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Mills goes West: weird, wonderful and shocking

10 Jun 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Mills goes West: weird, wonderful and shocking

From a CIA subway take-over to Viagra on steroids, Dominic Mills is in a state of shock and awe examining US advertising

They say that the UK and the US are two nations divided by a common language, a truism laid bare, for example, by that buttock-tighteningly embarrassing press conference last week with Donald Trump and Theresa May.

You don’t even have to be an advertising nut to see that we are also two nations divided by a common advertising ecosystem. All you have to do is watch breakfast TV in the US. It’s not just the number and length of ad breaks but the content. What is it about the breakfast demographic that pulls in so many medical products for conditions I’ve never even heard of? And when the list of warnings and side effects — ‘this product can cause bloating, drowsiness, diarrhoea, constipation, palpitations, aching limbs blah blah blah’ — takes longer than the product message it makes you want to go all homeopathic.

Still, this is not intended as a moan, but a list of some of the things I saw, heard and noticed that underline the scale of the differences. They entertained and amused me, except for one shocking case saved till last.

CIA ads takeover of Washington subway

Personally I find the lack of ads make them dull and monochrome, but by comparison with the tube here, Washington subway stations are a model of advertising restraint. Except for Foggy Bottom station that is, subject of an advertising takeover by the CIA. It has plastered the entry and platforms with ads seeking linguists: Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic (possibly even English) speakers are the target. I know MI5/6 and GCHQ have taken to advertising but not with this focus. Why Foggy Bottom? I’ve no idea, except that it is home to the State Department, a university, and the line to CIA HQ runs through it.

Russia Today even commented on the ads noting that one ad was grammatically incorrect and featured an Asian-looking man.

Viagra on steroids

Yes, I did hear a radio ad for an ED product called either Progenix or Notrixil which used a female voice-over to claim that it was like “Viagra on steroids”. And yes, the side effects list was interminable.

Here’s a comment by one listener pointing out that describing a drug as being like ‘on steroids’ is tautologous and clichéd, not to mention dangerous.

I can’t be sure, but I think I heard it on a Christian radio station in South Carolina. The track after was a rousing piece of gospel.

Surely, you think, they have rules on both claims of this kind and/or using the Viagra name. No. It’s still the Wild West.

The lawyer who thinks he’s Steve Jobs

George Sink Snr is a personal injury lawyer, aka an ambulance chaser, in South Carolina. Personal injury legal ads are a staple of daytime TV, as they are here.

One of his TV ads (he has a YouTube channel), which I saw in an Irish bar watching the Champions League final, is something else.

It features George mimicking a Steve Jobs iPhone product launch (below). Like Jobs, he is wearing a turtle-neck, badly fitting blue jeans and trainers. He stalks the stage in front of an apparently ecstatic audience. He wields an iPhone. “Today,” he says, “we have something really special for you. It’ll revolutionise the way you use your phone...”. Why? Because if you’ve been in an accident all you have to do is phone 999-999 (not forgetting area code 843, naturally).

Brilliant and much more entertaining, if I may say, than the Liverpool/Spurs game.

By the way, Sink Snr is currently suing his son George ‘Ted’ Sink Jnr for starting a rival firm called George Sink II Law Firm. Among other things, Sink Snr is claiming trademark infringement, unfair competition, cybersquatting and deceptive trade practices.

George ‘Ted’ Jnr meanwhile says his dad is suing to “take away the name he gave me”.

Sink Jnr is obviously devastated, saying “he seems to value his brand over his son”.

See what I mean about the Wild West.

Newsbrands’ ads devastation

We know newsbrands here are having a tough time as print ads migrate away.

But in the US it feels much worse. Not every newsbrand is having the same success, either with digital subs or ads, as the New York Times. The latest GroupM report describes the fall-off in print as at ‘elevated levels’ in the double digits.

Just pick up a paper and it’s bleedin’ obvious. USA Today, handed out free in hotels, is so thin it’s beyond skeletal. In one edition last week the four-page finance section had one fractional ad, the sports section none and the main paper a few half-page ads. In a country dominated by regional or local media, a national title like USA Today with no natural constituency (and the kind of bland editorial product that gave it the ‘Macpaper’ nickname) is really up against it, but the same problems were evident to some degree in the Washington Post and the Charleston Post and Courier, both of which operate in prosperous urban markets.

Bizarrely, the most lucrative revenue stream in the Washington and Charleston press appears to be in classified in the form of a cross between a death notice and obituary, some up to 50 lines long. It’s small comfort, but that is the power of local for you. They ran to several pages in the weekend editions.

Winners and losers

Perhaps it’s down to the US preference for the hard sell, perhaps it’s the difference that lies at the core of our respective national psyches, but most US TV ads feature winning characters. They’re upbeat, supremely confident, assertive. We, on the other hand, prefer losers — the hapless and the incompetent. Even our winner figures tend towards the self-effacing. At extreme ends of the spectrum, Trump and May illustrate the case, even Boris too with his bumbling, shirt-untucked, hair-askew, persona.

Gross cultural insensitivity

Talking of brands rather than ads, those with a medium-term memory will remember the belated furore that eventually downed the Robertson’s Jam golliwog character. First condemned as racist in the 1980s (what took so long?), the character lived on till 2001.

That the same racial insensitivity is alive and well in the US is shocking, even more so given its history of slavery. Take Aunt Jemima, a pancake mix and syrup brand owned by Quaker (now there’s an irony given the Quaker commitment to equality), which is in turn owned by PepsiCo.

For starters, Aunt Jemima is a stereotype. That’s bad enough, but to compound it she’s a happy mammy stereotype — of slave origin, cooking for and nursing the children of wealthy white families.

Mind you, Aunt Jemima is not the only brand built on a racial stereotype. There’s Uncle Ben’s rice, owned by Mars (also available here), an exploitation of the Uncle Tom figure. Mars says that Uncle Ben is based on a Chicago maitre d’ called Frank Brown (so that’s ok then), but don’t let that hide the fact that slaves originally from West Africa were prized for their skills cultivating rice in inhospitable conditions.

Race is still a major issue in the US, as the Black Lives Matter movement showed, but whether you’re in Charleston, a city made prosperous by the (largely British) slave trade or Washington, they don’t hide from the painful history of slavery. That makes the continued existence of these brands harder to understand.

I wish I could explain how this still persists. Perhaps it’s the power of branding in which utility and familiarity overpower any sense of perspective and de-sensitise us to uncomfortable truths.

I can’t think of any current British equivalents — but if you can let me know. Nonetheless, it’s not that long ago that we were treated to ads that would today cause a storm.

There was the series featuring the Man from Del Monte, in which a white-suited gent turned up on a tropical pineapple farm and signalled to the locals that they could work their arses off picking the crop in a 100-degree, humid, climate.

Some might also add this ad for Vitalite margarine, which turns the reggae song The Israelites into a jingle.

And then, at which point I confess to being embarrassed because I love it, there’s the insanely catchy Um Bongo fruit juice song which takes the Congo as the take-off point for a flight of cultural appropriation. Shame on me.

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