Saturday, July 15, 2006

In search of the Holy Grail.

In Clarion-McCann, one of the first products I started working on was Forhan’s Toothpaste. Just below the brand name on the toothpaste tube and the outer carton, they used to print quite prominently the legend ‘For The Gums’. Though I didn’t know it then (because I was dumb and nobody told me in so many words), Forhan’s was lucky enough to have a clear ‘positioning’ as well as a ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ (what we soon started flinging at one another as ‘USP’). Rosser Reeves and Reality in Advertising had already happened in the US of A, in 1961. That was four years before my first confrontation with Forhans. Only I became aware of it a little later when I bought my copy of the book from, if memory serves, Super Book House at Flora Fountain, run by my friend, Shoiab Ranalvi. (This was the same shop where I once saw Acharya Rajanish, in his pre-Osho, pre-Pune avatar, shopping for a whole pile of books.) Fairfax Cone said this about Reality in Advertising: “Bates advertising is built upon what Mr. Reeves calls the Unique Selling Proposition, and he believes in delivering this without subtlety and without concern for anyone's gentler feelings. He also proves that such advertising works. That it may annoy a great many people, he dismisses as being beside the point.” If you’ve read Reeves’ book, you’ll recall how viciously he attacked Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders. In the eyes of Reeves, Packard’s cardinal sin was to claim that advertisers were playing on unconscious motivations of their prospects. If people spent millions of dollars and millions of hours on the analyst’s couch trying to fathom the deeper depths of their own minds, where was the question of a humble copywriter doing so? Reeves’ other target was John Kenneth Galbraith’s thesis that advertising's “central function is to create desires – to bring into being wants that previously did not exist”. Reeves’ retort was: " … if the product does not meet some existing desire or need of the consumer, the advertising will ultimately fail". He cited Pat Steel: “People don't really need art, music, literature, newspapers, historians, wheels, calendars, philosophy…All that people really need is a cave, a piece of meat, and possibly, a fire.” The final irony about Reeves is the fact that he was contemptuous of fine writing (he had half-jokingly threatened to fire Bates’ writers if they won awards) and yet he was inducted into the Copywriters’ Hall of Fame. His attitude to copy is summed up thus: “Let's say you have $1,000,000 tied up in your little company and suddenly your advertising isn't working and sales are going down. And everything depends on it. Your future depends on it, your family depends on it…Now, what do you want from me? Fine writing? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve stop moving down and start moving up?” I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Reeves would have wholeheartedly approved of the copy of Forhan’s advertising. Unfortunately, it could not propel Forhan's anywhere close to its formidable rival, Colgate

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