ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

SIEGEL: Grab people's attention.

NORRIS: Get them talking.

SIEGEL: Sell the product.

NORRIS: That's what every advertiser hopes to do. But take it from the GEICO Gecko - that is really hard.

(Soundbite of GEICO ad)

Unidentified Man #1 (Voice Talent): (As GEICO Gecko) You can't even imagine the pressure. I mean I literally got, like, two seconds to capture your attention while simultaneously informing you that you can save hundreds on car insurance…

NORRIS: As part of our weekly series on advertising, NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on what it takes for an ad to cut through the clutter.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Successful ad campaigns are often part sales pitch, part psychology - use our product and you'll be cool, or clean, or sexy, or masculine. It's a time-honored concept.

(Soundbite of Marlboro cigarette ad)

Unidentified Man #2: A working day out here stretches from sun up to sun down. But there's always time for a Marlboro.

BLAIR: In the 1950s, sales of Marlboro cigarettes were pretty dismal. It was considered a woman's brand. And Philip Morris wanted to go for the lucrative male market. Their ad agency, Leo Burnett, came up with a simple concept. In a Philip Morris company video from 1972, brand manager Jack Landry explained the Marlboro Man's appeal.

(Soundbite of Marlboro cigarette ad)

Mr. JACK LANDRY (Brand Manager, Marlboro Cigarette): In a world that was becoming increasingly complex and frustrating for ordinary man, the cowboy represented an antithesis. A man whose environment was simplistic and relatively pressure-free, he was his own man.

BLAIR: The Marlboro campaign made history, because it came at a time when most commercials were still trying to sell a product rather than a lifestyle. Marlboro recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. It is still the most popular cigarette with more than 40 percent of the market.

Ms. CHERYL HEALTON (Head, American Legacy Foundation): If you think about it, the amount of death and disease caused by that brand alone is certainly nothing to celebrate.

BLAIR: Cheryl Healton heads the anti-smoking American Legacy Foundation. Four years ago, they came out with their own campaign with help from the advertising agencies Crispin Porter & Bogusky and Arnold Worldwide. Some of the ads are a direct response to the Marlboro Man. One spot has a cowboy singing with the assistance of an artificial larynx.

(Soundbite of anti-smoking ad)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) You don't know we die from tobacco. Sometimes you just lose a lung.

BLAIR: That's pretty straightforward. But another series of spots was carefully crafted to tap into the teenage psyche.

A group of 1,200 teenagers marches somberly down a city street and stops in front of a big corporate office building - a tobacco company's headquarters.

All at once, they fall to the ground unconscious.

(Soundbite of people falling)

BLAIR: A lone teenager stands and holds up a sign that reads: 1,200 die each day from cigarettes. Ever think of taking a day off?

The American Legacy Foundation claims the "Truth" campaign, as it's called, reduced the number of young smokers by 300,000 in its first two years. Cheryl Healton says they interviewed hundreds of teens before conceiving the campaign. What they found was that ads that simply told teens - don't smoke - were having the opposite effect. So the strategy behind "Truth" was to instead go head to head with the tobacco industry.

Ms. HEALTON: You have to put out there a campaign that captures their imagination and makes them want to reject tobacco on the grounds that they're being sucked in, and as a way of rejecting adult manipulation of them.

BLAIR: So just as Philip Morris tapped into men's fantasy to be cowboys, the anti-smoking truth campaign tapped into teenagers' desire to rebel.

Demographic and psychographic research is essential for ad-agency copywriters, no matter what they're trying to sell.

Luke Sullivan, author of "Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide To Creating Great Ads," says the product usually dictates the tone of the ad - earnest for skin cream, joyful for chewing gum, reassuring for Viagra. But on the other hand:

Mr. LUKE SULLIVAN (Author, "Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide To Creating Great Ads"): That is also something that advertising agencies wisely buck against, because everybody else is doing a certain category a certain way. And then every once in a while a client will come along and say I don't want to be like everybody else.

BLAIR: That's the thinking behind the caveman ads for GEICO Insurance. Steve Bassett is a creative director with The Martin Agency, which produces GEICO's ads.

Mr. STEVE BASSETT (Creative Director, The Martin Agency): Car insurance or the insurance category was, kind of, dark and scary, and so we've decided to use humor.

BLAIR: Here a caveman is telling his therapist why he's so angry about the GEICO slogan.

(Soundbite of GEICO caveman ad)

Unidentified Woman: Why does it bother you?

Unidentified Man #4: Why does it bother me? So easy a caveman can do it?

Unidentified Woman: Well, it's just a commercial.

Unidentified Man #4: Okay. Well, what if it said, geico.com, so easy a therapist can do it.

Unidentified Woman: Well, that commercial wouldn't make sense to me.

Unidentified Man #4: Why not?

Unidentified Woman: Well, therapists are…

Unidentified Man #4: Are what? Smart?

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Unidentified Man #4: My mother is calling. I'll put her on speaker.

Unidentified Man #5: GEICO…

BLAIR: The cavemen are so popular; they just got their own TV series on ABC. The GEICO ads illustrate another trend in the industry. They were not subject to focus groups. That's when groups of people sit in a room together, watch commercials, and give their opinions.

Warren Berger is author of "Hoopla" and "Advertising Today."

Mr. WARREN BERGER (Author, "Hoopla" and "Advertising Today"): If you had anything that was the slightest bit offbeat or edgy, it would end up getting killed in the focus groups. What happens now is a lot of the more creative agencies say: Well, we're not going to focus group stuff, because we know that if we do that it's just going to water down the commercials eventually.

Mr. CHUCK PORTER (Chairman, Crispin Porter & Bogusky Agency): We tend to believe that people lie in focus groups because they're trying to impress the rest of the people around the table eating the M&Ms.

BLAIR: That's Chuck Porter of the agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky. He says they still do research but on the front end before conceiving the ads. Porter says they spend a lot of time going into people's homes and talking to them one-on-one.

Mr. PORTER: We believe that good-brand-momentum kind of work is always a conversation rather than an announcement. If you're going to have a conversation, you have to listen. So we spend a lot of time, for all of our clients, listening to what our audience says.

BLAIR: Crispin Porter & Bogusky created the ultimate conversation with the Subservient Chicken, a Web site they created for Burger King a few years ago. It quickly became an online phenomenon that reached millions of people. An actor, dressed in a chicken costume, performs just about whatever commands you type in. It's a subtle promotion for the have-it-your-way chicken sandwich. It's also weird and interactive - big plusses with today's youth market.

But does it sell chicken sandwiches? Russ Klein, president of global marketing for Burger King, says it certainly helps. But more importantly, it makes them part of pop culture.

Mr. RUSS KLEIN (President of Global Marketing, Burger King): And so, social currency and social relevance is a key component of how we position our brand, in addition to the food that we sell.

BLAIR: One more thing that often distinguishes a great ad these days - a sly self-awareness that lets the consumer in on the pitch.

(Soundbite of GEICO Insurance ad)

Unidentified Man #1: (As GEICO Gecko) GEICO, that's it. That's the only reason I'm here. The fact is, if GEICO sounded like some other animal, like a (Unintelligible) a puma, sure enough there'd be some adorable little cat sitting here talking about GEICO's low rates.

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

NORRIS: Some of the ads from this story and other reports from our series are at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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