Monday, May 3, 2010

The Corn Is High

Nothing is quite so fascinating as an advertising spin being applied to a product so appallingly unhealthy that it's pretty much indefensible. Cigaret manufacturers tried this approach years ago by marketing versions of the product that were supposedly less deadly -- and soon dropped the attempt. The current series of television ads aimed at untarnishing the reputation of high fructose corn syrup -- a food additive now found in everything from catsup to soft drinks that's known to cause liver scarring, and which may be single-handedly responsible for the current societal epidemic of diabetes and morbid obesity -- tries valiantly but ineffectively to defend the insidious substance.

The spots usually start in some innocuous domestic setting, like a neighborhood barbecue. The health-conscious mom watches askance as her friend pours out for her children glasses of fruit juice laced with the toxic chemical brew. "Don't you care about your family?" she ventures. When the other woman pretends not to comprehend what she's referring to, she elaborates, "Well, you know what they say about high fructose corn syrup, don't you?" Barely able to contain her hostility, the friend challenges her to elaborate on her supposed high-handed position. "Like what? That it's made of corn, which is a completely natural substance? That it's totally safe in moderation?" Take that, anal-retentive hippie mom! But all we as viewers can think is that consuming this poison "in moderation" is virtually impossible, since it's managed to find its way into nearly every processed food. The real spots are not very different from this spoof, except for the intimidating drag queen:

Then there's the creepy commercial for Crocs Lite. While I'm glad that Crocs have evolved their line beyond ugly, day-glow, hooflike footware worn only by celebrity chefs and Special Ed students, I'm not convinced this was the best way to convey the product's comfort and value. As a woman returns from a long day's work, two strangely menacing pink creatures lie in wait for her. They rush to greet her as she enters her apartment, bringing to mind the robotic toy soldiers in the futuristic thriller Bladerunner who greet their creator by announcing "Home again home again, diggety dig!" Instead of saluting and marching back out of the room, though, these round little entities seize the woman's feet and begin massaging and pummeling them. It's like she's being accosted by animated jelly beans.

Since I've scolded two different advertising efforts, it's only fair that I commend one. So: careful positioning of a product line is more important these days than ever. Marketers should always be asking themselves: what's the differentiating factor here? Why should customers with limited resources buy this product instead of a similar, less-expensive one? The series of TV spots for Pyrex gets it right. Each spot demonstrates that they've taken a time-honored, completely familiar utensil or item of kitchen ware and improved on it. So now you can get a cheese grater that measures the amount of cheese you're grating, or a whisk designed to serve as a spatula, too. Simple as it seems, they're demonstrating how they're bringing new value to customers, and that they're forward-thinking even when it comes to products that have been around so long one would assume they couldn't be modified for the better. A look at their clean, well-designed website shows that theirs is a well-integrated, multi-channel approach, and that they've introduced storage containers that not only resist staining but can safely be placed in the oven. Brilliant.

On an end note, I was half-listening to a commercial the other night that was promoting dryer sheets -- I wish the messaging had been strong enough for the brand to come across but I simply didn't notice. What I did notice, however, when the woman in the commercial whipped out the product, was that it completely resembled Towelie, the marijuana-addicted bath towel from Comedy Central's long-running South Park, horizontal stripes and all. Perhaps it would be more successful if they just called it Towelie -- and made a joke about using it when you're really wiped out.

UPDATE: I saw the spot again, and the brand is Purex.

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