Bob Garfield Closes 'Ad Review' Column

Bob Garfield, known to many radio listeners as the co-host of NPR's On The Media, is also a longtime ad critic for Advertising Age magazine. After 25 years of praising and crucifying some of the biggest ad campaigns in America, he's decided to end his "Ad Review" column.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Many listeners know Bob Garfield as co-host of NPR's ON THE MEDIA. Those of you in the ad game know him as the AdReview columnist for Advertising Age magazine. Now, after a quarter century reviewing Mr. Whipple and Just Do It, he wrote his farewell last week. In just a moment, Bob Garfield joins us to say why and to look back on a few of the ads he reviewed over the past 25 years.

And we want to hear from those listeners in the ad business. Did AdReview make a difference? And how's the business changed over the past quarter century? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web Site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Bob Garfield's most recent book is the "Chaos Scenario: Amid the Ruins of Mass Media, the Choice of the Business is Stark: Listen or Perish." And he joins us from his home outside Washington, D.C.

Bob, nice to have you back in the program.

BOB GARFIELD: Thank you, Neal. Great to be here.

CONAN: And I have to ask you if you regret the opportunity to write about the Nike ad where a somber Tiger Woods listens to the voice of his dead father.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARFIELD: Well, I did not get to write about it, you're right. But I got my chance to weigh in, because most of the world really didn't notice that I had retired my AdReview column.

CONAN: Of course, they kept calling you, anyway.

GARFIELD: So the usual suspects - yeah, sure. And I, you know, have soundbite, bite will speak(ph). So, you know, I managed to get my point of view out there.

CONAN: And so you're back home, eating bonbons and watching baseball games?

GARFIELD: As a matter of fact, I might have possibly caught a little bit of the nationals, Philly's game online yesterday while I was, you know, nominally trying to perform my role as the co-host of ON THE MEDIA. But, you know, I'm not idle. I have retired from AdReview, but I, you know, I got plenty to do.

CONAN: As you wrote that piece for AdReview - and we'll get the jokes out - they did have color ads when you started. The - as you look at the business, how has it changed, really, over the past 25 years?

GARFIELD. Well, culturally, I don't think it's changed one bit. As a critic, I was finding the same things wrong with ads in 2010 that I found in 1985 when I got started in the criticism game. It's an industry that is culturally - and this may sound weird - but very much at odds with its function in the economy.

It's supposed to be, you know, helping push goods and services through the marketplace, but the people who are creating the ads are - not only are they - don't have a business mentality in many cases, they're actually hostile to the very clients that were giving them their livelihoods and seem to really struggle with the idea of trying to get information to consumers, so those consumers would, you know, buy stuff.

But that resulted in a lot of very entertaining ads in its way, you know, was culturally iconic and sometimes even kind of great film or great literature. But that's the weird thing about advertising. The people who write it and produce it aren't necessarily very good businesspeople, which made it very easy for me to do my job.

CONAN: Well, let's listen to an ad which you described in your column many years ago as too clever by 95 percent.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Unidentified Man: Maybe the way you really do do it is the way you like it, flame broiled. Think about it: Over a juicy flame-broiled Whopper.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) We do it like you do it when we do it like you do it at Burger King.

CONAN: We do it like you do it when we do it like you do it at Burger King.

GARFIELD: Where did you find that? I thought they had not only did the campaign not last very long, I thought they had destroyed all copies of the ads, because it was such of monumental disaster for all involved.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARFIELD: And I thought, oh, I haven't heard that in more than 20 years. That's from the - a very short-lived Burger King campaign, and one that kind of fits into the whole history of the AdReview column, because when it first came out, after what it - to that point was the largest account change in the history of marketing. The agency that got this account got $200 million worth of billings when they got it. It was huge. It was vast.

CONAN: And that's when 200 million was 200 million.

GARFIELD: Yeah, that's when $200 million was real money. Well, so along - they break this campaign after months and months and months and months of working and working. It was terrible. There were - there was a lot of jokiness to it but none of the jokes were any good, and none of the ads had much to do with the - any of the other ads. There was no thematic -there was nothing in it that was thematically stable and the - whatever the product pitch was to the consumer was more or less invisible. There was various ethnic insensitivities in the casting. And then, there was that slogan, we do it the way you'd do it if you do it the way we do it, or...

CONAN: (Unintelligible)...

GARFIELD: Have done it - I mean, what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARFIELD: And so I did a front-page AdReview in Advertising Age and the copy desk put a very pithy little headline on it. And they had a product at the time called Burger Bundles. And the headline was Burger Bungle. And, oh, my goodness, the Burger Bundles hit the fan.

And about a year later, the agency lost the biggest account switch in marketing history, and the chairman blamed me, and The New York Times seemed to agree with the chairman. And it was an ugly, ugly, ugly affair.

