If you want to know the state of television advertising, there’s no better—or more outspoken or more hilarious—source than Bob Garfield ’77 Lib. For 17 years, he’s been advertising critic at Advertising Age magazine, providing irreverent and insightful opinions on the best and worst in commercials. His candor and insight have made him arguably the nation’s foremost advertising critic.
He’s also the author of a new book: And Now a Few Words from Me: Advertising’s Leading Critic Lays Down the Law, Once and For All (McGraw Hill). In an interview at his home outside Washington, D.C., Garfield was more than happy to explain how smart people make stupid ads—and why he doesn’t watch much television. Really.
Q: You write in your book that advertising provides a cultural snapshot. What will future anthropologists see in today’s ads?
Garfield: Fundamentally, they will see a culture that was at war with itself, that didn't know which direction it wanted to go—to greater consumption or to greater social responsibility, to more spirituality or to less, to politeness or to militant rudeness. There’s a lot of mixed messages out there right now.
Q: What percentage of TV commercials deserve a thumbs-down?
Garfield: I would say that probably 90% of the ads produced are ads that I would not have approved if I were the client. I find that a troubling statistic.
Q: Why do so many ads come up short?
Garfield: Three big reasons. On the agency side, the creative culture—and you can put quotes around “creative”—is not a business culture. These people think in terms of their résumé, and impressing their parents and friends and colleagues. Not the client.
Secondly, advertisers get involved in these elaborate ads and completely lose sight of how the end result will be regarded by the viewers, who are walking in and out of the family room trying to wolf down macaroni and cheese before Wheel of Fortune comes on. Most of the worst ads I’ve seen have not slipped in under the radar, either. They have been sent to me in FedEx packages filled with elaborate press releases bragging about some creative breakthrough, and they’re almost always atrocities. Or, as I like to call them, “advertrocities.”
Back in 1998, Just for Feet ran a commercial during the Super Bowl in which several white guys in a Humvee chase a barefoot black runner across the Kenyan countryside. They hunt him down and sedate him with a dart, and when he wakes up he discovers that they have put new running shoes on his bare Kenyan feet. The Friday before the Super Bowl, I called the ad agency and said, “Please tell me you’re not running this spot,” and they said, “We think it’s humorous.” Well, it appeared just that once, and as far as I know, it’s the only case where a company has sued its ad agency for malpractice.
The third reason ads go wrong is what I call the “1984 Phenomenon.” In 1984, Apple came out with this whole new technology for computing, with icons and a mouse. It was the first user-friendly computer. And the first commercial introducing this vast new technology to the world was “1984,” which I and many other people consider the greatest commercial ever made. It showed no icons, no mouse, none of the specific product features. It was about the psychographic difference between Apple and IBM. It showed a huge auditorium filled with slack-jawed drones and this bellicose Big Brother figure ranting behind a podium. Apple was represented by this young woman in a track outfit who ran down the aisle, swung a hammer, and smashed the big screen on stage, liberating all these drones and us from the tyranny of IBM. The ad ended with, “Introducing the Mac from Apple. So 1984 won’t have to be like ‘1984.’” I don’t know if everybody got it, but everybody felt it. Apple was positioning this computer as a tool for liberation for the heroically independent thinker, which is not bad positioning.
What does “1984” tell you? It tells you that sometimes the greatest advertising solution is not the logical, rational, left-brain, linear, obvious solution.
Q: How did such a great ad lead to such lousy ads?
Garfield: Ever since then, the creative community has tried to come up with another “1984.” Nobody wants to make ads full of perfectly rational, perfectly linear, perfectly coherent, perfectly left-brain arguments for buying something. There aren’t a whole lot of “1984s” or “Just do its” or Marlboro cowboys. Those ideas don’t come along very often.
Q: What was groundbreaking about the Marlboro campaign?
Garfield: Before the Marlboro cowboy introduced the notion of rugged individualism, cigarette ads were all about trying to convince you that the flavor was better, the smoke was smoother, this cigarette was healthier for you, that smoking was relaxing, or that movie stars used this or that brand. Marlboro captured this iconic image of expressing your inner strength by what brand of carcinogen you choose. It has probably been a multi-hundred-billion-dollar idea.
Q: You write in your book that a For Eyes campaign in 1994 produced the worst TV ad ever made. Why does it deserve that distinction?
