Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Dude, Read the C Blog

Marketers are a strange bunch, there's no getting around it. I bet they all live in some alternate universe, a shadowy place lit only by billboards displaying TV drug commercials. In that world, teeming hordes of consumers mill about, searching for guidance or at least a kick-ass pair of jeans.

Such a scenario is the only way to explain Turner Broadcasting's latest campaign to promote a Cartoon Network show. The company's marketing department was apparently convinced that people would squeal happily at the sight of small, blinking devices attached to a bridge and immediately shout "Aqua Teen Hunger Force!" Uh, sure.

What happened, of course, was that Boston police thought they were bombs and blew them up. I tell you, if my personal safety from terrorists ever becomes a major concern, I'm moving to Boston. It was the only major city hit by the campaign to respond. Apparently terrorists could install blinking lights spelling out "KABOOM" in every major bridge in New York and San Francisco and no one would care.

Marketers say they're driven to such crazy stunts because consumers are so sophisticated. They need to cut through the blizzard of ads surrounding consumers (and who is responsible for that blizzard?) and trigger an immediate emotional response. Quality doesn't sell. Truth doesn't sell. Common sense doesn't sell. Apparently even words don't sell, since marketers are paring their message down to a blinking cartoon character on a bridge giving us the finger.

Which brings us, oddly enough, to the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is always dreaming up new ways to attract tourism. They've given up on silly slogans ("It's a Great Time in Detroit!") and reduced this gritty, struggling city to a single letter: D. I suppose that's better than campaign's official underlying message -- a stealth slogan, if you will -- which is "Detroit: Where Cool Comes From." Congratulations, DMCVB, you've found a slogan so stupid that even you won't use it on your marketing material.

The Detroit Free Press lapped up the whole concept, opening a fawning Feb. 1 article on the campaign with: "Whatever happens in Vegas can stay there. This is the D." Then the editors presented a montage of D's through history. Jesus, is this a reputable newspaper or Sesame Street? Will E be the letter of the day today?

Maybe I just don't get it. The convention bureau says it's targeting young people ages 21-34, those too young to remember the 67 riots or Detroit's bleak winter of 1981. (For a really good history of Detroit during the 70s and 80s, the era the convention bureau apparently wants to sweep under the rug, read David Halberstam's "The Reckoning." It remains one of my very favorite books.)

Anyway, the convention bureau doesn't want cranky folks like me. They want the young, hip, grungy crowd. Maybe they're right, but I can't imaging edgy, disaffected 20-somethings sitting around saying, "Detroit could be a cool place -- if only it had some fancy metal Ds on its marketing literature."

Oh hell, maybe Detroit's marketers are right and I am wrong. In fact, maybe even a D is too complicated -- too old-fashioned and cerebral. Maybe the convention bureau should put some blinking guy on the RenCen, giving everyone the finger.