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Setting hair on fire

This book has Dusenberry's insights and accidents from a hall-of-fame career in advertising.

india Updated: Feb 03, 2006 18:21 IST
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Then We Set His Hair on Fire
by Phil Dusenberry
Hardcover
Penguin Portfolio, Penguin Books (India)
Price: Rs 425.00
Pages: 290
ISBN: 0-67-005868-8

"We Bring Good Things to Life"

"It’s not TV, It’s HBO"

"Visa: It’s Everywhere You Want to Be"

These aren’t just advertising slogans; they’re game-changing insights. And according to ad industry legend Phil Dusenberry, whose team at BBDO created these and many other brilliant campaigns, one big insight is worth a thousand good ideas. An idea can lead to one clever commercial. But a true insight can define a brand for years to come and turn an entire industry upside down.

Dusenberry, who turned BBDO/NY into a creative powerhouse, shares his best advice and funniest stories in Then We Set His Hair on Fire. You are there with Phil as he . . .

frets before a $60 million pitch to GE’s Jack Welch, knowing that BBDO’s clunky proposed tagline (“We make the things that make life good”) just isn’t going to cut it.

initiates the all-star team that devised Ronald Reagan’s groundbreaking 1984 reelection campaign.

helps FedEx sustain its success after the overnight delivery business became crowded with competition.

works with Gillette’s management to distill the insight that its shaving systems are “the best a man can get.”

leads the team that gave New York City a renewed spirit after 9/11, with an unprecedented television campaign.

And last but far from least . . .

sets on fire the hair of the most in-demand celebrity spokesman of his time, in the Pepsi commercial heard round the world.

In this entertaining yet practical memoir, Dusenberry reveals what really works in the fiercely competitive game of trying to stick in the consumer’s mind. And he shows how anyone can approach marketing problems from a unique angle and hit home runs, not just singles. Many things have changed since Phil Dusenberry started writing ad copy, but his insights are as true now as they ever were. This is a fun-to-read book that will change the way you think about advertising.

Here is an excerpt that focuses on the importance of research, using an anti-smoking campaign as a case study:

The biggest fallacy about research is that you need to spend a lot of money to get it. You have to hire research professionals and their squadron of field workers who scour the supermarket aisles, conduct phone surveys, and pay people to show up at focus groups. Not necessarily so. You can glean valid research simply by listening to people on the street. If your gut tells you that what you’re hearing is true, or if you keep hearing the same thing over and over again, you are already conducting legitimate research.

Peter Souter, our talented creative director at AMV/BBDO in London, tells the story about how the most simple research yielded a winning insight. The client was Britain’s National Health Board, which wanted to mount a massive anti-smoking campaign, targeting young people, especially teenaged girls. The logic in the U.K., as in the U.S., was that if you can stop kids from smoking early in life, they won’t pick up the habit as adults – and billions of pounds in national health costs will be saved each year.

Tobacco is one of the most heavily researched categories in the marketer’s playbook. It’s a product that, like soda and beer, is purchased in multiple units every day by the same consumers. People don’t buy a pack of cigarettes on a whim. They buy the product daily, with the metronomic consistency of people buying a newspaper or showing up at the corner deli for their morning coffee. They also buy the product in bulk quantities – cartons, boxes of cartons. With all this purchasing going on, data accumulates, patters emerge, and a ton of knowledge about the tobacco consumer becomes manifest. There’s not much about their product and their public that cigarette manufacturers do not know.

Cigarettes are also one of the most brand-reliant categories. Smokers have a strong commitment to their brand of cigarette, not just for reasons of taste (which, as a former three-pack-a-day smoker of Marlboros, I can attest to) but also because of the imagery and positive emotions they associate with their favourite brand. When I lit up a cigarette I felt like the rugged Marlboro man; it was the fuel of my ambition as a young advertising man. Every line of cigarettes has some branding agenda going on behind it. Some obviously are more successful than others (think Marlboro vs. Winston in the U.S., one a dominant brand, the other the former leader). The branding investment in cigarettes would be chilling if it weren’t so breathtakingly efficient. The cigarette manufacturer’s branding is awe-striking, involving billion-dollar budgets and years of painstaking, relentless, down-to-the-smallest-detail branding tactics as insidious as Merit cigarettes sponsoring women’s bowling leagues because their research showed that housewives who liked to smoke also liked to bowl. (I’m glad I wasn’t around when the marketing people came up with that insight.) There’s even some branding going on with people who buy generic cigarettes (they don’t care about taste or brand imagery; they care about price – and that can be turned into a branding attribute too).

