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In a Cluttered Mediaverse, Some Ads Stand Out

"You can't imagine the pressure," declares Geico's little green gecko. He's complaining about the pressure to grab people's attention in just a few seconds — while simultaneously selling them car insurance.

These days, just getting noticed is a challenge for most advertisers. Depending on which study you consult, the average American is exposed to anywhere between 300 and 3,000 ads every day — online, on television, on the radio, in print, on the sides of buses.

Successful ad campaigns are often part sales pitch, part psychology: Use our product, they say, and you'll be cool, or clean, or sexy, or masculine. It's a time-honored concept that took off in the 1950s with the Marlboro Man campaign.

Selling a Lifestyle, Not a Product

Marlboro was originally considered a women's cigarette, and sales were pretty dismal. So manufacturer Philip Morris made a few changes and came out with a cigarette targeted at the lucrative male market. Ad agency Leo Burnett came up with a simple concept: A manly man performing manly activities. The most popular exemplar of that theme was the cowboy, often on horseback, with a fiery sunset blazing behind him. In a Philip Morris company video from 1972, brand manager Jack Landry explained the Marlboro Man's appeal to a generation of post-WWII men.

"In a world that was becoming increasingly complex and frustrating for an ordinary man, the cowboy represented an antithesis," Landry said. He was "a man whose environment was simplistic and relatively pressure-free ... his own man in a world he owned."

Most commercials of that era were still focused on selling a product rather than a lifestyle, and the Marlboro Man campaign made advertising history. Even after 50 years, Marlboro is still the most popular cigarette, with more than 40 percent of the market.

"Nothing to celebrate," is how Cheryl Healton feels about the Marlboro Man's success. Healton heads the anti-smoking American Legacy Foundation. Four years ago, the foundation came out with its own campaign, with help from the ad agencies Crispin Porter & Bogusky and Arnold Worldwide. Some of the ads in that campaign are a direct response to the Marlboro Man: One spot features a cowboy with a tracheostomy singing with the assistance of an artificial larynx on a New York City street. Onlookers wince at the sight.

Another series of anti-smoking spots was carefully crafted to tap into the teenage psyche. Marching somberly down a city street, a group of 1,200 teenagers stops in front of a big corporate office building — a tobacco-company headquarters, according to a caption. All at once, they fall to the ground unconscious. A lone teenager stands and brandishes a sign in the direction of the office windows: "1,200 die each day from cigarettes. Ever think of taking a day off?"

The "Truth" campaign, as it's called, has been effective. The American Legacy Foundation points to an independent study, published in the Journal of Public Health, which found that the campaign reduced the number of young smokers by 300,000 in its first two years.

Healton and her colleagues interviewed hundreds of teens before conceiving the campaign. What they found was that ads that simply told teens "Don't smoke" were having the opposite effect. The strategy behind "Truth" was to go head to head with the tobacco industry instead.

Healton says they realized they had to "put out a campaign that captures [teenagers'] imagination and makes them want to reject tobacco on the grounds that they're being sucked in" by big, manipulative cigarette makers. Just as Philip Morris tapped into men's cowboy fantasies, the anti-smoking campaign tapped into teenagers' desire to rebel.

Going Against the Grain — and Without Focus Groups

Demographic and psychographic research is essential for ad-agency copywriters, no matter what they're trying to sell. Luke Sullivan, author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide To Creating Great Ads, says the product usually dictates the tone of the ad: earnest for skin cream, joyful for chewing gum, reassuring for Viagra. But Sullivan applauds ad agencies that "wisely buck against" predictable approaches.

"Every once in a while, a client will come along and say, 'I don't want to be like everybody else,' and that too is a wise decision," Sullivan says.

The Geico cavemen are a good example. Steve Bassett is a creative director with The Martin Agency, which produces Geico's ads. He calls commercials for most car-insurance companies "kind of dark and scary." So copywriters at The Martin Agency decided to use humor. The ads were first used to sell consumers on the idea of using Geico's new Web site.

"Geico wanted people to know that Geico.com was easy to use," Bassett explains. "Our copywriters started thinking, 'If it's so easy to use, somebody really dumb can use it. So who's dumb who we can use and not get in trouble?' Well, historically, cavemen are dumb."

Then, Bassett says, the writers "took it to another level," and a quirky campaign was born, built around the amusing, post-modern idea that Geico did get in trouble for making fun of cavemen--because a few cavemen who were still around were offended. Three years later, Geico's cavemen are so popular that they'll soon star in their own half-hour ABC sitcom.

The Martin Agency's work for Geico illustrates another trend in advertising: Its ads weren't vetted by focus groups. That's when groups of people essentially sit in a room together, watch commercials, and give their opinions.

"If you had anything that was the slightest bit offbeat or edgy, it would get killed in the focus groups," says journalist Warren Berger, author of Hoopla and Advertising Today. "Now the more creative agencies are saying, 'We're not going to do that, because we know it'll water down our commercials.'"

Berger says that's a risky approach for an agency to take, but the result is often a creative commercial that generates buzz.

Chuck Porter of Crispin Porter & Bogusky agrees.

"We tend to believe that people lie in focus groups because they're trying to impress the rest of the people sitting around the table eating the M&Ms," Porter says. He argues that the best research happens on the front end, before the ads are conceived. At CP&B, Porter and his colleagues spend a lot of time going into people's homes and talking to them one-on-one.

"We believe that good brand-momentum work is always a conversation rather than an announcement," he says. "If you're going to have a conversation, you have to listen. So we spend a lot of time, for all of our clients, listening to what their audience says."

Crispin Porter & Bogusky created the ultimate conversation with the Subservient Chicken, a Web site they created for Burger King a few years ago. Visitors type a command, and a guy in a chicken costume does pretty much what he's ordered to do. It's a subtle promotion for the have-it-your-way chicken sandwich. It's also weird and interactive — big pluses with today's youth market. It quickly became an online phenomenon that reached millions of people.

But does it sell chicken sandwiches? Russ Klein, president of global marketing for Burger King, says it certainly helps. More important, the buzz about the Subservient Chicken helps Burger King further ingrain itself in pop culture. "Social currency and social relevance," Klein says, "is a key component of how we position our brand, in addition to the food that we sell."

Because today's consumer is extremely marketing-savvy, ads are effectively using a sly self-awareness that lets the consumer in on the pitch. Even the gecko knows it was alliteration alone that got him the job shilling for Geico.

"That's the only reason I'm here," the little green guy says. "The fact is, if 'Geico' sounded like some other animal — say, a puma — sure enough there'd be some adorable little cat sitting here."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.