don kerr

4 years ago · 3 min. reading time · visibility ~10 ·

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Vulgarize, brutalize or elevate. Lessons from the ad world.

Vulgarize, brutalize or elevate. Lessons from the ad world.

It was 1978 when my travels down the road of marketing communications began.

That road took me to the villages of advertising, public relations, promotion, public affairs, direct mail, special events, sponsorship, newsletters, employee communications, annual reports, blah, blah and blah!

If I learned anything in the past 39 years it is this - most marketing communications programs and most notably the advertising discipline is complete and utter swill. From experience, I hold clients primarily responsible for this sad state of affairs.

I worked on both the agency and client side. Too, too often I witnessed clients (even me at times) seek safe refuge in mediocrity. Too often the client retreated to what they believed to be neutral ground in the hope that they brought offense to no one. This largely arose out of an appallingly poor understanding of their target markets and their assumption that the consumer was ignorant.

For years my mantra about effective communication has revolved around three words.




Let me explain a little bit.

Clarity is simply that - being as clear as possible about your brand/product/service and it’s relevance to your market.

Simplicity does NOT mean dumbing down. It means using terminology and visuals and auditory clues that resonate with your market on the most fundamental level. It’s cliché because it’s true - Keep It Simple Stupid! Nor does simplicity mean short and sweet - necessarily. We used to see some wonderful long-form print advertisements that told a story that connected to the consumers’ emotional and intellectual curiosity. Maybe in the age of the eight-second attention span we’ll never witness that again. That would be sad.

I remember a client once asking me how long an ad should be.

I told her “As long as it needs to be to tell your story.”

Finally, wit - by this I mean something that engages a reader in an unexpected and remarkable manner. It’s not necessarily funny but that sometimes works (although extraordinarily difficult).

Time for an example that anyone who has had any interest in advertising will recognize. To my mind, this is perhaps the best print ad ever.


Here’s the copy:

This Volkswagen missed the boat.

The chrome strip on the glove compartment is blemished and must be replace. Chances are you wouldn’t have noticed it; Inspector Kurt Kroner did.

There are 3,389 men at our Wolfsburg factory with only one job, to inspect Volkswagens at each stage of production. (3000 Volkswagens are produced daily; there are more inspectors than cars.)

Every shock absorber is tested (spot checking won’t do), every windshield is scanned. VWs have been rejected for surface scratches barely visible to the eye.

Final inspection is really something! VW inspectors run each car off the line onto the Funktionsprüfstand (car test stand), tote up 189 check points, gun ahead to the automatic brake stand, and say “no” to one VW out of fifty.

This preoccupation with detail means the VW lasts longer and requires less maintenance, by and large, than other cars. (It also means a used VW depreciates less than any other car.)

We pluck the lemons; you get the plums.

Brilliant! Doyle Dane Bernbach (the agency) was noted for producing similarly compelling campaigns for many clients because they embraced the notions of simplicity, clarity and wit.

Now, fast forward from 1960 to 2017.

Driving my kids to school this morning my radio treated me to one of the most egregiously horrible radio commercials ever. Oh, it was simple. They got that right buy appealing to our society’s grasping, shallow nature where too many of us are compelled to create value in our lives by getting more stuff! At a time when a would-be tyrant attempts to rule the United States, when climate change is creating Harvey and Irma, when cyclones devastate portions of the Indian subcontinent, when hundreds of thousands of innocents attempt to flee their homes, when genocidal campaigns continue to rock the world, when neo-Nazis and white supremacists disrupt civil society, along comes TSC (The Shopping Channel - Canada’s equivalent to America’s QVC) with a commercial featuring some witless person proclaiming how fulfilled she is because she is purchasing shit at a record pace!


She buys shoes today. They’re Sam Edelman shoes don’t you know! Yesterday she bought a Vitamix blender. The day before she picked up some new bedding and tomorrow she’s gonna get some pots and pans for her mother in law. She is breathless with anticipation for what wonders TSC will offer her the day after next.

N.B. I may have some of the details wrong here but you get the gist.

TSC is lionizing the act of vulgar purchasing every single day of the freaking week. This is how you will achieve fulfilment in your life folks. While all around you are literally drowning you can fill your house with more and more useless shit and we’ll fill our coffers with your cash.

Why does this ad piss me off so much?

For starters it’s just dumb and cheap and did I already write ‘vulgar’.

Second it violates what I consider to be some of the best advice ever offered to advertisers and again it comes from DDB’s venerable William Bernbach - the father of the creative revolution in the ad world. He wrote:

“All of us who professionally use the mass media are shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help life it to a higher level.”
William Bernbach

So, well done TSC. You managed in one god-awful 30-second spot to both vulgarize and brutalize.

Sadly, I could have shown many more examples of this low-grade swill but since I have to get through the rest of this Friday with some semblance of sanity remaining I will resist.

I am very curious to hear what some of the veteran ad men in this community Robert Cormack, Jim Murray, Jim Murray, Patrick Scullin think. 

Maybe I'm just in a bad mood.

Rant done.

Kerr out.

Photo Credit: Richard Bagan

© Copyright 2017, Don Kerr, Don Kerr Writes - All rights reserved.

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Robert Cormack

4 years ago #8

And, of course, Paul Walters, the wonderful David Abbott line: "Is Your Husband In Another Man's Arms?"#8

Paul Walters

4 years ago #7

Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr " Working in Australia I had to fight tooth and nail to get a campaign line for the State of Queensland Tourism ( known as the sunshine state) " Queensland, Beautiful One Day, Perfect The Next" That strap line is still being used 20 years after it first launched. ) And who can forget , " where's The Beef" , "Got Milk" r the plethora of Bud Light commercials ( herding cats is my all time favourite) At Ogilvy's the tryranical founder, David Ogilvy used to make us do 'controversial ads' as these he maintained were the ones that were always remembered.

Paul Walters

4 years ago #6

Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr . Ah wasn't it great???? I finally threw in the towel after a few years of having to answer to 25 - 32 year old marketing managers complete with pristine MBA's from some college or other who were never taught about RISK !!! mediocrity in their worlds ruled as perhaps safety was the only route they understood. I was fortunate to have a number of brave clients who trusted our creative judgement. Who would have thought we could have got an outdoor campaign for Becks beer with the line, " You dont have to be Posh to swallow a Becks" ( very British ) or " Guinlless is'nt good for you." or " Say Knickers to panties " ( for playtex pantyhose.

Pascal Derrien

4 years ago #5

True I have noticed too the mediocrity patterns in advertising and some examples of which are very badly localised on top of that but I suppose that gives the most creative minds a competitive advantage..... :-) or a head start at least

don kerr

4 years ago #4

Gert Scholtz As always, lovely to hear from SA. Thanks friend.

don kerr

4 years ago #3

Paul \ My apologies to Porky and his porcine pals.

Gert Scholtz

4 years ago #2

Don \ud83d\udc1d Kerr Great read Don. Clarity, Simplicity and Wit - you have summarized it with clarity, simplicity and wit!

don kerr

4 years ago #1

Robert Cormack You are tagged in this post.

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