Don’t get me started on cigarettes. The bottom line is that there is an enormous amount of brand equity in cigarettes and, in turn, an equally enormous amount of consumer loyalty and emotional attachment to cigarettes. Smoking, after all, is a habit – a habit so powerful and pleasurable that people continue to do it even when they know it can kill them. Smokers absolutely love their cigarettes.

This is what the anti-smoking campaign in the U.K. was set up against: an installed branding base, heavily funded for decades, for many lines of cigarettes, powerful consumer loyalty; and an addictive feature (nicotine) lodged within the product that kept consumers using the product even when it was not in their best long-term health interests. Those are powerful obstacles unmatched by any other product on Earth; neither alcohol, gambling, nor sex has the controlling sway over us that tobacco does. The only thing harder than getting people to start smoking or getting smokers of one brand to switch to another is to get smokers to quit. The average smoker tries to quit nine times; not even dieting has a failure rate that high.

How do you fight this when you’re dreaming up an anti-smoking campaign? You can’t focus on the health hazards, obvious as they may be. Young people think they’ve invincible. They have no concept of mortality. You can’t scare them “straight” with the threat of lung cancer.

You also can’t dissuade them from smoking by claiming that it’s “uncool”. Decades of advertising, not to mention shrewd and relentless product placement in movies since the 1930s, have done too good a job establishing smoking as “cool”.

Nor can you make an issue of the cost of cigarettes, or that they make you unkissable to a non-smoker. None of these issues are compelling enough to a smoker; they are mere hurdles to the fulfilment of the smoking habit, not reasons to quit. A more vivid insight, a stronger truth was required.

Virtually nothing in the extensive research data on smoking and smokers revealed a vivid insight that could make a jot of difference. A stronger – and newer – truth was required. To get that, Souter concluded, he needed more data, more information, particularly about his target audience: the young women of England. With all the conventional data proving fruitless, Souter was left to rely on unconventional research.

A young female assistant took it from there. She left the agency’s office on Marylebone Street, found a café in the shipping district, and parked herself at a centrally located table so she could eavesdrop on the conversations of the young women at neighbouring tables. It didn’t matter whether they smoked or not. She wanted to know what was on their minds. She sat there for five days, writing down impressions and every bit of conversation that landed on her ears. She heard the girls talk about school and work and parents and boyfriends and favourite clubs and singers and CDs and movies. But as the days mounted up, one dominant theme emerged: the girls were obsessed with their appearance. The assistant’s notebook was filled with dialogue about shopping for clothes (especially jeans, underwear, and shoes), about haircuts, about shampoos and skin creams and makeup and eyeliners and nail polishes and fake nails and lipsticks and diet supplements and cosmetic surgery and… well, you get the picture. Nothing commands center stage in the idle young female mind more powerfully than how she looks.

As soon as the assistant returned with her notebook, Souter knew that the big insight accompanied her. Coupling this new research with the client’s existing information about smoking’s deleterious effects on our appearance, Souter and his team put all their money on the simple insight that smoking ruins your looks. It not only stains a woman’s teeth and rots her breath, but it reduces the luster of complexion, adds wrinkles around her eyes, and crinkles the skin around her mouth. The end result was a fabulous series of prize-winning ads that hit the young women of England where they really hurt: their vanity. Forget that cigarettes may shorten your lifespan. Ignore how they make you a social pariah in some circles. Focus on how they make you physically less attractive. That’s enough to make a young women stop smoking.

In hindsight, making the connection betweens smoking and a woman’s fading looks may seem obvious. But until that young assistant returned from the café with her notes, no one had ever made the connection before. That’s the beauty of good research. It reveals a useful insight in a matter of seconds. Without research, you could be wandering in the wilderness, blind and insight-deprived, forever.