a smart client asked for additional coverage of some signage, which is a totally legitimate request. But then she went on to add “Gotta get in that branding early and often.”

Actually, you don’t.  While a lot of people assume saying and showing the product name more often increases branding, that’s not necessarily true when you’re ad tells a story. Context is a critical component to branding. If your story draws me in, and then your brand drives a critical turn in the plot, your branding scores will be tremendous, at least according to accepted research tools like Millward-Brown’s LINK and Ipsos’ ASI.

Consider this twelve year old ad for Miracle Whip, done by two remarkable creatives–CW Jeff Martin and AD Craig Schwartz, produced by the redoubtable Liza Muzik, directed by a very young Craig Gillespie, for one of best clients we ever knew at Kraft Foods, Carl Johnson.  Carl wanted to push the advertising beyond the traditional convention that brand leveraged of showing kids at play who somehow ended up talking about Miracle Whip–yes, it was always a stretch but the kids were simply adorable, so that forgave a lot.  Anyway, Craig and Jeff’s story develops for a full twenty-one seconds–over two thirds of the way through the spot–before introducing the brand.

For years, it held the title as the highest branding-score for a Miracle Whip spot.

If you repeat yourself in conversation, you’re a bore. It’s really no different in advertising.


By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


B-G-B (Bonus Guest Blog): Thoughts on America In Honor of Independence Day

Guest Blogger: Neal StamellNeal

For nearly twenty-five years, Neal has lived and breathed consumer research and advertising at agencies like Leo Burnett, Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, FCB and now Element 79 as a Group Planning Director. Along the way, he’s interviewed and canvassed all sorts of people for their thoughts and opinions on Philip Morris, Tropicana, Pillsbury, Glad, Starkist, Gatorade, Amway, ConAgra and literally hundreds of other brands. As a natural puzzle solver, he instinctively converts that kind of data into usable insights: connecting, inciting, and inspiring. Though a curious planner’s mind never turns off, Neal has also somehow found time to master the nuances of cooking classics like Kung Pao Chicken and Hot & Sour soup along with blues riffing on his electric bass. Neal also won Element 79’s very first Film Fest with his deeply-moving documentary “Inez Holly.”

Someone recently posed a challenge on the LinkedIn AdPro forum. In a nutshell, it was this: how to rebrand ‘America?’ What would you rename it, what’s the logo, the tagline or slogan, that would concisely sum up what America is, or wants to be perceived as?

This question reminded me of an article I recently rediscovered, written in 1984 by L. Robert Kohls called “The Values Americans Live By” – sort of a primer for international guests. He wrote:

“If the foreign visitor really understood how deeply ingrained these thirteen values are in Americans, he or she would then be able to understand 95% of American actions — actions which might otherwise appear strange, confusing, or unbelievable when evaluated from the perspective of the foreigner’s own society and its values.”

What are these thirteen ingredients that distinguished us as Americans twenty-five years ago? According to Kohls, with my color commentary, they were:

  1. Personal Control Over The Environment/Responsibility. Our lives are our own to shape, not a function of luck or fate, and of course, “we can do anything if we put our minds to it.”
  2. Change Seen as Natural and Positive. Tradition-shmadition; Change = Progress & Growth (the original P&G?)
  3. Time and Its Control. Make a schedule, keep to it, and that way accomplish more. “Idle hands are the Devil’s tools.”
  4. Equality/Fairness. “We are all created equal.” At least that’s the ideal.
  5. Individualism /Independence. We believe we’re unique, we hate being lumped into groups, and, we likes our privacy.
  6. Self-Help/Initiative. Land of the self-made man or woman. “Mom – I did it all by myself!”
  7. Competition. “It brings out the best in everyone.”
  8. Future Orientation. “The sun’ll come out tomorrow, Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun!”
  9. Action/Work Orientation. “Don’t just stand there – do something!”
  10. Informality. Yup.
  11. Directness/Openness/Honesty. Stand up for yourself, be direct; or, in the vernacular, “In yo’ face, sucka!”
  12. Practicality/Efficiency. Okay, this list is like way too long. I’d bundle 3, 9 & 12, and also pair 5 &6 just for starters. Hey – I’m American!
  13. Materialism/Acquisitiveness. Need a David Hasselhoff flip top cigarette lighter? ‘Nuf said.

So what to make of all this? And more important, will it help me win the logo contest?

Let’s assume that by and large Mr. Kohls had it right in his search for what most Americans held in common as of the early 80’s. It’s easy to trace some of the values he cites back to the country’s founding (1,2,4,5) as well as to more recent events like WWII and post-war Baby Boomers’ coming of age in the 60’s and 70’s (6-10).

And while some values seem to counter each other – Fairness vs. Competition, Efficiency vs. Informality – his descriptions make sense of the seeming contradictions. (A lot like Python’s Dinsdale Piranha: “he was a cruel man, but fair.”)

But what’s changed in the past twenty-five years, and what might be missing?

Writing in1984, Kohls was relatively closer to the post-war booms in construction, technology and materialism that so occupied our lives. The “Great Generation” that pulled itself up the by the bootstraps, rebuilt nations and scorned “wasting time” (#3) is dying out. Certainly their values were passed along, but perhaps in watered down form.

Things aren’t as seemingly simple or black & white as they once were. We live with more shades of grey and fewer solid role models to follow. And it’s become a lot harder to make it by sheer grit.

