Monthly Archives: December 2009

Advertising as a force for good

I remember one of my early classes where we were told to define great advertising. I remember including the word ‘integrity’ in my definition. I was told that advertising has to sell, but didn’t have to ‘be’ anything other than that. It is usually honest, but that’s only because the consumer is smart enough to know when s/he is being lied to.

Where do you stand? It seems easy to say ‘keep morality out of this’ but you can’t define what ‘great’ is without making a normative call. Take the ‘so long as it sells’ argument: If you invented a way to hypnotize people into doing whatever you wanted, but it was completely uncreative and meant the target would suffer serious physical/emotional consequences, would you use it?

Maybe that’s why we need all these laws and regulations, because if we didn’t the ad industry would just threaten people into buying their products.

I still don’t believe this one bit. Advertising can and should be so much more. The end goal of the ad person should never be simply to move product, but also to re-imagine how the product can actually fulfill a vital need for the consumer. It’s hard to say who inspired who between client and agency when we talk of Nike, Coke, Apple or any of the other iconic brands today, since much great creative is presented as the clients’ idea, but there isn’t much doubt as to how they’ve impacted society. Sure, there will always be problems with sweat shops, etc. (which they’re actually working to fix), but they’ve also done much good in developing nations, improving domestic poverty, and inspiring people to strive for their goals. They also happen to be among the wealthiest companies in the world, which shows the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

But the moral obligation of the ad person goes beyond heckling people into buying, it extends to leaving things better than you’ve found it.

Take the consumers’ time, and give them something more valuable. A laugh, a sentiment, a cure. We can’t always deliver on that, but we must always try. Because the quickest way to wealth rarely involves seeking it out directly. And because every failure to deliver more than we take makes it that much harder for the rest of us to gain the consumers’ confidence in the next message.

Bootleg Swag can be Good Branding

There are some really bad examples of your product out there that could destroy your brand.

Usually they’re in foreign countries, and usually they are trying to avoid getting sued for making stuff that looks exactly like yours. They tend to come off as the equivalent of movie-only brands. You know, those props that get made with names like Tilde or Bludveiser to avoid having to pay royalties? Well, if you don’t, look at some examples of real-life knock-off swag to see what I mean:

The problem with this stuff is that it can become a subversive means of discouraging sales of your swag.

Disney’s Imitators Ruined My Innocence

My parents used to make me wear ‘Michael Mouse’ sweatpants from Hong Kong growing up. I’ve never bought ANY Disney, legitimate or otherwise, as a result of the ridicule I received. Disney didn’t just lose sales since my parents obviously couldn’t tell the difference between real or fake, they lost an opportunity to advertise to real potential customers.

Those were lame-looking pants because they weren’t at all the real deal. If they had been, the kids in my class might of gotten their parents to buy Disney swag. Instead, they probably threatened to run away from home if they were ever caught wearing anything remotely like what the fat kid they chased around in class was wearing.

While I’m Not Crying

I believe bootlegs of a certain standard should be kept around. So long as the contraband isn’t obviously fake or too much like the real deal they should be allowed to perpetuate in developing countries. Most people living in those countries aren’t likely to purchase the real stuff anyway. Those who can pride themselves on buying the real stuff and being able to tell the difference. Some can afford it but will insist on buying fakes. Forget them, the day you take away all knockoffs is the day they switch to no-name brands. Why not allow the market to flood itself with shoddy-looking knockoffs with your logo on them and get some free advertising? It’ll push their prices down and make yours look more prestigious by comparison.

I realize it’s unauthorized and I understand that some ‘luxury’ products derive value from being rare or from pure functionality. If you don’t have much brand image and your product is function-specific, then you’ve got a branding job ahead of you, invest the crack-down money on that instead. If you’re a rare luxury product, I’d say the real stuff will look even better by comparison, and there’ll be no shortage of people who’d still buy it.

Look, nearly all viral marketing is unauthorized, all you have to do is capitalize on the opportunity.

Bottom line? Stop fighting free advertising.

If you really only want the ‘right’ people buying your product, then you can consider this:

An Example of the Internet Helping

Say you sell a product that isn’t based on some specific function. Say it’s beyond the price range of everybody who seems to be wearing them, because they’re actually identical knockoffs. The good news is it’s free advertising for anybody who can afford them by everybody who can’t. The bad news is if it gets into your target markets. Here’s what you might do:

Incorporate something like a scan-able sticker into the product design. Maybe redesign tags so they shouldn’t be removed. Then do nothing. At least, not until those you don’t really want representing your brand with copies have already purchased your product. Then, rather than try to force producers of fakes into creating fake logos, run a campaign educating people on how to spot fakes, emphasize how much of the core benefit of your product is lost (better fit, molds to body, whatever). Throw in an online component allowing people to post and ridicule egregious examples of fraudulent merchandise. Your pseudo-competitors can’t advertise, but since you aren’t suing them for using your name, they’ll likely keep producing cheap versions of your stuff. The difference is that people will be less likely to buy them once they realize they’re being tracked by those who buy the real goods.

