Friday, October 14, 2011

A once-bad ad agency becomes a lot worse

Years ago, in its heydey, an advertising agency named for its founder, Ted Bates, was both famous and infamous.

It was the agency famous for showing hammers banging inside peoples’ heads in TV commercials that promised, “Fast, fast, fast relief” with Anacin. It was famous for selling M&M candy by telling people it “melts in your mouth, not in your hand.” These lines, promising a distinctive product benefit, were called “USPs” or unique selling propositions.

But infamously, some of the selling lines, like the one promising fast, fast, fast relief, brought to mind a movie called The Hucksters. In one scene, the film portrayed a client who deliberately spits a gob of saliva on an ad agency conference room table and then declares:

“Gentlemen, I’ve just done a disgusting thing. But you’ll never forget it.”

Ted Bates did that sort of work. Disgusting. But unforgettable. I never worked there, but I knew some copywriters who did. They went through the workweek in a state of overwhelming depression. Their most animated moments were those they spent plotting to jump ship for a better advertising agency where they could proud of their work.

But at least you knew what Ted Bates stood for. And at least you knew what the products it advertised were supposed to do for you. No longer.

These days, Ted Bates is just “bates.” Yes, with a lowercase b. Why this affectation?

Perhaps because bates, now merely another generic cog in the wheels of an advertising conglomerate, has little else to say or show for itself. WPP, the company that now owns bates, is one of a handful of advertising conglomerates that literally control the business. And what advertising agencies are supposed to produce first and foremost these days is not memorable advertising, but big profits for the parent conglomerate.

If bates can’t be famous for what they do any more, perhaps they can be famous for an all lower-case name, and a new logo that has some comic book voice balloons in it. That seems to be what substitutes for thinking these days. Pathetic!

Even more pathetic is that the new bates has evidently forgotten how to communicate in plain English. They’ve gone from ugly-but-straightforwward shouting at TV viewers about headache relief, to locutional blubbering worthy of Jacques Derrida.

Here is one of their “regional chairman” explaining what the advertising agency is all about, as reported in an English trade journal named Brand Republic. Notice that he never mentions advertising:

"Change has always been what we do best, and remains so. In a world where change is so rapid and fundamental, being change experts is even more relevant than ever. However, our insights on change need to lead to an active benefit to clients. It needs a sharper ear to the ground, an understanding of inflection points, and real time action," said Tim Isaac, regional chairman of bates.

And this means what in terms of the look, language, drama and brand images created by advertising?

My guess is, absolutely nothing.

The late Rosser Reeves, the genius behind the USP at Bates and the ugly-but-perfectly-clear ads that emerged from it, must be rolling around in his grave.

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