George Parker: why top-notch bullshitting really matters – just look at the history of ‘branding’

In which our hero continues his tour of the computer industry with observations on, among other things, the art of presenting and the theory and practice of branding.

One of the things I learned very early on in this business is that bullshit works, and outrageous bullshit works better than run of the mill bullshit.

Readers of my various scribbles will know that I am fond of quoting famous dead people, ‘cos they can’t dispute whatever it is I claim they said, and besides which, one day I’ll be joining them – No, not in the famous column, but definitely in the dead one.

Amongst my favorite quotes is that of famed movie scriptwriter, William Goldman, who once said… “Nobody in Hollywood knows anything about anything.” I must confess, I have “homaged” the shit out of that one whenever possible by substituting Madison Avenue for Hollywood.

Goldman (left) also wrote a wonderful book, “Which Lie Did I Tell?” Something well worth remembering when engaged in the day to day cheating, maneuvering and back stabbing necessary to succeed in the ad biz, because, although seemingly obvious, it’s often forgotten that in order to be a successful liar, it’s essential to have an excellent memory.

To illustrate, back in the early eighties, I was making a zillion dollars a day freelancing for agencies in San Francisco and Silicon Valley who, in turn, were humping Hi-Tech companies for ten zillion dollars a day. In fact, at that time, everyone was humping everyone else for as much money as they could get away with… It was called capitalism. I believe it still is.

I was doing a job for the agency handling the Applied Materials account, the world’s number one manufacturer of the monster machines that make chips. That’s microprocessors, not Doritos. These chips go into everything modern society relies on, from computers, to cars, to cell phones, to ATM’s. Without chips, iToy douchenozzles would be forced to talk face to face, and Moreaboutadvertising would be out of business. It’s important to understand that the machines Applied Materials make cost more money than the GNP of a small African nation, and the service contracts are worth additional millions.

So, on this particular day, I was presenting a series of ads for the “Applied Materials Cluster Fuck Sub-Zero Mach 6.0” or something equally mind-numbing. As this was pre internet, the agency was expected to cram all the “speeds and feeds” into each ad. “Speeds and feeds” is ad jargon for every product feature, attribute and benefit you can possibly think of, and then you dream up some more and shoehorn them in there.

Not only is this impossible, it’s also unnecessary, as chip companies such as Intel or Samsung are not going to blow a massive chunk of change on the “Cluster Fuck Sub-Zero Mach 6.0” because of something they’ve read in an ad in the Chip Makers Gazette. That’s not how these guys do business. They do it the same way Boeing sells airliners; they build relationships, develop products in conjunction with their clients, and bribe the shit out of foreign government ministers.

OK, I’m pretty sure Applied Materials doesn’t do the latter (he said with tongue firmly planted in cheek)… But hey… I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

So, halfway through my presentation of the new ads for the Cluster Fuck Sub-Zero Mach 6.0, one of the client’s marketing geniuses comes up with the observation there seems to be an awful lot of copy in the ad. Yes indeed, I replied, so why don’t we take some of it out? That goes down like a lead balloon, because then you won’t have all the “speeds and feeds” shit no one is ever going to read.

Then another client marketing wanker comes up with a master stroke solution. “Let’s bullet point the copy!” This makes me want to kill the fucker, because I really hate bullet point copy. Not only is it ugly, I think it makes the copy harder to understand because it breaks up the natural flow of the language. This is why the excessive use of Power Point slides in presentations is a giant wank. This festering boil on the backside of corporate management has been used as an excuse by thousands of junior, middle and senior management douchenozzles, to cover the fact that they are doing little more than blowing smoke out of their respective arses.

As Edward Tufte (left) puts it so well… In corporate bureaucracies, the standard method for making a presentation is to talk about a list of points organized onto slides. Now computer generated presentations are everywhere, turning out trillions of slides each year. Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, PowerPoint templates usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.

Damn right, Edward.

But, back to my Applied Materials meeting. I leapt on the fucktard’s suggestion with well feigned enthusiasm. “That’s a damned good idea,” I said. “Unfortunately, a new study has just been released by the Institute of Datametric Cognitive Studies showing that bullet point copy is seventy two, point three six percent, harder for readers to assimilate than regular galley set type.”

The fucktard stopped in his tracks and looked at me, his weevil-like eyes narrowing. He slowly breathed in through his open mouth, while shifting his slitty gaze from me to his boss. His boss said nothing, but imperceptibly shifted forward on his seat, as he was obviously curious to see where this pantomime was going. The fucktard’s brain was now engaged in overdrive, but you could sense that the spinning wheels were starting to become bogged down in the sands of uncertainty.

“The Institute of what?” He asked. “The Institute of Datametric Cognitive Studies,” I replied. The wanker was well and truly fucked – I mean, c’mon, it was the perfect name, how could something with a title like that not exist? “Then,” he sighed, “I guess we should leave it the way it is.” Ha, I had single handedly bullshitted the guy into an inescapable corner.

Apart from the wonderful name of the organization responsible for the study, I had been so precise with the magic number. No generalizations, no perhaps, no ifs, ands, or buts. Just a diamond hard number… Seventy two, point three six percent. I didn’t even have to deliver it with the benefit of a Power Point slide, just an air of nut-crushing authority.

After the meeting, as we left the building, the agency suits demanded to know where I’d read the study I’d just quoted. Pausing briefly to light my post-meeting fag, I informed them there was no such report, and I’d just made the whole thing up! “But, what if the client had demanded to see proof”, they asked. “No chance”, I replied, “as long as you lie with unflinching conviction, and are very precise in your numbers, no one will ever challenge you.” I doubt if any of these wankers ever tried it for themselves. After all, a suit will always be a suit.

Yet, ad agencies have been able to get away with murder for years by behaving in exactly the same fashion. Thanks to the ‘Cloak of Invisibility’ otherwise known as ‘Branding,’ they have been able to convince their clients to continue spending outrageous sums of money on such esoteric goals as… Creating a brand identity… Increasing brand awareness… Brand efficacy… Raising the bar on brand acceptability; even going for the holy grail of Total Global Brand Transferability.

Obviously, you and I know this is pure bullshit, because none of it is based on measurable results, or, dare I say – sales. No, it’s all about the kind of warm, fuzzy feeling you get for the first couple of minutes after you have inadvertently wet yourself, until you realize… Holy shit, I’ve just wet myself!

So, let us get one thing straight… It is virtually impossible to measure the ROI achieved from the zillions spent on branding products… Yes, there is no question there are blockbuster brands that have been around forever… Coke, Rolls Royce, Ford, Preparation H and whatever else you would trust to shove up your arse.

There are also relatively new brands, such as Amazon, Zappos, and Apple, which in their infinite wisdom, have spent next to nothing on traditional advertising, let alone, branding. Instead, they have chosen to concentrate on more important things… Making products people want… Making sure that these products live up to the customers’ expectations… Making sure the products don’t kill you… And, most importantly, by ensuring that if their products do kill you, they’ll continue to enjoy your families’ undying loyalty (Mmm, slight contradiction there!) by doing whatever it takes to make them happy, even sending your kids a fifty dollar gift card, so they can buy more of the stuff that killed dad.

You’ll never hear these unvarnished truths from a BDA, but it is an undisputable fact that Seventy two, point three six percent of the time, (a diamond hard number, remember?) the success of many mega-brands has nothing to do with advertising.

Yeah, I just made that shit up… But, that’s the point… Get it?


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