Garfield: Very often, terrible ads have the best of intentions. The ad agency here wanted to combine For Eyes’ selling message—discount eyewear—with the company’s do-gooder mission, its social consciousness. The commercial shows homeless people in a city park sleeping on benches and grates, then the type on the screen says, “If you’ve grown used to this, you need glasses.” OK, fine. Homelessness is bad. Then the very next frame says, “Two pairs of glasses for $79.” [Laughing] I’d say hitherto we had never really seen the juxtaposition between searing human tragedy and attractive discount pricing. This was one of the only times in which I have called an agency beforehand and said, “I’m giving your ad zero stars. You really might want to reconsider putting this commercial on TV.” But they did anyway.
Q: How did the ad go over?
Garfield: The agency was flooded with calls from consumers crying, “How dare you!” As you might have guessed, they quickly had to pull the campaign.
Q: You say that Calvin Klein has had the most poisonous influence on modern advertising. How so?
Garfield: Thanks largely to Calvin Klein, there’s a whole new calculus about what constitutes advertising impact. The attitude used to be, “Let’s never offend anybody anywhere for any reason, because we don’t want to take the chance of antagonizing anybody.” That was true into the mid-’70s. Since then, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Now advertisers will intentionally offend many people in order to (a) impress their relatively small target audience and (b) generate publicity to expand their brand awareness. Calvin Klein is the pioneer of that. Perhaps the most disturbing example was his 1996 campaign that evoked kiddie porn—an unseen director, obviously an adult, persuades a child to take off his or her clothes. It looked like an audition, and although the ads didn’t include sex, they were nauseating. Calvin Klein is not an advertiser. He’s an arsonist. He lobs Molotov cocktails into the media culture, and everybody is appalled but also titillated by the conflagration. And Calvin Klein strolls by and sells them $100 million dollars in CK-branded crap. “Shockvertising” is what it’s called, and it has become the standard technique.
Q: If advertisers aren’t trying to shock, it seems that they’re trying to be funny. Is there more humor in ads now than there used to be?
Garfield: I did an audit. In the year 2002, 104% of all ads tried to be funny. Why? One of the main reasons is the clicker—the remote control. You don’t want people to change the channel, so entertainment has become the default solution. Humor can be effective, but it’s not the only technique. Every year I give out the Bobby Awards for the best actor and actress in advertising, and I can no longer find actors doing drama in commercials. It’s all comedy. As recently as eight or 10 years ago, there were still dramas, some of which were very effective.
Q: Such as?
Garfield: I remember AT&T had this marvelous campaign with a spot about a woman taking her daughter to college. Mom drops her off, the two say their goodbyes, then Mom drives home. It was this beautiful bittersweet moment, but not overly sentimental.
Q: Was this the one where the daughter calls home that night to check on her mother?
Garfield: Yeah, it was so charming, and there’s nothing like that now. After 9/11, I predicted that humor as the default solution in ads would actually dissipate, and I was right in the sense that there’s all this patriotic stuff that came afterwards. This solidarity—blah, blah, blah. When that went away, it was not replaced by less smart-alecky commercials. The smart-alecky stuff came back. Most of it is just terrible.
I’m not one of those old scolds who believes that advertising should be unfunny. I don’t think it should be unentertaining. I don’t think it should be unintriguing or unarresting or undelightful. I think it should be all of those things as long as it’s also selling the crap that the guy’s trying to sell to begin with. If it isn’t, it’s just very expensive telemasturbation.
Q: In addition to the remote control, advertisers also have to contend with countless cable channels and ad-eliminating technology like TiVo. Is advertising as we know it doomed?
Garfield: It has definitely gotten a lot harder. Back when I was growing up, there were three major networks, and there was no remote control device, no video games, no internet, no other media vying for your attention. The way advertisers dealt with this captive audience was by hitting people upside the head. And, boy, did it ever work. But it was so oppressive that people began to turn it off, tune it out, and disbelieve it.
So contemporary advertisers have to deal with this enormous amount of consumer resistance along with the enormous number of media options and the remote control and now TiVo. Their solution has been to try to be more entertaining or shocking than the next guy. This stuff is all built on the premise that “We have to do it or they’ll turn us off.” But that isn’t necessarily true. Consumers tune out certain ads, not all ads. It’s a long-forgotten but obvious fact about advertising: People don’t mind being sold to. If you walk on the boardwalk at Atlantic City or some place, you’ll find a guy selling, I don’t know, vegetable peelers. He’s making carnations out of radishes and there’s a hundred people watching him and listening to his patter, and guess what? A healthy percentage wind up buying peelers. Look, a lot of people subscribe to the newspaper for the food ads. Consumers want information. They want to know what goods and services are out there.
Q: Have you ever stopped and counted how many ads you’ve seen over the years?
Garfield: No, but I guarantee you it’s fewer than you have. And fewer than anyone who is reading this piece has seen, because I—please don’t let this get out—don’t watch much television.
