Digital Advertising W/ George Tannenbaum | Straight Facqts Ep. 10

Consumers’ Relationship with Digital Advertising W/ George Tannenbaum

On this episode, we’re talking to George Tannenbaum, advertiser who’s won 15 Effies, and we get into: how has digital advertising changed the way that people look towards brands?

Gabe Harris:

Really excited to be able to chat. Had a chance, actually, I think you saw the Loom video, but-

George Tannenbaum:

Yeah, I did.

Gabe Harris:

Awesome. Would love to be able to talk about — because I think you’re at a really cool spot where kind of like what I used to talk about — life before cell phones and life with cell phones, how I was able to live, at that time where you saw it before social media, before the bastardization of digital. So I would love to hear about the changes and what you think are the positives and negatives that have come because of that.

George Tannenbaum:

Because of social or … more specific? What do you mean? I’m sorry.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So actually, you wrote an article about it the other day. What was it called? About stunting growth?

George Tannenbaum:

Right. Right. Oh, about stunts. Yeah.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s like one element where a lot of people nowadays are wanting performance right here and there, so they become short-sighted because of social media. Or that is one aspect.

I imagine with social media, it gives you more of a sugar rush so that it encourages more of a short-term stunt. And just to see the differences that were pre-digital and what you see as the shifts that have come because of digital, and the positives and negatives that have come out of that.

George Tannenbaum:

Sure. Yeah. Okay. I mean, for me, one of the, I guess, quandaries I would have with digital is, excuse me, I think one of the central suppositions involved in digital was always that targeting was going to be so good. We were promised, in a sense, mass one to one. So I can tell from your pictures, that’s a picture over your head of Steph Curry.

Gabe Harris:

That is.

George Tannenbaum:

So ostensibly, if I was a brand, I could say, “Dear Gabe, Steph Curry and you have a lot in common. You’re both dedicated to hard work to improve yourself. That’s why you should buy Gold Medal Flour. We work harder than anyone else to make the best flour in the world.”

And ostensibly, because I knew something about you, I could take a lot of shortcuts. I didn’t have to establish the promise of my brand. I was short-cutting that by saying you and I have something of a relationship, because I know something about you. So I don’t think targeting is that good.

Here we are, 25 years in. You can’t see me, but I have a full head of hair and I still get, essentially, emails about baldness cures and so on and so forth. And I think we’ve assumed a lot from digital that’s given us permission to, in a sense, I think, be lazy in terms of communication, the basics of communication. Still, I have to get your attention first and foremost. There’s really no shortcut on that.

Now going back to what I started with, ostensibly, if I know enough about you, it’s easier for me to get attention. But we thought “personalization” was going to do it, when it was really not personalization. It was just using your name.

“You don’t know me. You don’t know what my tolerance is for communication. You’re just using a bit of information, and I don’t feel that that’s an appealing way to communicate with someone.”

As a matter of fact, I donate now and again to political candidates here, and when I do it, I always use a fake name because I like to see what they do with my information. The same way if I were a direct marketer 50 years ago, I would say I’m selling this silk tie right to box 107, department four. And I know department four, it was an ad that ran in this magazine. Department five was an ad that ran in that magazine. It allowed me to track performance.

So I always like to see how they’re selling my data, just out of curiosity, and so I use the name Theresa a lot just for the hell of it. And honest to God, since it’s pre-primary season, I must get a hundred emails a day to Theresa. You don’t know me. You don’t know what my tolerance is for communication. You’re just using a bit of information, and I don’t feel that that’s an appealing way to communicate with someone. It’s a crutch, as opposed to a foundation.

It’s a little bit like if you go to the grocery store and there’s a sign in the front that says, “We love our customers.” Oh, bullshit. You just know where to put a sign. They’re not really doing anything for you.

So I feel like it would be great to be spoken to at some personal level, but honest to God, I really don’t think data is that accomplished yet.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah, I would agree with you, and just seeing it from the paid advertising side — I’ve seen the statistic one time and I haven’t been able to see it again — but Facebook is inaccurately targeting your audience 30% of the time, as it’s going through a learning phase and trying to be able to find out-

George Tannenbaum:

At least 30% of the time. It’s probably 30% not counting bots.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah. So that goes, your brand may not be placed to the right ideal person, but it could also be ruining that relationship, even though it may not be who your ideal audience is. But for any future context with them, they’ve already put you into a bucket that these people don’t even care about me.

George Tannenbaum:

Exactly. And I think advertisers and people have different notions of what permission is. Just because I clicked on a site or I raised my hand, I’m loathed to do it now because I know all of a sudden I’m going to get 50 emails and I’m going to be subscribed to 50 sites I never asked to be subscribed to. And because you’re selling my data, you’re doing this, that, and the other thing, you’re monetizing me, and I never gave you permission to do that.

Now, there’s not a human being alive who can actually read terms and conditions. Nobody has the time or the patience or the mind to read a 20-page terms and conditions that, because I clicked on this ad, you can now sell my data to 500 different sites.

