Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Advertising Matters

  The Super Bowl is this Sunday (weather permitting) and in addition to the game on the field there will be many advertisements making their debut during the game. The advertisements are heavily produced and will be intensely scrutinized since every 30 second ad will have cost 4 MILLION DOLLARS to show during the game and that doesn't count the design and production costs. I appreciate a good commercial and even though I have no idea why so much money is spent on commercials I have to give the companies that pay for them enough credit to understand that if the commercials didn’t turn into profits somewhere along the way they would not be made and I also got to thinking about advertising in general and my favorite commercials in particular.

  This is one of the best commercials I’ve seen in the past year. I can’t see the weather-beaten face of Jean-Claude Van Damme staring at me with one eye larger than the other saying ‘I’ve had my ups and downs. My fair share of bumpy roads and heavy winds. That’s what made me what I am today.” and not get chills up my spine and involuntarily nod my head in agreement. The music sets off his words perfectly and if that wasn’t enough the reveal then shows Van Damme balanced with each foot on the rear-view mirror of two Volvo Trucks speeding backwards at the perfect distance for a high-speed split.

  I’ve never even seen this commercial on television – just on Facebook, but it was enough for me to find the video on YouTube and download the song ‘Only Time’ by Enya onto my music player even though I never heard of the song or the artist. It’s a great commercial but I’m not sure if it’s a good advertisement for the Volvo Company. After all, I didn’t feel the need to rush out and buy a Volvo truck and even if I was in the market for a truck I doubt this commercial would make me think I needed a truck with such precise steering that an aging martial arts/ action hero could do a split on two of them should the need arise. I do now know that Volvo makes trucks so that may be the whole point of the commercial and if it was it succeeded.

  Like I said at the top of this post, I have no idea why so much money is spent on commercials but then again I may be one of the worst businessmen around. When the company I worked for 13 years was sold for to a group from Indianapolis, I was told I was going to get a retention bonus. I believed it and waited patiently for around 6 months and finally asked about it and was told that the company decided they weren’t going to give me a retention bonus. When I left that company I worked for them on a freelance basis for a bit above my hourly fee even though they were paying three times that for consultants and my skills were more specific. Eventually I wised up and started charging by the job instead of the hour but when I do side jobs for middlemen who deal with the end payer instead of me I am amazed how much cash they can get for even the most mundane programming jobs.

  My chess tournaments rarely turn a profit but I rarely lose money on them either. While the other youth chess tournaments in the state give out plenty of trophies and charge plenty of money to play, I charge $5 for a medal and chance at a small trophy or $3 for a medal and no trophy. I can do this by making my own medals and having a free tournament site at St. Francis in return for coaching their chess club without a fee. Even with those low prices I run into my fair share of kids that can’t afford to play so I let them play for free. At my tournament on Saturday a kid offered to pay me but I know the family is going through some hard times so I told him to forget about it. When the tournament was over he thanks me for buying him the lunch he was going to have with that money I didn’t charge him and that was worth a lot more to me than the $3 I could have pocketed. I could decrease my prices AND give away free entries if I solicited patrons but if you have patrons you have to patronize them and mastery of the art of ‘patronization’ has eluded me so far in life. So I keep things running on a shoestring and I’ve done a pretty good job at it so far. Some people tell me I could turn my monthly youth tournaments into a profit machine and there are times when it is very, very tempting but I’m not enough of a business person to not make them available to as many kids as possible.

  This Asics ‘Nothing But Next’ ad is another of my favorite commercials. It came out a couple of weeks after last year’s Super Bowl. This guy is on foot chasing a pigeon through New Orleans and we just don’t know why. Did it take a dump on him? Steal the engagement ring he got for his fiancée? Or is the guy just hungry? After chasing the bird to its rooftop home we find out that this is nothing more than the famous ‘Pigeon Workout’ as our protagonist proceeds to put the pigeon in its coop only to release a different pigeon and begin his chase all over again.

  During the commercial I never figured out that the shoes were being advertised but after watching it I did have an urge to put on a pair of sneakers, let my one of my cockatiels out of its cage, and start chasing. Luckily I came to my senses and merely downloaded the song ‘Don’t You Just Know it’ by Huey Piano Smith onto my iPod. Whenever I win a particularly satisfying game of one minute chess I like to play it just like I did after this one:

