You Had Me at “Hertz”

In days gone by, marketing was easy. If you had a product that you felt sure would benefit the general public, say, a nerve tonic (or an herbal tincture, suspension, or unguent), you would simply emblazon its name on the side of your covered wagon. You’d take care to correctly spell invigorating, rejuvenatory, and Dr. Southerby’s, of course, and then travel from town to town extolling its marvelous benefits. You’d be certain to mention how it can clear up milk leg in a fortnight, soothe nettle rash, and possibly even reverse ragpicker’s disease if used judiciously. To drive your point home more effectively, your organization’s single employee would mingle with the crowd and impress them with his own miraculous recovery from scrivener’s thumb in just two doses.

Implement your marketing plan well, and you can make a sum tidy enough to keep you in topcoats and half-gloves for the rest of your life. Just make sure not to let it get out that your product contains mostly turpentine, with castor oil and lilac water added for flavor only. Nothing quite brings out the tar and feather in people like discovering they’ve been duped into buying and drinking paint thinner. See, marketing is simple.

With home theater products, it’s not that easy. It’s a very crowded market. There are still very few good-quality nerve tonics (Professor Wong Fu’s Nanking Restorative is among the best, especially when used as a salad dressing or dessert topping). There are thousands of home theater products competing for the buyer’s attention. Covered wagons just don’t have the sizzle they used to, no matter how gaily you paint them, so the merchandise peddlers have had to innovate.

Perhaps the most inventive and long-lasting marketing approach was created more than 110 years ago when Francis Barraud painted a portrait of his dog, Nipper, staring quizzically into the bell of a gramophone. I suspect he was wondering how to retrieve the small bit of flank steak that his owner dropped into it while loading his beloved copy of “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo.” Of course, Nipper became the iconic front dog for RCA and later JVC and EMI. He was joined by his son, Chipper, in 1991. (The mother, nowhere to be seen. She and Nipper fought bitterly, and she left him for an Alaskan malamute who lacked his singular obsession with electronics.) Even with their combined brainpower and 90 years of puzzling over it, they still have not come up with a solution to get at the meat.

Flash-forward to the 1980s. Yes, it’s painful, I know, what with the clamor of Thompson Twins’ music disturbing your memory, but we won’t be here long. This was when Maxell introduced its now-iconic “Blown Away Guy” ad campaign. It featured a man sitting slumped down in a low chair in front of a single loudspeaker (the JBL L100, if I’m not mistaken). He desperately clings to his arm rests as the force of the music blows back his hair, his tie (dude wears a tie to listen to music? What’s wrong with a dirty, scoop-neck T-shirt and chaps with no pants?), his lampshade, and most tragically, his martini. The campaign was hugely successful. Although Maxell dropped it for a while, it revived it in the ’90s due to its popularity. Of course, it would have been somewhat less popular had the photo featured the events that followed, as the force of the 170-plus decibels obliterated the tympanic membranes in his ears, shattered his glasses, and crumbled the foundation of his house, which collapsed around him. Today, he wanders the streets, a broken man without a home, clutching a dirty cardboard sign that reads, “Blown Away—Please Help.” Still, customers are drawn to the happy image before the utter ruin. Marketing success.

This is what ad men strive for—an image that instantly grips the customer and gives him a glimpse of the wonderful world that awaits him post purchase. And there is a craft to it. In the wrong art director’s hands, a photo intended to depict a beautiful woman draped suggestively over a sleek rack of glimmering stereo nirvana could end up looking like some cheap moll broke into her ex’s apartment and is hauling his Kmart stereo away to pawn it for jug wine. Granted, there is undoubtedly a small but highly enthusiastic group of customers who far prefer the latter, but they’re rarely considered desirable consumers.

In large part, the industry self-polices reasonably well. But occasionally in their zeal to stand out from the pack, marketers will become entangled in absurd one-upsmanship with their competition. “Our televisions feature LiQuidVIew, a proprietary processing engine that refreshes the image at an industry-leading 480 hertz.” To which the competition responds, “No other company utilizes QuikSlvER, a remarkable light processor (fashioned at our secret lab in the earth’s core) that refreshes the image at an amazing 12 billion Hz!” “Oh, yeah? Well, we just upgraded LiQuidVIew to 900 trillion Hz. You know how? By going forward into the future, inventing it there, and sending our Z400 robot (he runs at infinity Hz!) back with it through a time portal. Which we also invented.” Eventually the ads will just read “Did not,” “Did too,” “Nuh-uh,” and “Yuh-huh.”

We consumers are well aware that we are being manipulated. But does that diminish our pleasure one jot as we don coat and tie (I trust you have yours on now? If not, please see the editors, and a coat will be provided for you) and settle into a low armchair, martini in hand—and martini in other hand—to flip through the pages of our favorite home theater magazine? Blow me away, marketers.

DeepForestGreen's picture

"...chaps without pants..."

I love these articles - sometimes just because of the MST3K references.