I mean, literally, I was just online, I saw this pair of shoes being advertised that you can step into, you don’t have to bend over and tie. I mean, this is the point we’re out in the world today. And it’s like, I’m interested in the shoes but I’m not going to click on the ad because I know what’s going to happen when I do. I’m in peril. So I don’t want to do that anymore. It’s sales suppression.

Gabe Harris: 

Actually, the fact, that you stopped on that ad-

George Tannenbaum:

You mean if a person … Yeah, go ahead.

Gabe Harris:

Oh, I said, the fact that you even stopped and stared at the ad, depending on the platform, we’ll call it Facebook or Meta, Meta knows that. So unfortunately, I have some bad news. You might be getting the ad again.

George Tannenbaum:

Oh, no. I know I will be. I know I will because even when they give you that illusion of control saying you can opt out or not see the ad again, you see it right away, so there’s no honesty.

And I wrote something once, I can’t find it, but if people acted like digital media, if I bumped into someone on the street, I would literally follow them to their homes, to their bedrooms, to their bathrooms, and keep trying to talk to them, even when they told me to shut up. I mean, that’s how digital media behaves. And it might be effective by some metric, but I think it irritates people.

Or if it’s too broad a statement to say it irritates people, it irritates some people. Some people just accept it, which I don’t truly understand, but they do.

When I was working in an agency in kind of the early days of, let’s say, people being more aware of privacy issues, I talked to the people at my account team about our client not retargeting. And I said, “Well, nobody likes to be retargeted.” And we got into quite a heated argument because they said, “We get a 10% lift when we retarget.” You’ve heard shit like that.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

George Tannenbaum:

And I said, “But if you’re getting seven clicks per 10,000, a 10% lift is not very good.” That means out of 100,000 views, you get seven extra clicks. I don’t think it’s worth it to piss people off for seven clicks per 100,000. I don’t think it’s worth it. But what do I know? I don’t have to make money that way.

Gabe Harris:

I think my analogy of retargeting is, if you’re retargeting them with the same message, it’s kind of like a creepy guy at a bar using the same pickup line 10 different times back to back to back. Eventually it’s, “Get away from me. I’m bored of you using that same line.”

George Tannenbaum:

Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. So I don’t really know that … I make a statement a lot that we like brands that act like people we like. It’s really that simple. I don’t think anything’s smart about that, it’s just that it’s simple.

We like people that are funny, we like brands that are funny. We like people that are courteous, we like brands that are courteous. And we like people who are honest, we like brands that are honest.

But if you look at most digital behaviors, they’re the opposite of the things we actually like from humans.

So I run a successful advertising campaign for my agency, and I never run the same ad twice, and I work hard to make messages that are really funny, and I don’t blast them out.

I just put them on LinkedIn, and my network is big enough that people find them and pass them along. But I do the work of making them interesting.

“If you tell the same story over and over again, people don’t care. It’s the boy who cried wolf.”

So ostensibly, it rewards the viewer, the same way if I were a comedian, to use your metaphor, I’m not going to be telling the same jokes every time you see me. If I tell 50 jokes, seven of them might be the same. They’re a part of my act. But I’m going to rotate in 43 new ones and keep you amused so you don’t know what’s coming.

Brands kind of have to behave that way too. I mean, that’s not anything new. It’s just communication. If you tell the same story over and over again, people don’t care. It’s the boy who cried wolf.

So I feel like, in all communications, not just digital, but maybe it’s more egregious in digital because we’re living in a digital world, you know, people haven’t been as considerate as they might be of other people’s feelings and time.

Gabe Harris:

So from a brand standpoint, what would be the negative outcome? And this is obviously just from a high level, but what would you say is more of a negative outcome because of the impersonalization that people have that isn’t really actually how people act like in real life?

George Tannenbaum:

Well, I think it’s really pretty simple. It’s, “I don’t like you. You’re pissing me off.” Or, “You’re not treating me with respect. Not only am I bored by you, I actively don’t like you.”

I’ll give you for instance from traditional, from TV advertising. So you’ve seen the campaign for Liberty Mutual, right? The emu, the LiMu emu, or whatever it is. Have you seen that?

Gabe Harris:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

George Tannenbaum:

Yeah. I mean you can hardly miss it. And at one level, I think they’ve done an amazing job in that, five years ago, I barely heard of Liberty Mutual. And now you put them up there with the Geicos and the Allstates because they’ve got jingles and they’re ubiquitous and they’ve made their name known, but I don’t like them.

Their commercials are obnoxious. They’re not rewarding me for watching them. Whereas I would say, at many levels, Geico, even when they’re doing something with raccoons that’s just plain silly, it’s rewarding me for watching. They understand that communication is a value exchange.

If I were boring you right now, maybe I am, you’d say, “Okay, George, it looks like our time’s up,” and we’d get off. Right? I’ve taken up enough of your day and given you nothing in return. If I’m entertaining or imparting useful information to you, you’ll probably say, “Well, we’re over time, but I could talk to you all day.”

“It’s entertaining and informative, as opposed to so many commercials, where I just feel like I’m being shouted at.”

