As we come off a tough political election campaign, the subject of "attack ads" is a constant in post-election analysis. Did either McCain or Obama's attacks hit the mark, did they backfire, and who did the best job of playing offense and fending off attacks?
While I'll leave that discussion to you political junkies, let's turn to the topic of whether attack advertising works with consumer products - such as radio. While I've seen some attack ads work well - especially during the old YSP versus MMR wars back in the '80s - most of the time, naming names is a tactic that stations shy away from. Many marketing experts concur they just aren't that effective when you get out of the political arena, and they can be downright dangerous. Clearly, some in radio - especially a guy like Larry Rosin, who has been involved in political research for years - would take exception.
So why don't more stations do it?
First, it's not easy. There's a certain tone that's required in an attack campaign that needs to stay on the positive side of center. Otherwise, the ads can sound downright mean, and most people are turned off by that approach.
Second, an attack campaign has to be rooted not only in truth, but in areas that are of importance to consumers. We can all think of limp radio attack campaigns that called out "Station X" for doing something that is of no major consequence to listeners. Too often, the ads are just so much minutia.
Finally, humor can play a major role in these campaigns, but of course, being funny - while staying on message - is something that most writers simply cannot pull off.
But when you think about the wildly successful Mac versus PC "Get A Mac" campaign that Apple has orchestrated, it has all these elements - and more. And it has clearly been a winner as Apple's share of desktops and laptops continues to rise. While the iPod has been a major contributor toward consumers wanting to get a Mac for home or business use, the "Get A Mac" TV spots have clearly had a major impact.
They are well-written and funny - two of the key ingredients in making attack ads successful. They are also extremely well-cast. The actors who play the roles of Mac guy (Justin Long) and PC guy (John Hodgman) are perfect. (And I've always made a connection between PC guy and Bill Gates, just to make these ads a bit more personal.)
But the key reason why this campaign works is that it's rooted in truth. When we see these ads, they are very identifiable and they are funny. And you tend to nod along with their message because you've probably experienced these same drawbacks and issues with Windows PCs - they crash, they're slow, Vista has been a crashing disappointment, etc. This is how attack ads truly resonate - when they remind us of the actual shortcomings of a product, and do it in a way that we don't feel bad about.
It's also noteworthy that Microsoft's "response ads" have been lame. The Seinfeld/Gates campaign should have worked. Seinfeld is hands-down one of the most popular funny guys ever. And Gates is amazingly flexible and actually quite humorous in many on-camera situations. But these spots fizzled because they really didn't have any substance or depth. Nor were they funny.
The next idea was the "I'm a PC" campaign, using "real people" to depict how widely popular and diverse Microsoft users truly are. Nice idea, but besides having a slogan that sounds like "I'm PC" - which may not have a very positive connotation - how many people truly want to stand up and be proud of using a Microsoft computer?