The toothpaste conundrum

In a front-page story about the resignation of George Entwhistle, the Sunday Times wrote in a tone of disparagement that the man taking over temporarily, Tim Davie, had “a background in marketing – he spent part of his early career with PepsiCo.”

You could almost hear the *sniffs*.

On page 7 of the same newspaper, an article about Alan Bennett’s new play quoted an historian called Adam Nicholson speaking of an England “that is awash with marketing and uncertain of where it is going.”

I’m reminded of a section in Douglas Adams’ great comic novel The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which we discover a planet populated by telephone sanitising engineers and marketers … The implication being that if we could only relegate such non-productive people to a distant corner of the universe, we’d all be better off.

We need to ask ourselves why marketing is such a dirty word – and I think it helps to look at masturbation in this context.

Warren Beatty once claimed to have made love to over 1,000 women.

The musician Basshunter once claimed, while in the Celebrity Big Brother House, that he’d masturbated 20 times in one day.

Both of these are wonderful achievements, you have to admit, but I know whose hand I’d rather shake.

Now I’m not saying that everyone working in marketing is a masturbator. But I am saying that a lot of marketing is masturbation. Engrossing for the individual at the heart of it, but either meaningless or offensive to everyone else

Let’s look at toothpaste advertising, in particular.

Most of it is boring as all hell (I don’t think even the most self-obsessed of my Facebook friends would bother telling me about how they brushed their teeth this morning, but we’re expected to be engrossed when a complete stranger interrupts something we’re engaged with to tell us).

The problem is that they’ve done focus groups.

And non-experts convened in a room to discuss advertising rarely move the game on, whether it’s a focus group or a creative review session with 14 random people in it.

I’m sure in focus groups people say that they’re interested in technical breakthroughs (“this toothpaste not only cleans your teeth, it cleans your arse at the same time”) but in real life nobody usually gives a monkey’s.

However, toothpaste advertisers have their research figures to back them up, which leads them to believe that they should keep on boring people to death with product-y ads.

However, the  key thing about marketing isn’t about understanding your product, it’s about understanding your consumer.

It’s no use finding a neat way of summing up your product if nobody’s interested in the first place.

(And believe me, in about 95% of situations, nobody IS interested in the product. I’m not sure if we actually NEED many new products. But we certainly need new brands – because there’s only a handful of real brands out there. And people are looking for brands to bring something valuable to the party.)

What people are interested in, are their own needs and desires.

That’s what you need to focus on – and if a toothpaste campaign did that – thinking about its customers, what they like, what they want from life – rather than bleating on about some miniscule and uninteresting product benefit, they might actually build a meaningful brand – in a sector which currently has no products which I would consider even worthy of the name “brand”.

The thing is – it’s all about focussing on them, not you.

Which is rather like the difference between sex and masturbation.

Gore Vidal (whose memoir “Palimpsest” I’m currently enjoying very much) had lots of sexual partners. Although he once claimed that he had never knowingly given another human being an orgasm.

But he wrote “even at twenty, I often paid for sex, on the ground that it was only fair”.

Treating sex as a paid-for medium is all well and good – but sex like that is essentially masturbation.

And I don’t think that’s a recipe for success in marketing.

In fact, to get back to the toothpaste theme,  it’ll probably just leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.

  • Ben Millar

    Toothpaste, the breakfast of champions.

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