Business Columns & Blogs

Tell us about good, bad and ugly ads

This year marked the 15th anniversary of the rollout of a landmark product for Microsoft, its Windows 95 operating system.

The Redmond company spent serious money to promote the launch, including the use of the Rolling Stones hit “Start Me Up,” the suggestion being that computer users could do just that with Windows 95 on their personal computers.

It did not escape notice, however, that one refrain in “Start Me Up” has Mick Jagger lamenting “you make a grown man cry.” Lots of computer users could empathize with that lyric after dealing with the quirks and peculiarities of Microsoft operating systems that moved at a pace that would make glaciers appear positively nimble – when they were moving at all.

It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that incongruity figured in an advertising campaign. A recent full-page ad in Bloomberg Business Week magazine features a photo of the Boeing 787 soaring into the clouds. “We help big ideas take off,” proclaims the advertiser, North Carolina-based New Breed Logistics, which touts three performance-excellence awards from Boeing to promote its service of “outsourced logistics and supply chain consulting.”

The 787 is flying, although not yet in the service of any airline that has ordered the plane. These days, the most notable feature of the 787 is not the extensive use of composite materials in its construction but the extensive delays in getting the plane to market, with “maybe the middle of the first quarter of next year” being the current guess.

Given the blame for those delays – Boeing’s production model and outsourcing the building of components to subcontractors around the world – the question arises in readers’ minds: “Is that really the message you wanted to convey?”

All this is by way of introduction for the 10th anniversary edition of Readers Rate the Ads, the annual public service provided by this column and this newspaper to give you, the consumer and intended target of advertising, a chance to praise and vent about what you see.

Lots of reader comments over the years have focused on that issue of what message was intended vs. what was actually sent. It’s stunning to consider the number of advertisements that make their way to printed page and electronic screen after review by battalions of people, none of whom said, “Uh, I think we’ve got a problem here.”

Consider, for example, the current TV campaign from Sprint, in which users of the company’s phone service deliver bad news, but then console the recipients that the message didn’t cost anything extra. The intended message might have been Sprint’s pricing plan. The actual message: Our customers are insensitive louts.

That doesn’t mean messages have to be blunted or watered down to be effective and deliver the intended message. Ally Bank has a TV spot making fun of teaser rates, in which new customers are offered better deals than existing customers. The scenario: A man in a suit offers ice cream to one kid who bounds into the picture, but denies it to one who has been sitting there, on the rationale that the arrival is “new.” When the sitting kid protests that he’s new too, the suit hems and haws that the other kid is “newer.”

That’s an effective ad for dealing with a persisting consumer annoyance – companies value the customers they don’t have over the ones they do. It’s so on point, in fact, that Ally ought to lease or lend the idea to advertisers in other businesses – sellers of cable television and Internet access services, to mention one industry that has been a notorious offender.

But now we seek your take on advertising, be it in print, broadcast, online, billboard, bus side or wherever you encounter commercial messages. What ads conveyed their messages amusingly, movingly, effectively? Which sent messages that were horribly off-kilter from what was intended?

Which ads of the last year made you sit up, take notice and say, “That’s better than the programming.” Conversely, what ads in the last year had you scrambling for the remote to mute the volume or change the channel?

And while we’re on the subject, what is technology doing to your ability to dodge advertising? This is no small matter for advertisers or the news, information and entertainment services that depend on ad revenue to keep their operations financially viable. Between the recession and the proliferation of channels carving the audience into ever-smaller segments, advertisers are trying to figure out how to get the most out of increasingly tight marketing budgets; ad revenue-dependent businesses are trying to figure out how to be an effective channel and thus snare a piece of what revenue is available. And consumers are trying to figure out how they can get what they want without paying for it or enduring ad clutter.

Send your nominations for good and bad ads of 2010, and your thoughts on ad trends, to the e-mail address below, and we’ll compile them for a future column.

Your turn.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at