Robert Cormack

1 year ago · 4 min. reading time · ~10 ·

Robert blog
Why Isn't Your Advertising Working?

Why Isn't Your Advertising Working?

You're boring.


I doubt if one campaign in a hundred has a good idea.” David Ogilvy

Way back in the dark ages of television, an engineer working for the Zenith Radio Corporation in Chicago created the mute button. Actually, his boss requested it. He was called “The Commander.” He hated commercials. He figured the constant interruption would kill television. Rather than see that happen (since Zenith made televisions), “The Commander” decided that every remote should have a mute button.

It became our own civilized way of telling advertisers to fuck off.

There was even a senate hearing, debating whether the mute button should be eliminated. Weren’t muters infringing on the rights of advertisers? The senate concluded that it was a two-way street. Advertisers were just as guilty of infringing on the rights of muters. It was an intellectual tug-o’-war with no end. The mute button stayed.

Mute is the most popular button next to the volume control, probably because they can’t find the mute button.

Uber introduced a mute button to stop drivers from talking to their customers. Twitter created a mute button to stop, well, loud tweets. Seniors still constantly ask manufacturers where the mute button is on their television remotes. Mute is the most popular button next to the volume control, probably because they can’t find the mute button.

So what does this have to do with your advertising? You could say we’re not so much a “cancel society” as a “mute society.” We exercise our right to stop what we don’t want to hear. If you’re responsible for producing something we don’t want to hear, we hit the mute button.

This brings us back to what bothered “The Commander” in the first place. Why did he hate commercials so much? Why do we hate commercials so much? And why are you so muteable?

According to some media experts, advertisers are failing to engage, which is a nice way of saying you’re boring people to death. Marketing departments don’t like to hear that. They spend a lot of money on research. Except research is boring, too. They’re the first people you want to tell to fuck off. Hell, even David Ogilvy — who strongly believed in research most of his career — admitted marketers relied on research the way “a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than illumination.”

On one hand, yes, you want to engage people. On the other, frankly, we’d still rather watch a drunkard leaning on a lamp post.

Now, obviously Ogilvy used it as an analogy. But he brings up an interesting point. On one hand, yes, you want to engage people. On the other, frankly, we’d still rather watch a drunkard leaning on a lamp post.

What makes us more interested in drunkards? Research can’t tell us that because drunks are, for the most part, unpredictable. Sure, we know they’ll fall down eventually. It’s still a toss-up when it will happen.

In advertising terms, it’s the when that’s key. How do you plan unpredictability? The answer is, you don’t. You let it happen.

Let me give you an example. Say you’re a mattress company. You’re not one of the big players. You can’t match, say, Beautyrest’s budget, so what do you do? You create something totally unexpected.

I know that makes you cringe. But stay with me for a minute.

You even include the amorous couple who figure this is as good a place as any to show their amorosity.

Imagine if you took one of your mattresses to a multi-level parking lot. You make up a bed and leave a note inviting people to try it out. All the while you’re secretly filming people’s reactions. You keep in the good and the bad. You even include the amorous couple who figure this is as good a place as any to show their amorosity.

Why is this unmutable? Because, first, nobody’s done it before. Secondly, it’s unscripted. That makes it unpredictable. We can’t look away because it’s like the drunk. We


something’s going to happen.

We just don’t know what or when.

Here’s the best part. You’ve got literally hours of footage. You can make a series of commercials. Then you run them in rotation. Each night is different, so each night people see something unexpected. Do it enough times and people start telling other people about you. It’s called “word of mouth


You become a talking point instead of a “fuck off” point. Sales grow because even if people say, “Who puts a perfectly good mattress in a multi-level parking lot?” they still appreciate your creativity. They’re just worried you might use the freeway next.

Yet I can’t tell you how many clients told me over the years, “I don’t want to be revolutionary, I just want to sell my product.”

Remember when Apple did the campaign “Think Different?” Everyone thought it was revolutionary. I certainly thought it was. Yet I can’t tell you how many clients over the years said, “I don’t want to be revolutionary, I just want to sell my product.”

So on these advertisers went, using words like “quality and expertise” over and over until we couldn’t hit the mute button fast enough. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs was taking Apple to new heights, believing one thing that advertisers ignore and reject every day. Revolutionary isn’t mutable.

Jobs once said, “I want to put a ding in the universe.” That’s what he was doing with those “Think Different” commercials. Einstein, Muhammad Ali and Picasso all made big dings in the universe. We’re a world of dings. It’s called the evolutionary process.

