Own Your Own Mind
One hazard of ad criticism is that after you've pointed out an insidious pattern a time or two, it seems repetitious, if not downright senile, to continue mentioning it. Where's the news hook? But fear of repetition unfairly favors the advertisers: They repeat certain themes for years and decades; they steal campaigns, slogans, looks, and ideas from each other and multiply them ad infinitum (which of course is where the word ad comes from). What's more, most ads work only through repetition--the conventional wisdom being that it takes between three and six hits for a spot to achieve `recall.' What warrants this rather contorted introduction are two campaigns that update a by now old theme, and though you might think you've seen this particular worm snipped at least once, it divides and keeps on wiggling. The worm here is the "you are a unique, independent, nonconforming, secretly rebellious individual" sell, and the two slimy halves I'd like to use as bait are Red Dog beer and Saab. Taking the most offensive first...: Most people who believed that Red Dog's poster campaign--featuring a gruff, retro-looking bulldog over the slogan "You are your own dog"--came from a microbrewery have probably since figured out that Red Dog ain't no micro, if only because Red Dog has bought so much TV time (an estimated $30 million to $40 million). But viewers still may not have figured out that this vaguely antiestablishment campaign comes from the number-two brewer, Miller, a name you never see on Red Dog bottles or in ads. Instead, Red Dog credits the far funkier sounding `Plank Road Brewery.' In a current ad, the broken-toothed bulldog with the spike collar grumps about how other dogs are such slaves to their owners. "I don't get it," the voice of Tommy Lee Jones barks for him. "`Why would you let yourself be led around by the neck?" Dogs out for a walk are getting yanked by the leash, most of them pussy dogs of Chihuahuan descent. "You gotta have some self-respect--otherwise you're going to get jerked around." Red Dog liberates a mutt by biting off its leash--and they run off together toward freedom. At an obedience school, an authoritarian old woman scolds him for not playing dead. "`Bad dog!" she wags her finger at him. "You better believe it!" Red Dog growls. A newer spot corrects any impression that Red Dog is some kind of `red' anarchist or, almost as bad, a leader in the canine equivalent of a militia. Strutting down an alley full of mean, chained guard dogs, Red says, "You know, I got no problem with a dog being tough, but you gotta control it....C'mon boys, you're acting like fools." With a sexy swagger he concludes, "You got the goods, you don't have to prove it." That last, moderating spot is important in Miller's plans. Red Dog was created to win more 25-to-29 year-old drinkers--hence, the indie veneer. But the theme of the rugged individual battling authority also slakes conservative thirsts. Red Dog is on leash--forced to walk many a fine line. "It's very much a beer for an independent-minded individual," a Miller spokeswoman insists, "but I wouldn't want to put it in the cynical camp at all. It's about friendly contrariness. Make no mistake--this is very much a mainstream premium beer." Then she says with perfect Orwellian pitch: "It's an alternative to the mainstream, but it's in the mainstream." Ah--you can have your yeast and not get a yeast infection too! It's as if obedience school were suddenly full of cool cats. Corporate powers bark instructions at you to be rebellious and mainstream at the same time, because the only way to ever do that is symbolically--in what you buy and parade as your identity. But then, that's the postmod notion of action and activism for you. Not only will Red Dog not make you your own dog, but Red Dog isn't even its own image. Miller got the idea from Molson. (Miller owns 20 per cent of Molson in Canada, and all of Molson U.S.A.) After Canadian Molson's ad agency launched the Red Dog name and icon, Miller decided that Americans would be just as charmed by that doggie in the window. But the nonconformist company wouldn't make a move without the kind of detailed market research that might make Red Dog, the character, cough up a hairball. In Canada, Red Dog is a combination ale and lager. But Miller's `extensive testing' showed that while "Americans loved the advertising--they said it's unusual, different, independent-minded--they didn't care for the taste," says the spokeswoman. "It's too heavy for the American palate." So Miller kept the advertising and changed the beer. As one wholesaler told a beverage publication, the ads are better than the brew--though "the beer's not offensive." And that spells bingo!: After launching in October, Red Dog has become Miller's most successful new beer ever, with sales now at more than a million barrels. But wait. What about Miller hiding its cumbersome conglomerate identity? Well, says the spokeswoman, `Plank Road Brewery' was the original name of the company that Fred Miller bought back in 1855, and it also uses PRB as the parent name for Icehouse. (Actually, why