Monday, June 30, 2008

While my Guitar (Hero) gently weeps

The last few weeks have had a lot of marketing and retail news that’s made me stop in my tracks and say, incredulously, “really? Are you kidding?” Despite a background in consumer research and design, I still consider myself a mere fly on the wall of marketing strategy. Still, there are some gleefully optimistic advertising campaigns that just call out for commentary. Here are three that Marketing Daily highlighted all on the same day, without a trace of irony.

First, the Corn Refiners Association has sponsored a new advertising campaign to try and convince women consumers that High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is not the evil substance behind the growing numbers of children and adults with type 2 diabetes. The ad campaign must convince consumers that HFCS is all natural (made from corn!) and no different than other sweeteners and that the American Medical Association has concluded that HFCS is no greater contributor to obesity than sugar. With my social scientist hat on, I’ve developed some critiques of the whole obesity epidemic scare and I do think most consumers are smart enough to realize that one item in their diet isn’t the cause. This is true no matter how ubiquitous the food is (just try doing your weekly shopping without buying HFCS and see what I mean). But HFCS has been deeply vilified by scientists, consumers, and policy-makers, while at the same time corn production has been heavily subsidized by the government. HFCS is a good stand-in villain for a host of larger problems within the food industry and culture. Any positive-spin ad campaign has to combat a whole combination of problems: a supremely bad reputation, a relationship to a non-sustainable public policy, the possibility that it’s probably not good to have any single food item appear so uniformly throughout our diet, and, the clincher I think, is changing women’s minds about what’s healthy for their kids. Unless HFCS is suddenly discovered to cure the common cold, I’m not seeing a whole lot of moms running out to buy more Lucky Charms based on this one, are you?

Second, an old but struggling stand-by has had a mid-life crisis: Sears has launched a new marketing offense aimed at bringing teens into the store, using LL Cool J and a new media blitz called “The American Mall.” According to the Associated Press,

“The American Mall,” produced by the team responsible for the tween-loved “High School Musical” series, is a massive cross-promotion between MTV and Sears.

Scenes for the 87-minute film were shot in a Utah Sears store. Characters wear Sears clothes, which shoppers can purchase. And the actors will appear in Sears advertisements and circulars. Meanwhile, Sears will sell the DVD and soundtrack in stores, while promoting the film and getting commercial time when the movie airs on MTV on Aug. 11.
While Sears may have some success with this approach, it’s not clear to me if it's going to distinguish their brand from the other mass of department stores and specialty clothing lines all vying for the mighty teen dollar. Even if Sears is no longer the place to get your washing machine or power drill, selling clothes to teens (in this tighter spending market, even) leaves the company with a fickle core consumer base and a lack of true retail purpose. Not to mention that it's Sears. And honestly, L.L. Cool J?

Finally, the one that gets me off the observer's wall is the news that two game companies are potentially vying to create a Beatles version of Rock Band and/or Guitar Hero. Sony, Apple Records and EMI own the rights to the majority of Beatles titles and they have been notoriously careful with licensing Beatles songs for commercial use, even keeping them off iTunes for an unbearably long time. (Remember all the flak Michael Jackson took when he owned a larger chunk and we got Revolution-backed commercials?) Rumors of licensing agreements reappear every few months -- when, for example, the original iPhone release featured “Lovely Rita” coming from the phone. Recently, American Idol featured a Beatles Week, where certain songs were performed with permission. Similarly, Cirque de Soleil’s LOVE show in Las Vegas was backed by a 78-minute collage of Beatles tunes, orchestrated by Sir George Martin. And then, of course, there was Across the Universe, a Beatles-inspired version of Hair for the Lion King generation. But if the rumors are true (and the rumors are, themselves, a pre-marketing campaign), many of you will be listening to Helter Skelter played by the wannabe rock star in your living room – before you’re able to download Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds onto your iPod.

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