21st

Brand-building for dummies


Scott Rosenberg
October 16, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

We expect technology advertising to be hype-ridden. Every new piece of two-bit software is starting a revolution; each new box will change your life. The marketing din is monotonous enough today to be easily ignored. Even once-cute stand-out-from-the-crowd techniques -- like Gateway 2000's elaborate costume-drama spreads -- quickly grow stale from overexposure.

But now we're being inundated with a new kind of tech-industry advertising, aimed not at selling you products but at making you feel good about gigantic, faceless telecommunications corporations and look-alike computer manufacturers. These ads are full-page or two-page newspaper spreads, usually ensconced in the business sections of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. They began as a once-in-a-blue-moon tactic employed only when a company had closed a big deal, but they've now become run-of-the-mill horn-tooting. And they provide a revealing, sometimes hilarious window onto today's technology-corporation psyche.

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Most of these ads aim at a disarming chattiness -- high-tech casual. A current one for Lucent, the Bell spinoff, places a warm hand on your shoulder. "How are you doing?" reads the giant headline. Smaller questions dribble down the page: "Are you happy? Sleeping well? Is your job enjoyable? Are you confident?" It's as if Eliza, the legendary psychiatrist-bot, had been hired as the copywriter. Then, of course, Lucent moves in for the kill: "Is your data communications network running smoothly?" And so on. Lucent "can make you and your business happy, help you sleep better, etc." Corporate Prozac, with no side-effects!

Compare Lucent's nosy friendliness to the hard-nosed hard sell employed by Network Associates to announce its formation from the merger of McAfee Associates and Network General: "This isn't just another self-serving merger ad. It's news that will affect 90% of the Fortune 500." The ad concludes on an ominous note: "If you weren't working with us yesterday, you probably are now." Duck before a tentacle decks you.

Most of the time, these ads devote themselves to telling you how rich and powerful -- or nice, or hip, or cool, or smart -- a company is. On special occasions, they actually try to relate something of the nature of the company's technology itself. Qwest is a fiber-optic network firm that recently launched a corporate makeover built around the slogan "Ride the Light." Apparently none of the focus groups warned the company that this might give the public the impression Qwest was founded by Heaven's Gate guru Marshall Applewhite.

Qwest's new ads take two full newspaper pages to tell you that "In 0.032 seconds, the entire photography collection of the Museum of Modern Art transferred from New York to Los Angeles with not a pixel out of place." Pretty neat. Too bad Qwest never bothers to explain who performed this feat -- or what possible use it was to the folks at the other end. (Maybe they just sent the gigabytes back to New York in another 0.032 seconds.) Rather than fill in the mundane details, this sort of ad would rather spout meaningless psychotechnobabble like, "Nothing moves faster than light. And now light can send images as true as life -- at the speed of life." Life, light, what's the difference?

GTE recently bought BBN, the engineering firm that built the earliest incarnation of the Internet about 30 years ago. Since most of the general public seems to think the Internet didn't exist before the Web was invented a half-dozen years ago, GTE is now spending a fortune simply to remind newspaper readers of BBN's august heritage. One ad reads, in gradually shrinking type: "NOW from the folks who brought you a little thing called the Internet"; another announces, "The company that brought you @ brings a new symbol to the Internet: $." The history lesson is kind of nice, but it doesn't leave you with much of a clue as to what exactly GTE is now trying to sell.

As these corporate image ads proliferate and balloon in size, their actual information content shrinks. Companies think that they're helping shape their "brand image" in a marketplace full of cloned products and interchangeable acronyms. But more often than not they are simply muddling the public's picture.

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Compaq, for instance, is now advertising its prowess with Microsoft's NT operating system via a gigantic photo of a Gothic cathedral and the headline: "Every religion has its church. For Microsoft Windows NT, it's us." This is impressive in its way. Too bad Windows NT is a colorless, workhorse kind of operating system that not even its most ardent devotees would mistake for a faith of any kind. The only operating system that anyone has ever mistaken for a religion, of course, is the Macintosh. Apple's own recent ad campaign is built around the slogan "Think different," which may or may not rally its own hordes of the disgruntled faithful.

Whether any of these companies benefits in any way from such ad campaigns is questionable. There is one inevitable beneficiary: The newspapers that publish the ads are raking it in.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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