Are we as likely to think that “time is of the essence,” to worry about not losing or wasting time? Or has our informality overshadowed our obsession with being “on time?” (And has Mr. Kohls ever been in an ad agency?) It seems that some more Puritan ethics around time and work have gradually given way to our love affair with the couch, the Xbox, big screen, the popcorn. Although we also pretend to “save time” by checking email while in the shower.

I’d say our desire to acquire has outweighed our prior respect for delayed gratification. And while we’re probably still more private than other cultures, with kids expecting their own rooms and our back yards fully fenced, could someone please tell the woman three rows back on the train to get off the phone?!

And what of Competition? This may become the most challenged pillar of the American ideal, as the Millennials and “Generation O’s” (for Obama) have been raised to value cooperation and collaboration, and will expect more of it in their occupations.

So back to the challenge: is there a big enough paintbrush for a broad stroke characterization of who/what we are? Is there room in a single positioning for this remarkably diverse, varied and complex society?

Barack Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope:

“Not only did my encounters with voters confirm the fundamental decency of the American people, they also reminded me that at the core of the America experience are a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work.”


Happy Independence Day America/Opportunisia/

Happy Independence Day America/Opportunisia/Massafornia/Youtopia

 If the President thinks there’s a common thread, well, there’s gotta be, right? With no further ado, here’s my short list of new names and slogans for America.

OPPORTUNISIA: “300 Million Immigrants Can’t Be Wrong”

MASSAFORNIA: “Mighty Hopeful”

YOUTOPIA: “Have It Your Way!” (that one might be trademarked)



Your turn. Happy 4th of July!

by Neal Stamell, Element 79

The Right Tool For The Right Job: Old School Outdoor

Not That Henry Would Want Billboards Near Walden, But...   


Not That Henry Wanted Billboards Near Walden...

My older daughter Zoe spent this Spring rowing crew: a beautiful sport that involves a great deal of standing around waiting and driving across states to regattas.  As a result, we recently roadtripped to Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, both of which took us down that long stretch of I-65 connecting Chicago to Indianapolis…

Which may explain why billboard creative is on my mind these days. Most of us learned the old ‘seven word guide’ for billboard advertising, but few of us follow it.  Too often, either the client or the agency wants to force in more branding or support points or that long wordy tagline from the TV.  All well intended, all incredibly unfortunate at 70 mph: billboards are not print.

The best billboard I saw was not a creative masterpiece.  It would not make it into anyone’s book.  It simply featured a huge Wendy’s logo and these four words: “Next Exit Turn Left.”  And guess what?  I got off at the next exit and turned left.

Sometimes it takes great discipline and restraint to use the right tool for the right job.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A Lesson In Lemonade Making, From Sammy Stephens

What Could YOU Do With This? 


What Could YOU Do With This?

Take a look at this place. Take a good long look.  This is Flea Market Montgomery, a roadside strip mall built on the cheap, all 73,000 square feet slavishly adhering to the aesthetic of ‘how little per?’  To put it charitably, this is an unassuming business.

But not to Sammy Stephens.  Not to a guy who started out renting booth space there in 2000 and a few years later, bought it outright.  A former AM disc jockey on local stations, Sammy has a love for music and a promoter’s soul.  And through his singular focus and one dubious rap, Sammy extolled the virtues of his Flea Market on radio and television, announcing to the world how his spacious selling floor “is just like, is just like, a mini-mall.”  Dig it.

His ad’s production values are the video equivalent of something pulled off a middle school mimeograph machine–sloppy and decidedly low-fi.  In fact, many websites declare this “The Worst Ad on TV”  though the folks at the Effies might beg to differ. Because this rap has travelled far beyond the local cable market in Montgomery, Alabama, to achieve legendary status on the web.  Go to YouTube and you’ll find dozens of parodies, mash-ups and Super Cuts, all using Sammy and his Flea Market Montgomery rap.  My favorite takes the Pet Shop Boys’ “Minimal” and mashes in a Sammy vibe, mostly by adding another “L.”  Genius.  More locally, the Smithe Brothers of Walter E. Smithe hitched their wagon to Sammy’s internet sensation in this clever interpretation for their decidedly more upscale furniture stores.

After tens of millions of views, Sammy’s rap earned him a spot on The  Ellen Degeneres Show.  In what deserves to be the greatest textbook case of bootstrap integration, Sammy has cobbled together this notoriety into quite an adhoc media plan, starting with his own webpage.  It doesn’t look like it’s been updated too recently, but it’s hard to imagine Sammy has a big staff tending to his brand and helping him produce those ‘Just Like a Mini-Mall’ CDs.  No, it’s probably just him, bartering a dinette set for some web development, a loveseat for a couple of t-shirt designs.

Yet unlike many big companies currently tripping all over themselves and throwing money around hoping to understand how to approach the one-to-one social media experience, Sammy seems to get that intuitively.  Because he’s a social kind of guy.  Check out this fan-produced video captured during a chance encounter at an Applebee’s.  Though he’s off his home turf, Sammy stays on message, delivering his signature rap and closing with some merchandise.

That’s a personal connection, that’s one-to-one marketing, and whether or not you think his jingle possesses any redeeming value, I’ll freely admit, I’m a fan.  I admire this guy a great deal.  He doesn’t intellectualize his brand, he lives it.  

And makes some sweet, sweet lemonade.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79