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Have you ever confused a dream with life? Or stolen something when you have the cash? Have you ever been blue? Or thought your train moving was sitting still? Maybe I was just crazy.

Girl, Interrupted: the first words of Winona Ryder’s voiceover. Hmmmm…

One of Winona Ryder’s better recent films, but Girl, Interrupted was better known for Angelina Jolie’s Oscar-winning performance as the disturbed ringleader in the girl’s ward of the sanatorium. A “chick flick”, of course, and none of the girls are really crazy, at least no crazier than the rest of us. I won’t finish it.

I watched a different film on BBC last night, and I was thrown off by the absence of commercial breaks, which I’m used to by now. They’re the reason I record films more often than not, and fast-forward through the commercials (and, occasionally, parts of the film). I’ve become quite good at not watching commercials, judging when to stop by the patterns of colour in the corner of my eye. I have a funny feeling that the producers of commercials test the effectiveness of their message at high speeds, but fast-forward does mean I’m not exposed to corrosive jingles.

Who produces the most offensive marketing? Here are some names that bug me in particular:

Danone are a European consortium who are best known for their dairy products, although that it is not all that they do now. They first came to my attention as purveyors of “active” yoghurts – a marketing category which somehow led to these tiny “active” health drinks. You have probably seen these on the supermarket shelves, little watered-down yoghurts that are promoted with claims of improved digestion, increased energy, and increased immunity to diseases.

Danone’s marketing tactics for these products have been so aggressive that I am constantly amazed that they get away with it. First we have the annoying vocal “hook” designed to get under your skin. The bacteria in the drink have been given a vaguely healthy name – “essensis” or such – which is totally arbitrary, of course. Then we have the commercials targeted at mothers, implying that they are leaving their children unnecessarily exposed to illness, unless they are fed an “active” drink every day. The general commercials portray ordinary working people as walking disease machines who need to drink one every day just to stay on their feet.

“What next?” I wondered, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they created cartoon superheroes, who get their super powers from the product!” Well, that’s exactly what they did, I had just missed it because I hadn’t watched any children’s TV. Danone have spent a huge amount of money portraying their active yoghurt drinks as a panacea for all people, and even had marketers at train stations and traffic junctions during a product launch last year, giving away free samples. Not bad for watered-down yoghurt, a product category that did not exist a decade ago.

I’m aware of the need for bacterial activity in one’s digestive systems, and this is a natural state of affairs. The bacteria breed naturally, so why would they need to be topped up from the outside (assuming the new batch survives your stomach)? The only reason I can think of is the overuse of antibiotics, both directly, through over-prescription, and indirectly, since antibiotics are used to increase growth in animals heading for the butcher. Another story entirely.

I find Vodafone offensive for two main reasons. The first is the sheer volume and pervasiveness of the marketing. When they took over Eircell, the former Eircom (Irish Government) cell phone subsidiary, they painted Ireland red, taking over trains, planes, and automobiles, the airwaves, and whole sides of buildings. They even had “marketing teams” invading offices such as mine, pushing their wares.

They sponsor the Ferrari Formula One team, which costs them hundreds of millions of dollars a year. They have also spent billions on “3G” licenses. And you wonder why your mobile phone costs are so high? I have never used Vodafone, though I used their competitor’s (Digifone / O2) service previously. (I stopped using even that, over a year ago, my handset now lies in a drawer.) They didn’t try to compete with Vodafone on price – why should they? The two companies have the UK and Ireland markets sewn up.

Vodafone’s greatest insult is in their attempt to hijack the phrase “how are you” for their advertising. I imagine some marketing lawyer came up with this idea, since it’s a common phrase which can’t be the subject of copyright or trademark protection. Eventually, whenever someone asks you how you are, you will think of Vodafone. What a marketing coup! They need to be careful, since this, combined with the expense, raises the possibility of a customer backlash. I can’t wait.

Two recent commercials have featured stars from Friends – a frankly perplexing development. One has Jennifer Aniston looking shocked when some other guy grabs the Heinekens that were out of her reach; the other has Courtney Cox-Arquette hogging the Coca-Cola for herself, rather than share it with her husband David Arquette. Come on, people – as if $1 million per episode isn’t enough?


Written by brian t

June 15, 2003 at 11:43 pm

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