Too much of a good thing

Nike’s trip-up should be a warning to those who use saturation marketing.

Marketing Magazine, November 9, 1998   

There’s bad advertising and good advertising, but even the most basic business philosophies agree that no advertising is worse.


While there are differences in the quality of one campaign or execution and another, advertising’s intrinsic worth has never been in doubt. Telling people about your product makes very basic sense. You could wait for them to discover what you do, try it for themselves and then wait for word of mouth to spread. But that might take too long. Or it might not happen at all. So you buy an ad in the local Yellow Pages or you hire a heavyweight agency and a media buying service and you pay millions of dollars to drill your product and its brand character into the consciousness of every possible consumer as well as their friends, relatives and neighbors. Really well-made advertising offers a welcome respite from whatever shabby, ill-conceived media product it’s supposed to be underwriting.


Everybody loves ice cream, too. But a gallon-and-a-half at one sitting isn’t likely to be a popular menu item.


Turns out there is such a thing as bad advertising. Too much of anything can be detrimental. When advertising repels consumers, it’s bad. And it is possible to bombard consumers too thoroughly, to saturate them past the point of brand awareness to outright aversion.


Ask Phil Knight or any of his waffle-soled lieutenants at Nike. There was a time — one that seems pretty recent — when Nike was the quintessential example of a business/advertising paradigm for the next millennium. The company was founded on an evangelical mission, with Knight selling shoes out of the trunk of his car. That same rebellious ethos powered the company to the top of the athletic-shoe heap. And what helped it get there was marketing. Portland’s Wieden & Kennedy translated that passion into advertising that built a brand identity that every flabby-assed sofa-spud who wanted to identify with high-priced athletes just had to have two pieces of. Until this year, when Nike’s revenues and profits cratered alarmingly. After a lot of fretful soul-searching and some market research, it was revealed that Nike’s marketing had changed at some point from a steamroller crushing every kernel of consumer resistance to a big, fat liability.


Used to be you couldn’t spit without hitting that swoosh. Its ubiquity prompted the online pamphleteers at Suck to posit a time in the near future when Nike would trademark empty space, since it and the swoosh were rapidly approaching equivalency. But then there came a tipping point; consumers had seen too much of the swoosh and started trying to escape it. They encountered it enough on the way to and from work, on television, in print, on their kids. The last place they wanted to see it was in their closets or on themselves. Nike didn’t help its case much with an overreaching greed that arrogantly presumed it could charge whatever it damned well pleased for its products. Cheap Vietnamese labor meant profit margins were already obscene; whatever arbitrarily astronomical price-point the company chose to charge was just a matter of degree.


Now look at Nike’s advertising. That swoosh is so diminished you have to squint to see it in the final frames of a comparatively narrow selection of TV commercials. It’s been shrunk and reincorporated with the company’s name. This less overt approach might work. Or the company might have to scale things back further. It might be too late. Once you’ve shown consumers how much your business is predicated on an abiding contempt for them, will they ever think of anything else when they see any of your marketing?


The last couple of weeks have seen disappointing quarterly numbers for titans such as Coca-Cola, Gillette and McDonald’s. Known as “non-cyclicals” by traders and analysts, they were thought impervious to the business cycle; they push products people want — not need, want — because of superior and relentless marketing. And everybody can think of a recent movie whose advertising couldn’t be escaped and was so execrable that each new billboard, transit ad or TV spot elicited wincing or a derisive snort (hello, Godzilla). Most recently, colleagues have been making ornery “boy-am-I-getting-sick-of-that-campaign” noises about the “Pre/Post” ads for Hollinger’s daily newspaper, the National Post. And consumer awareness of that arrival had been cranked up to unprecedented levels thanks to the mounting tide of anticipointment advancing ahead of it among the chatterati.


All these companies employ media strategies similar to air war tactics that were mighty popular among the generals running the Vietnam war. Variously known as carpet — or saturation — bombing, its inescapability makes perfect, unassailable sense on paper. How can it fail, you might think, seeing it laid out as matter of simple arithmetic. Then ask yourself who won the Vietnam War.