pgn4web chessboards courtesy of pgn4web.casaschi.net
  I find advertising to be a tricky business because it is very easy to misrepresent yourself or your product. I see a lot of programmers get good jobs by pretending they know skills they don’t and talking a good game. Some get away with ‘faking it until they make it’ and others struggle to catch up, get all stressed out, and get fired or laid off very much worse for wear. I've interviewed for my share of jobs and when the interviewer invariably rattles off their checklist of alphabet soup skills (ASP, PHP, SQL, VB, C#, MVC, E-I-E-I-O,...), I'm quick to say when I've never used one of these mnemonically appropriate skills. This makes many interviewers think I’m not interested in their job because I don't 'play the game' the way the other candidates do, never suspecting honesty is my first option instead of a last resort. Last week, I had someone email to let me know they were visiting chess clubs in the Des Moines schools and was going to give out flyers for my tournaments. The sender was very confused when I mentioned that I preferred not to have my flyers given out. I advertise my tournaments on the internet and email. I used to give out flyers at my camp and chess club until I saw a player begging his mom to let him go to the tournament on a flyer I’d given him for the upcoming weekend and she kept saying no. I told the player that I have a tournament every month so it was no big deal if he missed one and the mom got me to the side and explained that since she was a stay at home mom with kids going to Catholic School there just wasn’t enough money for 2 cars and there wasn’t any way to get the player to the tournament. As someone who has owned as many as five cars at a time this never occurred to me and I haven’t given a flyer to a kid since – I just email the parents and if they can’t or don’t want to let their child know about the tournament it’s up to them. It probably isn’t the right way to sell sugary cereals or little ponies or racing car sets or video games but I rarely have any parents at my tournaments that don’t want to be there and I think I get a lot of parents that are willing to tell other parents about my tournaments because they know I won’t be pitching them to their children.

  I was asked to place a tournament announcement on my chess website for a $15 dollar Iowa State Chess Association (IASCA) youth tournament in Des Moines next week. I prefer to only have my tournaments on my website but I put my friend Jodene Kruse’s tournament announcements up and have put announcements for South Dakota and Minnesota tournaments in the expectation that they will reciprocate when I ask them to post an announcement for the Okoboji Open or other large tournaments I help with. I didn’t want to advertise a $15 tournament to the same people that pay $3 or $5 to attend my events (especially when I know that some of these families are reaching deep to pay that much and still come up empty) so I offered to place the announcement on my site and send an email promoting it IF I could offer a $7.50 entry fee to anyone who mentioned the offer. It made sense to me but probably didn’t make business sense to the IASCA because the offer was rebuffed. I imagine few people advertise products so they can charge less money for them.

  My next favorite commercial is the one for Beats by Dr. Dre where San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick rides the team bus to the hostile environs of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. The Seattle fans are telling him he ‘sucks’, throw fruit and eggs at the bus, and are having a near-riot when Kaepernick puts on his Dr. Dre headphones, the cacophony of noise is replaced by some blissful silence and then Kaepernick is led through the throng of maniacal fans to Aloe Blacc’s ‘I’m the Man’ by the Seattle security forces with a serene look on his face that turns into a smile as he enters the stadium. This is the only commercial of my three favorites where I actually could tell what was being advertised.

  I played the song quite a bit and it did give me a serene feeling as I dreamed about owning these magical headphones that would block out all distractions and let me focus with Colin Kaepernick’s serenity until the NFC championship game when Kaepernick turned the ball over three times in the fourth quarter of the 49er’s 6 point loss at the very same CenturyLink Field that was in the commercial after which my dream changed to sticking with my $5 headphones from Walgreens and keeping the $170+ that I would have used on the magical headphones in my pocket. The song is still great and I downloaded it to my iPod and sometimes I even play it when I pull off a one minute chess escape like this one:

These games aren't high quality by many standards, but the only thing more fun than playing one-minute chess is petting a beagle or two!

Super Bowl 48 - Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ
If I had gone 2-0 instead of 0-2 in my NFL playoff picks two weeks ago I would have been able to advertise a 8-2 mark and sold my Super Bowl pick on a 1-900 number instead of giving it away for free on my blog. It's just as well because I have no clue who is going to win this game and much of my indecision depends on the weather. If it is not windy or rainy I like the Broncos giving 2 points and the over of 46.5 but if there is wind or rain I would take the Seahawks and the under. At this moment the weather report calls for a clear day with little wind so I'll bet a mythical $110 of my mythical $160 playoff winnings and take the Broncos minus the two points (as shown in the betonline.ag from the Yahoo odds page). I think that the Broncos have an ace in their pocket in that the NFL heirarchy may instruct their officials to call the game tightly to give Bronco QB Peyton Manning every opportunity to end a storybook year with a championship which is likely the storyline that will give the NFL the most positive publicity. The other reason I like the Broncos in the absence of weather issues is that I believe their defense will prove to be much better than the Seahawks offense and negate the edge I would give the Seahawks defense over the Broncos offense.