by Christopher Lindquist

Analyzing IT Advertising

Jul 01, 2001 6 mins
Consumer Electronics

THE INFORMATION AGE HAS DONE NOTHING if not enhanced the IT vocabulary of the average citizen. Thanks to various sock puppets, herds of cats and a host of other spokesthings, even your auto mechanic probably knows what systems integration means.

Unfortunately, that newfound knowledge may lead to even more people telling CIOs how to do their jobs. For this reason alone, it’s worth taking a look at some of the recent advertising that tech companies are using to spread their information and misinformation.

In truth, the past few months have been sad ones for TV advertising aimed at CIOs. Many of those happy-go-lucky dotcoms that were keeping Madison Avenue so solidly in the black for the past couple of years recently went to the well one more time and fell to the bottom?hard.

In a perfect world, this would mean that tech-company marketing departments had finally realized that spending tens of millions to show off their products to legions of people who couldn’t care less doesn’t make any sense.

But this isn’t a perfect world. The real reason for the recent dearth of tech ads is rapidly shrinking stock prices. Give the Nasdaq a revived pulse, and you’ll undoubtedly see those money sinks reappear.

I know the argument: It’s all about brand recognition. If an ad helps generate just a handful of million-dollar sales, it pays for itself. The problem is, the argument is specious. Do Fortune 1000 companies buy enterprise products because a marketing vice president thinks that a company’s ads are cute or because they made some CFO laugh so hard Chianti came out his nose? I don’t think so. Please correct me if I’m wrong, because I’d love to make sure that my portfolio doesn’t include such companies.

So without further ado, on to the ads.

EDS. “Herding Cats”?which gave us dusty, crusty and heavily scratched cowpokes waxing poetic on the perils and pleasures of bringing free-range felines in from their home on the plains?was a classic. In fact, it was one of last year’s most popular Super Bowl ads, although I doubt one person in 100 could tell you what EDS actually does. This year, the company tried to follow up with the “Running of the Squirrels.”

Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho! Ha. Heh. Oh, heck, it just wasn’t that funny. Plus, while the phrase “hard as herding cats” means something to most people (it’s like hard, ya know?), “running with squirrels” just lies there like a dead musk ox.

Their message: Managing information systems is hard.

Real message: We’re pretty funny guys, aren’t we? Aren’t we!?

Accenture. Is there anything sadder than the recent attempts by the former Andersen Consulting to establish its new brand?the obtuse, meaningless moniker Accenture? I guess it’s only fitting then that the company’s first big Super Bowl-launched ad campaign should be equally meaningless. Take the bacteria ad, which shows luminous microbes throbbing and weaving to strains of classical music. When I see dancing bacteria, the first thing I think of is Gary Larson’s wonderfully twisted Far Side cartoons, not enterprise-level computer consulting.

The name change was not really Anderse…I mean, Accenture’s fault, of course. An arbitrator forced the company to assume a new identity to differentiate itself from its estranged parent company, the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. Given Andersen’s position in the enterprise-consulting world, being forced to perform a name-ectomy was a serious blow. Pardon us for not being able to print the precious greater-than symbol over the “t.” (And I wonder how much extra the brand consultant charged for that little detail?) The company’s happy noise about “putting an accent on the future” and “aspirations to transcend the definitions of traditional consulting” is just that?noise. I mean, who wouldn’t love to give up a rock-solid brand name in favor of starting from scratch and spending millions just to get people to forget who you were? In fact, I bet that IBM, McDonald’s and Nike are working around the clock right now to find some new names for themselves, don’t you?

Their message: Accenture has the expertise to prepare you for the future.

Real message: Hey! Remember us? Yo! Look over here!

Cingular. Remember the good old days when wireless service companies sold cell phones and pagers? Now they sell self-actualization. Cingular Wireless, a joint venture of BellSouth and SBC that merged under an emperor’s-new-clothes-style brand name, never really tells you what they do other than to insist that they’re all about unleashing human potential. A lot of people used to say that about LSD too. In fact, some of the activities that these new Cingular ads portray look like they could easily be the result of the uncontrolled use of a controlled substance.

Which is not to say that they’re not entertaining. Watching a bunch of fat football players take touchdown dance lessons from a flouncy little old man is a hoot. And seeing artist Dan Keplinger, who suffers from cerebral palsy, create his paintings is inspiring. But does either of these ads give anybody a clue as to what Cingular actually does?

Cingular’s advertising often blathers on about believing in the value of self-expression. Well isn’t that special. One Cingular spot even has the cajones to throw in a bit of audio from Martin Luther King?as if King would ever have shilled for cell phones. Here’s an idea, Cingular: Why don’t you reach out with both hands, grab hold of the edge of your desk, and squeeze hard. It’s called getting a grip. You sell wireless services. The most creative use most people have for your products is inventing ways to drive with their kneecaps while they dial so that they can ask their spouses whether they should pick up Mexican or Chinese for dinner.

Their message: Wireless shall set you free.

Real message: We can hardly believe how important we are.

IBM. Big Blue continues to impress with its ad campaigns. Those monochrome-blue snippets of life are generally humorous while still making a point. Who can’t relate to the “Bill the CEO” spot when the flustered top exec makes a televised promise to go wireless in one-third the time of his company’s original plan? No Stephen Covey-esque claims of paradigm shifts. No Chopra-like spiritual journeys. IBM just presents chuckle-inducing tableaus of people facing realistic issues.

IBM is also one of the few tech companies that speak directly to the CIO. A recent spot shows a nervous tech exec getting the news that after his company’s merger, he’s the one who’ll be left behind to make everything work. Kind of hits you where you live, doesn’t it?

Their message: IBM has solutions for your business problems.

Real message: IBM has solutions for your business problems.

Now there’s a radical synergy.