Q: Really? Why not?
Garfield: It’s not a philosophical decision. It’s just that TV doesn’t fit much into my lifestyle. I like TV. There’s lots of good stuff on if you’re willing to look for it. But between my work and my family I have always had a lot going on. If I have an hour to relax, I’ll relax with a book or the newspaper.
Q: How little is little?
Garfield: Certainly over the last 20 years, I’ve averaged less than three hours a week.
Q: When you do watch, what do you watch?
Garfield: Mostly HBO. [Laughing] Commercial-free HBO. And I watch movies and sports and occasionally news broadcasts. So if you’re wondering if this makes me ill-equipped to do my other job as well, as a host of On the Media, the answer is yes.
Q: Actually, you mention in the book that you have a rather high batting average in terms of picking effective campaigns.
Garfield: It’s phenomenal.
Q: Tell me about a successful ad campaign that you were wrong about.
Garfield: I gave “Just Do It,” which is probably one of the three or four most effective campaigns in the history of commerce, only three stars out of a possible four. I blew that one. The original spot was a 54-year-old woman, if I recall correctly, who took up running when she was 50, and she was shown running through some nasty Seattle weather because she just had to run. It was quite severe. The initial message was essentially “Get off your fat ass,” which hitherto hadn’t been the idiom of sneaker advertising. In some respects, it has taken Nike 10 to 15 years to soften the campaign. Only now are they getting to the very last dimension of “Just Do It,” which is play, sport for fun. So, in a way, my original hesitation might have been justified.
Q: What about ad campaigns that you gave high marks but which ultimately bombed?
Garfield: I blew another sneaker campaign called “UBU.” It was a very clever, witty, and pointed campaign, which got to the heart of things: “Let’s not pretend. These shoes are about expressing yourself, not about sports performance.” What Reebok and I neglected to realize was a very important part of consumer psychology, which is that certain products acquire their cachet as fashion items only because they also have performance benefits. Nobody who owns a Rolex watch takes it a hundred feet underwater, but they could, which gives a Rolex its cachet. In order for Reebok shoes to succeed as a fashion item, they have to be taken seriously as a sporting item, but that wasn’t the message.
Q: How long did the campaign run?
Garfield: Oh, about 11 minutes. They missed it and I missed it—in a big way. I gave it four stars. Ouch.
Q: When was the last time you bought something as a result of an ad?
Garfield: I once gave four stars to an infomercial for some sort of fishing lure, because they so thoroughly convinced me that this was going to be the difference. I love fishing, but I’m really, really, really bad at it. So yeah, I was persuaded by the commercial to buy the lure. I’m not immune. Advertising works.
Q: Did the lure make you a better fisherman?
Garfield: Of course not.
Q: Does anyone practice truth in advertising, or is it all spin?
Garfield: There’s truth in advertising, because it can be expensive to be deceitful. Your competition is going to haul you into court. But that doesn’t mean advertisers tell the whole truth. It’s all about putting your best foot forward, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The Federal Trade Commission permits a certain amount of puffery, because consumers understand that there’s selling afoot and that they are supposed to peel back the layers of puffery.
Q: Which industries cross the line into outright deceit?
Garfield: Pharmaceutical ads for over-the-counter stuff have always been very misleading. It’s one of the great disgraces in American commercial society. I know a lot of college-educated people who don’t know what they’re buying when they buy cold medicine. They’re so baffled by the competing claims. You can watch detergent advertising on five continents for a year and never see the lies and misrepresentations that you will see in one evening of watching over-the-counter medicine ads here. I think it’s inexcusable, but a whole series of Food and Drug Administrations have apparently disagreed with me.
Q: Have you considered working on the other side as an ad consultant?
Garfield: I did the arithmetic once. I could make around a million dollars a year doing that. That’s one million dollars a year. [Laughing] But I don’t have any desire to walk through that door. I don’t like to go to meetings. I don’t like corporate politics. I don’t want to have to wear shoes, much less shiny ones. And I’m not that keen on collaboration. Look, I’m a journalist. There’s a certain mentality attached to that and it doesn’t make you a good candidate for many honorable ways of making a living. I don’t begrudge anyone a career in advertising. I think it’s a perfectly legitimate undertaking. I just don’t think I have the temperament for it.
Q: What’s your favorite ad campaign these days?
Garfield: ESPN’s “This is SportsCenter.”
Q: What do you think the industry thinks of you?
Garfield: I suspect I’m regarded approximately the way that Howard Cosell was regarded: held in equal parts fear and contempt, but with a perverse attraction nonetheless.
Chuck Salter was a senior writer at Fast Company magazine at the time of this interview.