Why am I telling you this? Because the reason people mute your commercials is simple. You aren’t moving forward. Your advertising reeks of sameness. We don’t want to reek of sameness. We want to make a “ding” even if we’re sitting there in front of the television, muting the hell out of your commercials


If you really want to be unmuteable, you have to take risks. Not necessarily big ones. But risks just the same. Those “Think Different” commercials were an enormous risk. Nobody at Apple wanted Jobs to air them. The company was floundering. They were even talking about collapsing the assets and giving the money back to the shareholders.

They loved or hated “Think Different.” If it caused confusion, good. Extreme opinions — good or bad — always create response.

Jobs did the commercials, anyway. “Think Different” became one of the most successful campaigns in history. Did he expect that at the time? I doubt it very much. What he did know — what he sensed — was that nobody had an idle opinion about it. They loved or hated “Think Different.”

If it caused confusion, good. Extreme opinions — good or bad — always create response.

As I said earlier, not everything has to be revolutionary, but it does have to move in that direction. Otherwise you’re muteable.That’s actually worse than being hated. It’s what’s known as being innocuous.

What’s worse than innocuous? Being told to fuck off.

Robert Cormack is a novelist, satirist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive) is available through Skyhorse Press. You can read Robert’s other articles and stories at



Robert Cormack

1 year ago #14

Thanks #Jerry Fletcher. I promise not to stop (I'd hate to see that glass of bourbon go to waste).

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #13

Thanks, #Junie Rutkevich. #11

Jerry Fletcher

1 year ago #12

Once again, Cormack the magnificent. I look forward to your observations with bated breath and a glass of bourbon. Don't stop!

Junie Rutkevich

1 year ago #11

Great read! It pays off to be unique.

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #10

Seems fair. A penny was all I was usually paid.#9

Ken Boddie

1 year ago #9

Fair point, Rob ... There’s one point that I quite clearly missed, In my ad breaks activities list, They permit me a penny to spend, To shake hands with an old and dear friend. 😂🤣😂

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #8

Without commercials,Ken, my bladder would mutiny.

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #7

I wish I could agree, Jim. I still watch the news occasionally (Wendy likes the weather). Like you, retirement in the slow-and-easy climbs of Port Dover has meant much more time on Netflix. Unfortunately, with series like Homeland, I'm forced to mute the romantic scenes (worst I've ever seen) and give Wendy my version of what they're saying. She thinks I'm completely barking mad, but she hates the way I give squirrels voices, too. What's wrong with women? Why can't a woman be more like a man? According to the squirrels, they're just bitches without tails (I got smacked for that one—Dammit, woman, the squirrel said it, not me!)

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #6

So do I, Ricci

Robert Cormack

1 year ago #5

Truly does, Paul, truly does. #1

Ken Boddie

1 year ago #4

Why don’t we think of the 99% of non memorable TV ads as a huge opportunity, Rob: 1. to switch on the kettle/jug for a cuppa; 2. to check our emails; 3. to make sure we’ve fed the goldfish, budgie, etc; and, of course 4. to check if the mute button works. Being innocuous isn’t necessarily a bad thing. These ads are providing a public service by ensuring we get off our backsides regularly when watching TV and get some exercise. 🤗

Jim Murray

1 year ago #3

I think that advertising agencies are now filled with creative and account people who don't understand advertising or people, because their idea of an ad is different from anyone who was in advertising before the Internet took over. They think in terms of messages and content and not ideas. They think from small slightly larger. I'm pretty sure they don't know how to think like we thought. In all deference they are products of their environment,. The environment all of us worked in for our careers was vibrant and driven by ideas. They didn't always make it through but they are always being shown. I don't think that;s the case anymore. I think a TV commercial is just a 30 second billboard and not a very good one at that. I like the mute metaphor, because I can relate to it. But like Paul I don;'t really watch TV anymore. I watch Netflix and Prime and Acorn. No need for the mute button there.

Ricci Burgett

1 year ago #2

Agree with some theses

Paul Walters

1 year ago #1

“I doubt if one campaign in a hundred has a good idea.” David Ogilvy. Oh David, we did love you so!! Having studied at his knee for a few years I could always relate to that phrase. I ceased watching commercial TV when I moved to Bali which was a mute button in itself.!! Bad advertising sucks !!

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