Call to Distraction
How to tell the difference when there is no difference to tell
By Paul Bacon
Infinite may be the ways to excel, but there are only two ways to stand apart from the crowd. The first, of course, is simply to be acknowledged the best at something. But this is a bit of a chore, requiring hard work, dedication and a good publicist. So the rest of us -- those with low standards and high expectations -- are left with only one alternative: ridicule the competition.
Through contests like the upcoming presidential election, this method of self-promotion has become a bona fide communication genre. Although we've been privy to a relatively clean campaign so far, this week's Republican convention should unleash a flurry of counter-charisma efforts, as Dole and Clinton leave behind their roles as statesmen to don the hats of dueling mudflingers.
If we hope to attain the wealth and power of our elected officials, we'll need to employ the same tactics, whether we're running for office, selling ourselves at a job interview or hawking fat-free widgets on television. And whether advertisers took their cue from politicians or vice versa, Madison Avenue provides ample instruction on how to elevate ourselves by stepping on the heads of others.
In the earliest days of advertising, marketers used clear, empirical product comparisons to position themselves against the bad guys pushing "Brand X." But as products -- like our current choice of presidential candidates -- became less distinguishable, their unique features eroded by the forces of mass marketing, straightforward comparisons became less relevant. Advertisers are clamoring for a new strategy.
Many companies, unable to trumpet any verifiable superiority of their product, resort to simply making fun of their competitor's image. Their commercials present a overblown caricature of their rivals to grab our attention, then follow up with a soothing and sane portrayal of their own product's irresistible benefits.
An example of this is a Ford dealer commercial which opens to a multitude of wind-up toy dentures. As the camera zooms in on the clacking teeth, the announcer says, "All the other car dealers are chattering about clearance . . ." Then a Ford logo appears on the screen, eclipsing the teeth, and we hear, " . . . but only your Ford dealer has factory authorized clearance."
The rest of the commercial is packed with beauty shots of Tauruses and Mustangs as a sea of finance rates and disclaimers flash illegibly across the bottom of the screen. The message: There is something exceptional about a factory authorized clearance, but since we've spent most of our air time making fun of other dealers' sales, we don't have time to tell you what exactly that is.
A national bathroom cleanser company took a similar tack in their commercial, capitalizing on consumers' presumed intolerance for trumped-up toilet cleaner promises. A garishly dressed man with thinning hair and a face you'd love to punch yucks his way to the very tip of our most annoyable nerve ending. Popping his head out of the toilet and pretending to be the spokesperson for the "other" bathroom cleanser, he claims that his product even comes in a variety of delicious flavors.
Suddenly, the tacky '50s-style, home-of-the-future music is supplanted by a calming piano theme, and the idiot is replaced by a woman's delicate hand miraculously cleaning a variety of bathroom surfaces. It becomes clear that this is obviously the bathroom cleanser of choice for calm, sophisticated consumers like us. Meanwhile, they've just gotten away with boasting that their goop cleans multiple appliances after maligning their competitors for saying the exact same thing.
A commercial for Clausen Pickles fabricates a hoity-toity image for its closest competitor by representing it as a frog. Not a talking Budweiser frog, mind you, but a prototypical greasy Frenchman, complete with a beret, a skinny black mustache, puckered lips--and a very limp pickle. Assuming that a pickle is a pickle is a pickle in most consumers' minds, Clausen resorts to attacking its competition for having a foreign-sounding name like Vlasic.
RC Cola -- owned by a gigantic global beverage conglomerate but lacking in market share and consumer recognition -- flailed at its well-known competitors by calling them "corporate colas." The slogan for the duration of RC's well-produced but short-lived campaign: "Other colas -- blah, blah, blah. RC Cola -- cha, cha, cha!"
What are we to learn from these outlandish misrepresentations? That we must be wary of the slanderous methods of advertising? That understanding the workings of our craftiest advertisers will help us recognize the same practices in the political arena? No, no, silly -- we must embrace these examples of legalized libel and use them as templates for our own self-promotion strategies.
Imagine the ease with which we could set ourselves apart from our competitors in the job market if we used similar positioning methods. When we're called into a potential employer's office, we could crawl on our hands and knees, literally kissing the interviewer's feet, and say, "Other candidates for this job will stop at nothing to curry your favor." Then we stand up straight and tall, hand them our resume and say, "but I'm the right person for the job."
When viewing a desirable apartment with other prospective tenants, tout your own (actually shaky) solvency while discreetly observing to the landlord that your competitor's employer has just filed for Chapter 11.
And while flipping through in-depth coverage of the election, listening to commentators lament the apathy, disaffection and fickleness of the American voting populace, let us rise from our couches with indignation and exclaim, "Nonsense! Our voter turnout is twice that of Portugal!" Then let's sit down, take a gulp from our Coors Light and change the channel.
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Paul Bacon is a former employee of J. Walter Thompson Advertising, and Hill and Knowlton Public Relations.