CONAN: We'd like those of you who were - read Bob Garfield's column in Ad Age to call in and tell us about how the business has changed over the past 25 years. And, well, did his column make any difference? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

And to refute the suggestion by some that, well, you just hated everything, here's another commercial. And it begins - remember, this is visual, it's TV - a history buff living in what looks like the Aaron Burr history museum as he is making a peanut butter sandwich.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Mr. ROB PAULSEN (Actor): (as radio station host) And now let's make that random call with today's $10,000 question - and it's a tough one - who shot Alexander Hamilton in that famous duel?

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Mr. PAULSEN: (as radio station host) All right. Let's go to the phones and see who's out there.

(Soundbite of ringing phone)

Mr. SEAN WHALEN (Actor): (as contestant) Hello?

Mr. PAULSEN: (As radio station host) Hello. For $10,000, who shot...

Mr. WHALEN: (As contestant) Aaron Burr.

Mr. PAULSEN: (As radio station host) Excuse me?

Mr. WHALEN: (As contestant) Aaron Burr. Hold on, hold on. Let me get some milk.

(Soundbite of milk pouring)

Mr. WHALEN: (As contestant) No.

CONAN: And then the slogan, Got Milk?

GARFIELD: Yeah. So - I'm not sure if it came across, but this is, like, the world's number one Aaron Burr freak. I mean, he's - and he gets an opportunity with one of these, you know, call-in radio shows to answer questions. It's going to win him a fortune and he is uniquely qualified to answer it, but he's got a mouthful of peanut butter. (makes noise)

CONAN: (Makes noise)

GARFIELD: You know what? I - I've been - just been informed now that that ad was directed by Michael Bay...

CONAN: Really?

GARFIELD: ...the blockbuster filmmaker.

CONAN: "Pearl Harbor."

GARFIELD: Yeah. "Pearl Harbor" and the "Transformers" and now, by the way, the employer of my daughter as of about a month ago. But he did -he made this ad. I believe it was him, and just absolutely hilarious. And it's good a reason for you to go out and buy milk as any as I've ever seen presented. Forget build strong bodies 12 ways. You know, just in case you get a key phone call when your mouth is full, you got to have milk in the fridge.

CONAN: Got to have milk in the fridge.

And you point to a principle - you cite a famous, old theater critic for The New York Times, Vincent Canby, as saying - well, you tell us the principle.

GARFIELD: Well, actually, it's Walter Kerr.

CONAN: Oh, excuse me. I'm...

GARFIELD: And Walter, who at the - before Vincent Canby, mainly in the '50s and '60s, was the lead drama critic for The New York Times. And he, you know, he figured out pretty quickly that you - he could close a show with a single column. But he also realized that there is a tremendous temptation to make the - entertaining his own readers take precedence over being a fair and honest broker of his actual opinions of a show.

And it - I - it was - it's a difficult temptation, I can tell you, to resist. Because sometimes, you know, you - there's a line you just want to get out there but you realize it's, you know, so fundamentally unfair to the thing that you're reviewing.

And so I learned from him - actually, through his wife who wrote a book called "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" - that you have to resist the temptation to violate the values, your values as a journalist, just for the sake of getting off a cheap punch line or two, or for the sake of keeping up a - your image as a curmudgeon or for whatever reason.

CONAN: Well, are...

GARFIELD: Be true to yourself.

CONAN: Are pans easier and more fun to write?

GARFIELD: Are - oh, are pans - see, I thought you said pants.

CONAN: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARFIELD: And I was - well, you can imagine what was going through my head just a moment ago, Neal.

CONAN: Yeah. We're (unintelligible) communications business here. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARFIELD: Are pans easier - well, they're - yes. Pans are easier to write. I mean, so those of us in the finding-fault-with-others industry understand that - and by the way, so does Gawker and most of the, you know, much of the blogosphere out there - understand that it's easier to get attention and some cheap laughs by just going in and teasing and -let's see. What other things can you do that are sort of mean - and being mean-spirited.

And the - if you're clicking on all cylinders, you can be reasonably entertaining while giving - as entertaining giving up four stars as you are giving out none. And if you're clicking on all cylinders, even when you write a pan, you don't turn it into a taunting match. You, you know, you find the fault, get finished with your business and move on to the next case.

CONAN: We're talking with Bob Garfield, editor-at-large at Advertising Age, who wrote his last AdReview column last week for the magazine.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

Let's get Pam(ph) on the line, Pam calling from Madison.

PAM (Caller): Hi, guys. It's nice to talk to you, Bob. It's emblematic that I haven't seen your last column, because, of course, Ad Age used to appear on my desk every year for the last - every Monday for the last 25 years, but that ended maybe five years ago. I've been a marketing consultant for 25 years, and watched the de-evolution of strategy and advertising.

And it's so unfortunate that billions of dollars are going to waste because now advertisers believe that laughter is an emotional connection, and that differentiation is positioning. And so none of it is working and everybody thinks that that means marketing and advertising don't work, and it's wrong.

