I had a boss once, a great guy named Don, whose claim to fame was creating (or helping create) “Ring around the collar” for Wisk. If you aren’t familiar with this campaign, look it up. It’ll drive you crazy, but it sold a lot of Wisk. You try washing them out, scrubbing them out, but still those dirty old rings. Some of the best campaigns drove people crazy. “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing,” did a lot for Alka Seltzer, but people threw meatballs at their televisions.
I’m sure people threw their shirts at the television during Wisk commercials. I can still hear that woman say: …but still those dirty old rings. Housewives dealt with a lot of guilt because of Don. He kept a low profile during the seventies.
Thing is, he never got over driving people crazy. “Ring around the collar” hung over him like the Sword of Damocles. If you aren’t familiar with the Sword of Damocles, look it up. It drove people crazy, but it sold a lot of swords (better to own one than have one hanging over your head).
In any event, Wisk made Don very critical of ideas. Whenever I brought him some copy, he’d say “Ah, the old rope trick,” referring to Rosser Reeves and Anacin or Will Rogers. It didn’t even have to be a rope. It could be rack-and-pinion steering or a dog biscuit. What he meant was, it was good the first time, not so good the fortieth time.
Since then, I’ve become more critical of ideas as well — except it isn’t old ideas I’m worried about, it’s the new ones. It’s the attempts at sentiment that fall flat — not through repetition like Wisk and Alka Seltzer — but through insincerity. To me, these commercials are the “old rope tricks” now.
Watching the Academy Awards, I noticed every commercial seemed like an “old rope trick.” Even Cadillac — heralded as doing “a brilliant knock against Trump” — was nothing new. It wasn’t brilliant — or even a direct knock against Trump. It was just a mundane spot, saying we’re all humans and we should respect each other as such.
Well, okay, I’m all for respecting each other, but I still wanted to throw the Constitution and the Bill of Rights at the television. Why? Because when all is said and done, Cadillac just wanted business. At least Wisk and Alka Seltzer made their intentions known. Cadillac figured they could slip one past us, making us believe they’re all about love and decency.
Here’s how they would have discussed this at the agency briefing: “Look, we’ve got to do something big for The Academy Awards. Forget about car shots. We’ve got a problem in this country. Everyone hates rich people. They want to string up every banker, financial advisor and stock broker. Who buys our cars? Bankers, financial advisors and stock brokers. We gotta stop this hate or who’s gonna buy our cars? How about ‘Stop the hate, buy a Cadillac?’ Or maybe ‘Learn to Love Again, Buy a Cadillac’?
Trouble with that is, Cadillac is still a bunch of car guys who think “pulling heart strings” is a triple bypass operation. Love and decency just isn’t in their vocabulary. They’d rather commit buggery on the showroom floor.
Now, Don may have had the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, but he never mistook advertising for a soap box (soap, yes, just not a soap box). Advertising sells product — not social conscience. You could be guilty of using “old rope tricks,” but never sentiment in place of product.
So what made Cadillac’s “old rope trick” a travesty? They wanted us believing they had a conscience. Just like Chrysler wanted us believing they had a conscience when they did “Made in Detroit” They thought they could illicit pride in a city they had every intention of leaving (if they hadn’t already).
So what should a company like Cadillac do instead of “old rope tricks”? How about something tangible like a percentage of each car sale going towards “Let’s Be Together,” a program to teach diversity and acceptance at schools. Or maybe open their showrooms on certain evenings to communities that want to meet and talk? Maybe call it “Showrooms of Understanding.”
Surely that’s better than throwing huge amounts of money into advertising during the Academy Awards. They talk about “all of us being human” as if a few commercials, set against a backdrop of celebrity and wealth, will draw any kind of response or belief. Look, if you really want to knock Trump, do a full page newspaper ad showing protesters holding “Love Not Hate” signs, and simply put “We Agree” at the top.
When Don mentioned the “old rope trick,” he was telling me to try again. Try harder, make people think. That’s the problem with agencies — and clients — these days. They believe money can buy you a conscience. Just like the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man thought they could buy a heart, courage and a brain in The Wizard of Oz.
At least with Wisk, I knew where I stood. Sure, the advertising drove me crazy. Sure, Alka Seltzer made me want to throw a meatball at the television. But I knew their intent. I knew whoever was doing those commercials, they were working stiffs just like my parents and our neighbours.
As the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man found out, you can’t buy the things that really matter. They’re inside of you somewhere. They have no place in commerce. Advertisers who try to sell sentiment should understand that.
I know you’re saying “Lots of commercials have used sentiment to sell their products. Look at Coca-Cola with “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” and AT&T’s “Reach Out and Touch Someone.” The first is talking about enjoying each other’s company over a Coke. The second is using AT&T’s phones to connect with loved ones near and far. Neither is political commentary. Neither is trying to associate themselves with social order.
If you want social order, love and understanding, don’t make a commercial — make a real commitment to a cause. Then you can talk about raising the consciousness of the people. Anything else, as Don would say, is just an “old rope trick.”
Do you think Cadillac made a brilliant commercial? Or do you agree it’s an “old rope trick”? Let me know at email@example.com
Robert Cormack is a freelance copywriter, novelist, blogger and journalist. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available on line and at most major bookstores. Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details. Coming soon (hopefully), a collection of short stories called “Would You Mind Not Talking to Me?