Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Genius or stupidity? It might be both.





There's a rumor swirling around the blogosphere regarding a front-page story in The New York Times on June 9th about Chevy. I mean, Chevrolet.


Apparently, a memo was issued that week urging employees –– the ones that are left –– no longer to refer to their employer as Chevy. “We’d ask that whether you’re talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising, or speaking with friends and family, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward,” said the memo, which was signed by Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim Campbell, the G.M. division’s vice president for marketing. (This is a quote from the article in The New York Times.)


The buzz in the ad world was that the "news" story was actually a crafty bit of PR, managed by Chevrolet's ad agency, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.


I know what you're thinking. You're wondering what a memo about a car company reported in The New York Times has to do with a blog about filmmaking. It connects, trust me, but just barely. 


But first, this.


Let's say Goodby managed to pull off a stunt like this. They're an amazing ad agency. It's not outside the realm of possibility.


If they did, they also managed to simultaneously blow a massive opportunity and take down a bastion of objective journalism.


Let's take those one at a time.


If you're going to get a story on the front page of The New York Times, is the "news" you want to communicate that you want people to stop calling you by your nickname? Or to put it a different way, isn't there anything more substantial you want people to know?


A brand is different from a name. The Gap is –– when you think about it –– an admission that something's missing. Frigidaire makes ovens. And Toyota has a truck named after Tacoma. So what? Would those brands do any better if they were called something else? (No.)


The name Apple has absolutely nothing to do with clean design, and if you're selling a line of upscale, urban, metrosexual clothing, you'd have a hard time coming up with a worse name than Banana Republic.


Besides which, it's not as if people don't know that Chevrolet and Chevy are two names for the same thing. The cars all say Chevrolet on them. And people still buy them, even when they call them Chevys.


So, yeah, it's the kind of thing Goodby might think of, but they'd be stupid to squander the opportunity on something as mundane as this.


As for The New York Times' sterling reputation as a bastion of objective journalism, sure, an article about a memo requesting employees to call a company by its name is questionable material for the front page of such an august periodical. But a single editorial decision is forgivable. The damage that would be done if it ever became known that such a placement could be bought is irreparable. Is that a risk The New York Times would seriously consider taking? 


I doubt it. 


I mean, do the math. How many subscribers would you lose –– and how many advertisers would maintain the conceit –– if something like that were to become known? And how likely is it not to become known? A story like that screams PULITZER! I guarantee you, every single ambitious investigative reporter in the English-speaking world fantasizes about getting the scoop on the mother ship.


I may be wrong, but I say let's just chalk this up to a lapse in editorial judgement and move on. 


And now to the part where all this has to do with filmmaking.


Your reputation is based upon not just one thing, but upon your body of work. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners has earned a reputation for breakthrough advertising not for doing one ad or even one campaign, but for years and years of consistently creating breakthrough advertising. The New York Times has earned a reputation for objective journalism not for breaking one story, but for years and years of breaking stories. 


A single piece can't create your reputation. But a single act can destroy it. Remember that before you consider taking an offer to shoot 'Rambo XIV'.

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