When Advertising Works

The Atlantic has been covering Kodak’s sad but unsurprising demise. In this piece, they look at how the culture Kodak created will live on far longer than the company.

Kodak was not just a photography company. Rather, it promoted notions about what should (and should not) be recorded that were sometimes in sync with the times and sometimes helped to push certain ideas into the culture. West notes that before Kodak, photographs of death and other somber themes were far more common than in the snapshot era that followed. Kodak pitched its cameras, through a series of different ad campaigns, as vehicles for capturing good times, good memories, good stories. Not war, but the letter a soldier would read to comfort himself while in the trenches.

As I read the article, it smacked me in the face: this is one of the first examples of advertising that actually worked.

At the time, photography was not a new concept. Oversized cameras with plates had been in use for decades, and a family might own a few photographs. However, what Kodak was promoting was the lifestyle, the idea that the memory was better when captured on film.

Kodak used advertising to show consumers what should be captured and how photography fit into a person’s lifestyle. It was simple advertising because the product was great. It actually worked the way they said. The ads were more about the content – you got a short, concise article that inspired you to want a camera. It wasn’t about Kodak or the product itself (film), it was about the lifestyle of owning a camera and capturing memories.

Advertising in this context is good. It’s entertainment and good content. It’s not something annoying that’s getting in your way. Kodak’s advertisements struck the same chord that productivity porn does for many people – showing people who don’t know about something how it will make their life better.

But then makers of bad and half-baked products came along and ruined it for the rest of us. They used advertising as a crutch, thinking that fluff could convince people to buy their “brands.” The advertising became more about the advertiser than their customers.

Advertisers must ask themselves, “what is the goal of this ad?” Take this Verizon Droid Razr commercial:

Entertaining, right? It’s like an action movie, maybe The Dark Night or another superhero movie. But the result of ad is that it simply informs viewers that the Droid Razr exists. Nothing else – not why you should buy it or how it’ll make your life better. Simply informing your users that a product exists is lazy marketing. These are the ads that you look back on and ask “what were they advertising?”

The second pillar of lazy marketing is the context that the advertising is appearing in. Scalability in advertising is important, but it’s also a cheap way for companies to do something once and just shove it in your face. IAB Standards ruined web advertising by making it too easy not to care about where and how your ad is appearing.

Horace Dediu of Asymco.com does great work most weeks with his spin on our sponsors of The Syndicate. One of my favorites is his take on Textastic. He takes a sponsor, thinks about how it applies to what he writes about (analyzing computing markets), and spins what they do to fit into that. Having insight into the numbers, I can tell you it works.

Advertising and a great product go hand in hand. If you make something great, advertising should support the story of why it’s great. It should tell people how it fits in to their lifestyle (based on the context it’s presented in) and shows them how it works. Humans are built to respond to authenticity and honesty.

January 9, 2012