These ads are making me mental

In his short story “”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,”” James Thurber created a character who lived a rich, thrilling life of the mind where he was a World War II fighter pilot one minute and a charming social wit the next. Outside the comfort of his own imagination, however, he was a sad sack — aging,

irrelevant and tired of his wife. Mitty never found the right outlet for his talents in the story, but as an advertising executive he would found a bright career ahead of him.

An ad for Microsoft software products shows a young man wheeling a cart of materials through the lobby of a large office. Superimposed on the image is the sort of graffiti-like drawing you’d find in a Keith Haring picture. Instead of pushing a cart he’s seeing himself standing at the head of a lectern, addressing what might be a sea of employees, customers or shareholders. Microsoft’s message, of course, is that its innovative products will get him from A to B.

IBM takes a different tack, forcing the reader to do the drawing themselves. The “”Can you see it?”” campaign features a series of executive types facing the camera full on with their eyes closed, peacefully dreaming about the wonders of WebSphere’s application integration capabilities. Computer Associates, meanwhile, turns to a guessing game in which it shows a picture of the same data centre twice. The trick is that in the second picture, the data centre is running its security management software. “”Goodbye hackers,”” the first photo says. “”Hello customers,”” says the other. Ads are normally supposed to show us something; these ads are important for what they don’t show.

This is not a phenomenon limited to technology, of course. A recent ad for Nike portrays an everyday kitchen with a blender sitting on a countertop. There’s just one thing wrong with the nutritious milkshake waiting to be poured: a running shoe is sticking out of the top. Or is it? “”THIS IS NOT A RUNNING SHOE,”” the ad tells us, but “”a nutritious blend of fast and light, cleverly connected of zoom air in the heel and forefoot. The ad immediately recalls Cisco Systems’ recent campaign, which said its tools offered 70 more minutes of productivity per employee per day but nonetheless showed the same old boring networking equipment. “”I am more than a Cisco 1200 Series Dual Band WiFi Access Point,”” the ad insisted.

Marketers must be nostalgic for a time when innovation was so disruptive that products could be shown as simply and straightforwardly as the early PC models. You could boast about speeds and feeds, power protection or monitor size. As technology has matured the industry is finding it harder and harder to visualize for its customers a better future. This is one of marketing’s primary functions, and in leaving it up to the audience’s imaginations they may be allowing them to create expectations that cannot be met.

Contrast this with the services side, where marketing is all about testimonials from customers, including HP’s recent campaign featuring CIBC CIO Mike Woeller. These ads consist of nothing more than a name and a quote, but the only thing left to the imagination of the person reading it is whether they could replicate that positive customer experience themselves.

In some cases, IT issues like application integration and Web services may be so new it’s difficult to come up with a compelling picture of what a success story will look like. A year from now we’ll see all kinds of follow-up campaigns in which these kind of teasers won’t be necessary. Or so I imagine.

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Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline.

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