Every year brings a slew of inspired advertising campaigns that capture the nation’s attention and make a name for the companies smart enough to approve the work of the imaginative creators. Unfortunately, those successful campaigns also manage to do some inspiration of their own. They inspire unimaginative company managers and others to copy the approaches in an effort to be just as fun and cool.
Remember “Got Milk?” It was a great concept that survived numerous angles and approaches. (My personal favorite was the very first — the “Aaron Burr” commercial. It’s worth googling.) Sadly, it didn’t take long until companies that had nothing to do with dairy products thought they could be every bit as clever. So we ended up with ads like “Got industrial transmission belting?,” “Got Ribs?,” “Got Antidiarrheals?,” even “Got Jesus?” and a host of similar knockoffs that just aren’t fun and cool. They’re tired, unfunny, and annoying. Even so, a full decade after that original commercial, companies continue to roll out their own “Got” lines.
A more recent example is the Dos Equis campaign featuring “the Most Interesting Man in the World.” They’re funny commercials, even if the gag has lost a little impact with each iteration. Know what’s not funny? “I don’t always buy industrial surfactants, but when I do …” or “Stay protectively insulated, my friend.” You know the kind of ads I’m talking about. You’ve seen them too many times.
These lazy, unimaginative advertisers are doing the same thing that parents do when they try to be as cool as their teenagers. If you haven’t already figured this out, by the time you learn the meaning of the latest expression or newest tidbit of slang, it’s ancient history. The first time you try to use it in front of a teenager, you’ll get a withering look that will add decades to your age. I speak from experience.
It’s true that these copycat advertisers start with great, attention-getting concepts. But those concepts belong to someone else. That someone had either enough imagination to come up with the idea, or enough courage to green-light its use. If you copy the idea, you tell the world that you lack both the imagination to come up with something on your own and the courage to put your own ideas to the test.
That’s not the worst of it. When you take the easy way out and copy from someone else, you miss out on the opportunity to tell your audience just what it is that makes your organization unique. The rest of the world may view your industry as a commodity, but I’ve yet to meet the CEO who cannot define exactly what sets her company apart from her competitors.
Your advertising and other marketing communications should be every bit as unique as your business. At some level, they should reflect what makes you different and why stakeholders should care.
Maybe you don’t need to be funny. The dairy industry faces an uphill battle, trying to convince a generation raised on Mountain Dew and Gatorade that cow juice is a hip, tasty alternative. They’re competing with big-budget beverage companies that have a penchant for the wild and outrageous, so they needed to try something dramatic. But maybe you work for a bank, a law firm, or a veeblefetzer manufacturer. Do your prospects want funny, outrageous financial products, legal counsel, or veeblefetzers?
If you do decide that you must be funny, that’s okay. Just try to be both original and funny. When you do a “Got” headline, people don’t think about your product — they think about milk. When you cop an “I don’t always …” line, they chuckle because they remember the bearded beer spokesman, not because they think you’re funny.
Of course, there are some company leaders who will hear this and know that I’m dead wrong, because their golf buddies find them hilarious. If they’re still not convinced that copying someone else’s campaign is the wrong thing to do, I’ll ask them to imagine themselves walking up to a group of teenagers on a street corner and asking, “What up, Dude? Got my 411?” Yep, it’s that bad.