GARFIELD: Well, that's a good point. Marketing and advertising do work, although less so every day. And in my opinion, most of this has very little to do with the creative flaws of the industry and their, you know, their worship at the altar of comedy as opposed to worshipping at the altar of sales.

I mean, there's other forces going on in the universe, namely the digital revolution, that have - are destroying the media economy, and with it, the completely symbiotic mass marketing economy. So - by the way, which is another reason I got out of the gig. The - I've been telling anybody who'll listen, in my book that you mentioned, and elsewhere, that the advertising industry is on its way to marginalization on the way to absolute irrelevancy. And it's a bit hypocritical of me to be, you know, reviewing ads every week if that's -if those - that's my stated position.

But, you know, as to the cult of comedy, I will say this: You know, I understand how it's turned out this way. I mentioned the kind of cultural hostility towards selling. That's - that is a big problem. But the other is, people don't - you know, with the notion that people love advertising. Yeah, the commercials are better than the programs these days, all that baloney. No, people will avoid advertising wherever they can.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GARFIELD: Overwhelmingly, if you can turn it off, you do. If you can TiVo past it, you will. If you have a spam blocker, you'll put it on. If you can turn the page, you do. People avoid advertising wherever possible. And this - the idea of entertaining advertising came with the proliferation of channels, and people were just, you know, turning away.

And the only option seemed to be to be engaged in them and grab -instead of grabbing them and shaking the - screaming your brand name, to kind of - to trick them into thinking that entertainment was afoot, and then to suddenly get the brand message across. But unfortunately, a lot of jokes were made, a lot of punch lines were delivered, but very, very few brand messages were - survived the transaction.

PAM: If I can also add, I believe that trademarking has taken the place of branding, which is believing if we get the icon out there and the name out there, that's also the same as connecting in the name of sales, which it doesn't. We've lost the authentic human connection.

CONAN: All right, Pam, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

PAM: Thanks.

CONAN: But one of the exemplars of that cult of comedy, if you will, the series of Apple ads that debuted in 2008.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

Mr. JUSTIN LONG (Actor): (as Mac) Hello, I'm a Mac.

Mr. JOHN HODGMAN (Actor): (as PC) And I'm a PC.

(Soundbite of sneezing)

Mr. LONG: (as Mac) Gesundheit. Are you okay?

Mr. HODGMAN: (as PC) No, I'm not okay. I have bad virus thats going around.

Mr. LONG: (as Mac) Oh...

Mr. HODGMAN: (as PC) So you better, you better stay back. This one is a doozy.

Mr. LONG: (as Mac) That's okay. I'll be fine.

Mr. HODGMAN: (as PC) No, no. Do not be a hero. Last year, there are 114,000 known viruses for PCs.

Mr. LONG: (as Mac) PCs, not Macs.

CONAN: John Hodgman there, in a campaign that's still running.

GARFIELD: John Hodgman and Justin Long as the guy who plays the Mac. Yeah, it's a fantastic campaign. Strangely enough, I once asked Bill Gates what he thought of the campaign, he declined to answer. I said, well, wait, John Hodgman, that's you. That's supposed to be you. You're the uber nerd. What does - does it make you laugh? What? He got bright red. He did not want to discuss John Hodgman. Let's just say - anyway. It's a great campaign for a variety of reasons.

Number one, it puts into, you know, stark relief the kind of easygoing, self-assured coolness of Mac versus the uptight, you know, rigid and gigantically uncool PC. And in so doing, actually, picks up on the theme that Apple has used consistently since 1984, when it made, you know, from my perspective the greatest TV commercial ever produced, which introduced the Macintosh - not as the antidote to the PC, you know, the Microsoft's operating system and Windows - but is the antidote to a...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Totalitarianism, yes.

GARFIELD: Yes, to a totalitarian, you know, dictator, authoritarian, bellicose, Big Brother figure IBM.

CONAN: IBM.

GARFIELD: IBM was Big Brother? Okay, so that was in '84. Then, it became Microsoft. Now, I guess it's Google. I'm not sure who's next, although it may be - with the introduction of the iPad, the next Big Brother that Apple needs to warn itself may be Apple.

CONAN: Well, whoever it is next, we'll be able to hear Bob Garfield talk about it on ON THE MEDIA and undoubtedly, he will be lending his caustic and critical views of the advertising industry to any number of other outlets, well, for a bigger price than he used to make as an advertising agent. Bob Garfield...

GARFIELD: From your lips to God's ears, Neal. From your lips to God's ears.

CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today.

GARFIELD: Thank you.

CONAN: Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR's ON THE MEDIA, until last week, columnist for Advertising Age magazine, with us from his home outside Washington. You could find a link to his last AdReview column on our Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, it's Political Junkie day. Ken Rudin will join us. Plus, Nicholas Kristof back from Zimbabwe. Well, hope you join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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