Of course, this could potentially backfire, creating two camps of people who love your product, and people trying to make a statement by buying fakes. But that’s fine, at the end of the day the net gain in interaction with your brand and sales will almost certainly be greater than if you covertly tried to crush your competitors.

And that’s how you might make bootleg swag into good branding.

Teacher Strikes–How unions can keep the students’ families on their side

A Fruit of Knowledge

I had a post prepared today for how advertising is a meaningful method of communications that has potential to work towards what’s good, but that’ll have to wait. What I’m going to write about instead is a little irrelevant but a useful communications problem nonetheless and one that is very pertinent not just to ad students but students of all sorts and may come in handy in future employee-employer problems.

According to the student paper, Humber’s teacher union and administration may be in a logjam that could lead to a strike. A strike that could potentially derail whatever plans the innocent tuition-payers caught in the middle may have for their futures.

Having encountered two strikes during my education thus far–once during elementary school with the Ontario Teachers’ Union and again with the TAs at McGill–I’ve found that unions almost always lose the consumers’ sympathy. Whatever legitimate concerns or rights they stake claim to is lost to the majority of paying students/parents. The feeling has always been that the teachers are wasting the consumers’ hard-earned dollars by halting the education process. The question is always ‘Even if you have real problems with your bosses, why do we have to suffer?’

My sympathies are always mixed. The administrations’ line is usually this: by giving the unions what they want, the children of parents who pay for quality of education will be compromised. Followed by: unions just want more money, they obviously don’t care about your child’s education if they’re willing to hold them hostage to get what they want.

It’s hard to argue with a line like that when you’re getting ready to stand in picket lines. Most teachers/TAs I have always explain to classes that they’d really rather not be doing this, and some say they’re obliged by the unions to stop teaching, even if they actually want what the unions want. So everybody blames the unions. Some even secretly tutor students for free out of a sense of guilt.

The administration holds two key resources, without which they lose their purpose:

1. the ability to control what happens to the money

2. the ability to distribute certification (diplomas, degrees, certificates, etc.)

What teachers have is far more valuable–the education itself, without which #2 is useless.

I propose the least imperfect solution possible for the unions, who come under siege from all sides even when their demands are legitimate and fair, and basically it comes down to this: Let your members teach, but don’t let them work for management.

  • Announce that you will be striking instead of teaching next semester, but that your members will complete the current one
  • If possible, encourage students/families to withdraw or refuse to pay tuition for that semester
  • Instead ask them to contribute that tuition towards a transparent union fund on a bi-weekly basis (so as to impress upon families that this will only be temporary), where the money will go towards renting facilities and paying reduced salaries to striking teachers, as well as covering overhead and administrative costs
  • teachers can use the rented spaces to teach courses to the best of their ability, students will be asked to bring for themselves whatever materials they need to learn (lap tops, notebooks, pencils, etc.)
  • teachers with free time can help with administration or join picket lines (although picketing a locked institutional monument really only serves to frustrate members of the general public and janitorial staff since administrators are likely to meet elsewhere, invite journalists to cover your makeshift classrooms for a far more flattering story)

It’s imperfect, I know, because courses will be exceedingly difficult to schedule, extra-curricular activity will be impossible, and resources/space will be extremely limited. But the trade-off is that union members will have higher morale, teachers will be able to continue doing what they profess to love doing, and the real people paying the salaries will see that the staff are making sacrifices because they really do have students’ best interests at heart.

Once you’re off-campus, you will also regain some control on the information front. Parents/students won’t just be getting news from second-hand sources (i.e. the 6 o’clock news). What is more, they won’t be able to claim that they despise unions for taking away what they’re really paying for–quality education for their children.

Some will still be angry because their kids have to wait longer for diplomas, which qualifies them for jobs in the working world. Tell them that what you’re doing is ensuring that that piece of paper retains its value. You’re sorry that their child will have to wait for that grainy page with the principal’s signature on it, but that you’re trying to make up for it by continuing to teach them outside the classroom. Tell them also that the alternative–teachers who are unmotivated and demoralized, who are struggling outside of their jobs due to being overworked/underpaid/unhealthy, are less-equipped to prepare their offspring with the skills they need to demonstrate competence and success in the professional world. And that soon things will lead to a point where the diploma is worthless in employers’ eyes anyway.


I can think of no other industry where labor is so directly responsible for the product. Nor can I think of another profession that is so vital to the functioning of a productive society. Policemen keep law and order, but who would train them if there were no teachers? How could the rest of us obey laws if we cannot learn lawful methods to maintain a living? Teachers have an immense responsibility to their pupils, one which they’d be wise not to neglect while pursuing their own well-being.

While you have a responsibility to teach, you also have the power to choose where you’re going to do it. And yours is the primary reason anybody pays into the school system in the first place. Restrict access to both, and no administrator can hold out for long. By teaching while you’re not working, you remind students/parents of the great value of your service, demonstrate your passion, commitment and commonality with the students, and devalue the smears, arguments and inflated costs of administration. That way, your power and passion will be the most important lesson a strike can impart.

I’m happy, as always, to answer questions, post comments and respond to criticism.