Why I hate asterisks*

I was on the subway yesterday looking at the sale ads and getting ready to score an amazing deal…on something.

But my hopes were dashed when I noticed that fateful symbol perched on BIG OFFER’s shoulder. And though it’s barely visible, it packs a wallop that slaps you back to your senses.

I’m talking about the asterisk.

I don’t like asterisks because they represent exceptions. Exceptions, usually, to a screaming overpromise.

What I resent most are the enticements that purport to ‘build me up buttercup, just to let me down’. Having an asterisk is like keeping people spellbound by a sprawling story, only to admit in the end that, well, maybe much of what you said, just didn’t happen.

Granted, the promises seem too good to be true. And they’re easy to spot. In fact, the front section of today’s Toronto Star featured 24 ads; 17 of which had a disclaimer of sorts, 11 with the ubiquitous asterisk. That’s nearly 50 per cent.

Now, although I’m singling them out, asterisks aren’t the sole culprits. And to be fair, there’s a group of other hench-symbols (they know who they are) often found lurking with expressions like ‘up to 80 per cent’, ‘for a limited time’, ‘select merchandise only’, ‘dealers may vary’, ‘quantities limited’, ‘some items not exactly as shown’, etc. And while they may be just as bad, asterisks are the ones you notice most often at the scene of the crime.

Perhaps as a new, more balanced economy emerges from the tatters of our old reckless one, we can ask for a straight exchange on the asterisk and the worst parts of the sales pitch. And if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll receive a credit toward credibility – all at no extra cost!

*Not to be confused by the French comic Asterix, of which I have yet to form a definitive opinion.

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A ‘Bold’ failure to communicate

I’ve been having a few email issues lately. Mostly related to my Blackberry.

Sometimes, when I forward an email, random words (and even whole sentences) get cut up, deleted and garbled (or as one email said, rbld). It’s as if I’m writing in a bizarre IM-ish shorthand code.

So after checking with my office tech support, I finally called Rogers, knowing I’d have to commit a fair amount of time on the phone. But I was determined to weather the situation, accept my fate and not get riled up. And sure enough over the next couple of days, I had four calls and spent three hours attempting to upload, download, reload and resolve things.

And, I have to say the people at the other end were pleasant, funny and helpful. They concluded the issue was with my BB itself and not their network and they said I qualified for an upgrade – e.g. a new device at a discount. (A backhanded sales ploy or what?)

But a chatty rep from Sudbury rejigged my plan to save me money and offered me such a good deal that I couldn’t pass up the idea of getting a new BB Bold. She gave me the option of having it couriered to me (3 to 5 days) or, if I didn’t want to wait, I could pick it up directly from a Rogers store.

Being in Toronto and excited about a new toy, I opted for the latter. I went to a store near my office and discovered they hadn’t received their stock yet. No worries. Another Rogers outlet was a few blocks away. They, too, didn’t get their shipment and weren’t sure when they were going to arrive. Try back later, was all they could muster by way of help.

I was starting to lose my state of zen, but I didn’t give up…

An hour later, and completely un-Boldened, I returned to my office, frustrated and hot under the collar yet again.

I wondered if the bare shelves was a Rogers ploy to increase demand (a la iPhone). But there were no line-ups at the stores. Then I thought it’s more likely a logistical screw-up (so what else is new).

Either way, Rogers missed yet another opportunity to truly connect with their customers (rather than holding us hostage). And all they had to do was provide a simple update; communicate with their retail front-line.

I’m still waiting for my Bold but I’ll let you know what it’s like when I get it.

The next best thing

I remember an ad campaign from many years ago that used to proclaim long distance as ‘the next best thing to being there’ – pre-fibre optics.

I think the same epithet could be used to describe blogging and social media (except without the exhorbitant rates and busy signals).

For instance, you don’t have to call someone, wait for them to get back, wonder if enough time has elapsed so you can try again. You just start writing/talking and see who jumps in.

You can discover interesting tidbits of gossip and news (especially who’s feuding with whom).

You can add your two-cents and, by rewriting, make sure you’re saying exactly what you want to.

And your ear doesn’t get too hot (unless someone slags you in an unfavourable post).

I actually do think one of blogging’s greatest benefits is being able to tune in and keep track of what friends and colleagues are thinking about whenever and where ever you are and take part in an entropic, provocative and entertaining long-distance dialogue.

I also like the element of surprise: and you never know who might find you… or when.

Advertising or PR?

I needed a good cup of coffee after reading a story by Globe and Mail reporter Jennifer Wells about a new Maxwell House advertising campaign entitled ‘Brew Some Good’.

It turns out the ad agency decided to go minimalist with its TV spot, spending $19,000 on production and then trumpeting (in the ad) that the average TV commercial costs $245,000.

So with all that money saved, what do they do?

  • Stage a free celebrity concert near a busy Toronto subway station (great photo opp) with a substantial donation to a well-known charity
  • Offer 10,000 consumers who visit that station a free subway ride hoping they’ll pay it forward by doing another good deed later that day
  • Announce an online contest seeking nominations for a worthy charity to receive $10,000

It all sounds good to the last drop. But there was a vague familiarity to the elements: third-party celebrity endorser, corporate social responsibility, media relations, word of mouth, low-budget production values.

Forgive me for raining on the parade, but this sounds like a PR program. And sure enough, an award-winning Toronto PR agency was listed on the advisory and news release.

But there’s no mention of their contribution in Canada’s national newspaper.

This led me to wonder: With the demise of conventional TV spots, is big advertising trying to claim the PR space? And what will that model do to the relationships we work so hard to build? To the credibility of open, two-way communications?

I think this is an opportunity for PR professionals to demonstrate our worth and shout the gospel of Al and Laura Ries from the rooftops to the boardrooms.

I just hope we don’t stay in the background; subservient to the almighty ad.

Truly understanding your market

I didn’t realize Winnipeg had earned the dubious distinction of being the ‘car-theft capital of Canada’. (I did know that during especially cold spells, people left their cars running and other people ‘borrowed’ them to avoid freezing.)

But I guess if you were living there, the car-theft moniker is something you would have been all too familiar with. And, if I was planning any sort of car marketing program in Winnipeg, that little detail would have been easy to suss out.

However, in yesterday’s Globe and Mail (subscription required), there was a story about how Ford of Canada had to apologize to Winnipeg for an SUV print ad they ran with the slogan, ‘Drive it like you stole it’. The company has since pulled the campaign.

I suppose the marketing agency thought the concept was creative and edgy. What they didn’t realize was that in addition to calling out the City’s epithet, the ad ran on the same day as a front-page Winnipeg Free Press story about a youth who was being sentenced for killing a cyclist, while driving a stolen car.

So who’s to blame? Ford? The advertising agency? I’d say they’re both responsible.

This type of situation should be fairly easy to avoid if an organization takes the time to get to know its market, build relationships on a grassroots level and not simply apply a one-size-fits-all approach.

Sounds like PR doesn’t it?

We develop an understanding of a community by thoroughly researching and identifying local issues, idiosyncrasies and trends, and conducting in-depth environmental scans that help spot potential hot buttons.

Perhaps companies should look to their PR counsel to provide this type of strategic intelligence at the outset of a marketing program, so they can avoid backing up into a brick wall.