#TBT: Know Your Customers, or Just Think You Do?

Happy #TBT. To celebrate, we’re sharing an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Know Your Customers or Just Think You Do.

Like many of you, I watched the Super Bowl yesterday [February 8, 2010], and it was a pretty terrific game.

Typically, I ignore (or fast forward through) commercials, but since the Super Bowl commercials are noteworthy, I actually paid attention to them. I’m not particularly interested in breaking down which ones worked, etc., but I noticed something.

Most of the commercials looked as though they were made by the same agency, with the same actors, with roughly the same tone. They centered more or less on young-ish, nebbishy, unshaven men acting like helpless morons.

A few years ago, Seth Godin wrote a book called All Marketers Are Liars. Of course, his target audience for the book was marketers. It wasn’t the usual Seth Godin success because, as he later said, he had insulted his target market. He changed the title to All Marketers Tell Stories. Not as snappy a title, but by that time, he was just making a point anyway.

It puzzles me that so many of these commercials, quite obviously aimed at what these companies imagine to be their target market, don’t just use humor; they actually insult the target market. You are stupid, you are spineless, you are a bit of a loser, you’d bury yourself in a casket for the chance to eat Doritos. I’m not saying it’s not fun to laugh at morons doing insane hijinks for 30 seconds; there used to be a show all about that. It was called The Three Stooges. I’m just saying that not many people want to see themselves as the stooge.

Here’s a counterexample: same target audience, uses humor, special effects and all that, but also identifies a problem and a solution for the target audience:

You might not REALLY be as awesome as Timothy Richmond (from the commercial), but we all do like to think of ourselves as competent, even though sometimes we need a little help with things like buying a car.

Advertising like this is dying. These are the same old tricks and stunts they’ve been doing at the Super Bowl for probably 20 years now. No small part of the fatigue here, I believe, is that many of these companies assume they understand the person watching the Super Bowl (even though in reality half of everyone in America watches the Super Bowl) when their understanding is pretty superficial.

Of course, I’m on record as saying that even effectively designed advertising is decreasingly effective because people can so easily tune it out, but the Super Bowl may actually be the exception. This is a time when people have somehow been convinced to watch the commercials. It’s like every night in the ’50s through ’70s all over again!

And perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe guys do want to think of themselves as useless morons, or maybe the real target audience is women, and it’s women who want to think of men as useless morons. I don’t see that being true either way. It may very well be that these companies see their customers as useless morons, and if that’s the case, then the low return on investment that Super Bowl ads typically have is well deserved.

What I’m saying is simply this: Are you communicating to your audience or to some preconceived idea of your audience?

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