Audience Touchdowns or Fumbles

In the business section of the New York Times today were virtual side-by-side articles showing how some people understand today’s marketplace while others still operate under the impression that we’re living in the 1960s.

Take the ones that got it wrong.

In his column recapping the Super Bowl commercials – and commercials even during an exciting game like this year’s are still part of the entertainment – Stuart Elliott wrote that many of these commercials seemed to come from an earlier age. In fact, the headline asked, “Super Bowl Ads Speak to a Generation. But Which One?”

Uh-oh. Some marketers are still living at a time, Elliott wrote, when the idea of a family was one from the 1960s or 1980s, when mothers-in-law were there to be mocked, when women were more concerned with getting out stains than in maintaining a career (and juggling responsibilities between office and home).

The commercials that got today’s thinking wrong, Elliott said, “represented a missed opportunity for marketers and agencies to demonstrate that they had at least some understanding of how contemporary consumers think and behave.”

I’m attuned to this kind of off-key marketing because of the work I’ve done in reading and using “Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict Our Future,” written by Roy H. Williams and my colleague Michael R. Drew. In their book, the authors talk about how society swings on a metaphorical pendulum every 40 years or so, from a generation that relates to egocentric individualism, splash, powerful promises of more and better, and one that is concerned more with small actions, community, truth-telling and keeping it real. These cycles are “Me” and “We” cycles, and we’re currently in that more civic-minded one, when we want it real, raw and relevant.

Many commercials, apparently, are still promising flash over substance.

On the other hand, another profile, this by media columnist David Carr, talked about John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Network, home to such hits as “American Horror Story,” “Justified,” Louis C.K.’s acclaimed series and the newly launched spy drama “The Americans.” Landgraf had been told by network executives, when he worked for broadcast television rather than this cutting-edge basic-cable network, that characters needed to be made more likable, rather than interesting or compelling. Carr writes, “He became convinced that network television was broken — that in an effort to make characters more likable, the industry made television that not anyone much liked.”

We want it real, raw and relevant today. And you know what? FX is a success because its head says yes to shows that reflect today’s reality, even if they’re potentially off-putting horror stories, or fictional spy dramas whose characters are not particularly “likable.”

Carr quotes Landgraf: “By trusting the people you work with — sharing the authority — and being willing to fail, things have gone pretty well for us.”

Well, you’ve got to trust your audience. You can’t pander to an audience – and you do that by not understanding whom you’re addressing. FX gets it right, apparently, while many Super Bowl advertisers were still stuck in an earlier age.

Bob Hughes
Author: Bob Hughes
Robert J. Hughes ("Bob") was a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal for over a decade, specializing in culture reporting. He was the paper's theater reporter, wrote on publishing, the art and auction markets, television, music, film and philanthropy, and reviewed books.