don't they just identify the real parent, Philip Morris?) The Plank Road moniker was really chosen, the spokeswoman admits, "to persuade people who say, `I know what Miller tastes like, I'll have something else.'" In any case, putting dogs in ads isn't exactly fresh. Anheuser-Busch's Spuds MacKenzie helped Bud Light reposition itself and eventually overtake Miller Lite as the number-two beer. (In 1989, Spuds was sent permanently to the dog house on charges that he was appealing to children.) The borrowing of images and ideas is endlessly repeated: As Ad Age notes, "Miller Chairman Jack MacDonough was VP-brand management at Anheuser-Busch at the height of Spuds' success." Now, AB has launched its own wild thing, Red Wolf (an actual red beer), with a similarly independent slogan: "Follow your instincts." Sure, you're your own dog rutting amid your own instincts in order to "Find your own road''--Saab's latest slogan. Now cruising all over TV, Saab's campaign is aimed at an older and more upscale crowd (it uses the same terrific animation, by Jean-Philippe Delhomme, as does Barneys, which is what many New Yorkers first mistook Saab's spots for). But class, and product, aside, the message is identical: the campaign, Saab says, "celebrates the spirit of individuality so fiercely cherished by its loyal U.S. owners." An executive-class man looking in the bathroom mirror is told by a voice-over, "You could never shave again." As he appears in a conference room, he's informed, "You could go into work tomorrow and tell them you're taking a year off." At a high-end cocktail party: "When people ask for your honest opinion, you could give it to them"--so risqué is this move, it causes one party-goer to drop her finger food. As the figure floats into the sky and into a Saab, the narrator adds, "But while you're considering these options, driving a Saab is a very good start. Find your own road." In the gal version, a business woman plays out the fantasies: "You could never wear a suit again. You could never laugh when it's not funny. You could go off and write that novel, climb that mountain, buy those shoes. You could fly in the face of convention--or drive there. Find your own road. Saab." Of course, all this convention bashing doesn't result from following one's instincts. It results from Saab's most extensive research effort ever, says Saab U.S.A. marketing director David Krysiek. "We knew pretty well based on tracking studies and quantitative research and so on that we did not have a very strong brand position in people's minds. Some of our competitors, for example, stood for ruggedness; BMW stood for driving performance; Volvo, for safety. When we asked people what Saab stood for we got a mixed bag of responses. "It's the old ads' fault." "Looking at our past advertising, we were sending a mixed bag of messages." Meanwhile, Saab was observing Yankelovich market studies showing that "the message of individualism and independence and doing your own thing was growing in the population, particularly among the higher educated"--and half of Saab buyers, he says, have postgraduate degrees(!). "We tested eight or nine possible positionings, and we found this notion of individuality and independence was not only a popular notion but one readily identifiable with Saab. Volvo, in fact, was viewed as safe but boring. BMW was less about independence and more about following the crowd, Mercedes the same thing, and to a lesser degree the same is true of Japanese luxury brands. If someone was going to play up the individuality brand, it was Saab." But why would Saab stand for independence in the first place? Simple, says Krysiek: With its peculiar hatchback design, "It looks a little different from everything else on the road. And there aren't Saabs everywhere you turn." As with Red Dog, a vastly larger, more mainstream entity is funding Saab's rebel dreams. GM now owns half of Saab, and only its mainstream millions allow Saab to saturate/advertise its tell-them-what-you-really-think attitude. Saab can buy much more ad time by riding on lower GM-negotiated ad rates. "Also," says Krysiek, "GM has tons of research sources. They survey, I think, nearly a million car buyers a year. So we really leveraged off of that." I must admit that while fantasizing about what car I'd buy if I could ever afford a car, I've leaned toward Saab exactly because its Euro-retro design looks a little different from everything else on the road. But now that my own private conceit is being magnified in an estimated $40 million campaign, I'd be too embarrassed to own one. I ask Krysiek if Saab has run up against people who think of themselves as iconoclastic, but who shun your product the minute you tell them it will help them express their iconoclasm. That is, is there anyone out there who rebels against being told their rebellion is just part of a marketing strategy? "That's a really insightful question and something we were really concerned about," he says. "And we tested it." The numbers were stirred in and up floated the answer: "I don't think we're going to have that problem," he reports.