I mean, it’s the same thing with the brand. I don’t know how deep into the world of advertising you are, but there was a series of commercials, I think they won a Grand-something at Cannes for Apple, the Underdogs, the four people who are setting up their own company. And it’s not really a commercial. It’s like a miniseries. They’re about seven minutes long, each of them.

They’re fantastic. I’d watch it all day. I know I’m being sold to, but it’s entertaining. It’s entertaining and informative, as opposed to so many commercials, where I just feel like I’m being shouted at. I don’t like you. Why would I want to talk to you?

Now, I guess if what you’re selling is so extraordinary that I have to have it, you can be rude to me. That’s fine. But most things aren’t qualitatively superior to their competitors. So likability — the likability of how they present themselves — becomes very important to me.

“People can opt-out better now than they ever could.”

I would say cell phones, I don’t really know the difference between an iPhone and a Samsung, but iPhones really made me like them. I mean, Apple’s really made me like them. And I’m not picking on Samsung or Apple, but for Samsung to break my relationship with Apple, they would have to be significantly better and significantly more interesting because Apple’s earned my trust over all these years, my loyalty. I like them.

If Apple were a person, they would be a friend, a friend I’d want to spend a lot of time with and I’d probably want to spend a lot of money on.

And I think that’s a fairly easy equation to get. I mean, I think, if you think about brands as people, well, do I want to spend money with Verizon? No, I want to get away from you.

So, I mean, I don’t know if there’s a distinction between digital or traditional, because at some level I think the whole industry is somewhat subject to people. People can opt-out better now than they ever could. So I mean, between the browser you choose, the browser I choose knocks out most ads, so I don’t see a lot of ads.

I’m on DuckDuckGo. So I eliminate a lot of tracking, and then a lot of times I do that little dropdown that says, “I’ve seen this ad too often. I don’t like it. I want out.” And-

Gabe Harris:

I need to do that more often.

George Tannenbaum:

Yeah. Sometimes if a meeting ends at 10:30 and I don’t have another one till 10:45, I’ll just take those 15 minutes and just knock out ads, because I don’t care. I don’t want them in my feed. I think it’s obnoxious you’re in my feed, because you’re not giving me anything.

Ostensibly, and I’m older, so maybe my orientation understands more what was originally the value prop of advertising, like capital A, advertising. The value prop originally was it would cost three bucks to print a newspaper that you spend a quarter on, but because there’s ads, you get it for a quarter. So I understood I was getting something for my eyeballs.

“The internet is free, so you’re just taking from me and giving me nothing back.”

Now, I’m not getting anything for my eyeballs, because I’m not. Like, the internet is free, so you’re just taking from me and giving me nothing back.

In terms of broadcast or television advertising, it’s actually a little worse because you pay for access to see programming and then you get ads, so you pay twice. If you’re my age, you look at TV and you go, “Well, I’m paying twice.” TV used to be free. I turn it on, I got it. I mean, not counting electricity and the antenna on your roof, but now I have to pay for cable access about $150 a month, and then I get 14 minutes of ads an hour.

So you pay twice, and then maybe you pay a third time because, if you have a smart TV, the ads follow you. That’s not fair to me. That’s not how I would treat a friend.

And I guess if I were sitting in another chair and I was working for a company, I’d say, “Well, I’m going to squeeze every drop of moisture out of this stone,” but it’s not the way to treat a person, I don’t think. But it’s what almost everyone does.

Gabe Harris:

It’s not the best way to treat the person if you want to get the most value out of them.

George Tannenbaum:

No one’s really thinking of lifetime value, I don’t think.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah. And actually that was the question I was circling around in my head as we are talking about it.

So now, people treat brands like they treat relationships on Tinder, where they’re much more quicker because it is inauthentic. Brands are yelling at them to buy me, which means that they’re less likely to stay around. And if they find a new shiny object that’s yelling at them, they are more likely to cancel whatever brand they currently signed up with and jump ship just as quick.

George Tannenbaum:

I mean, I’m not on Tinder, so I don’t really know, but I think people’s … It’s funny, and I don’t know if this is answering your question. I don’t watch a lot of television, and then I block a lot of ads. But sometimes the weekend will come along, and my wife and I are busy and we’re running around, and we’re not even in the house so we’re not even on a device very much, but Monday morning comes along and it’s like, “Well, gee whiz, I lived in a totally ad-free weekend. I didn’t see any ads all weekend.”

And I think more and more people are structuring their life, either like a hard structure or just from an attention economy, they’re just ignoring ads because ads … I mean, it’s like any relationship. You’re not going to stay in a relationship where your “partner” is a taker, not a giver, and they’re taking and they’re not giving.

So I’m old enough where I grew up primarily as a print copywriter. I mean, that was the highest level of craft in the ’80s. Print copywriting was less well paid but more prestigious than being a broadcast copywriter.

And the rule of thumb was, when you wrote a piece of copy, you always made your last line a smile, a hug, a joke, something witty, because it was a reward for the viewer, for the reader, to get through your ad. So it’d be something you’d look forward to.

“He typed, ‘Dear Charlie,at the top of a page and write the copy like he was writing a letter to a friend, and then he’d take it out, take the copy out of his typewriter, cross out, ‘Dear Charlie,’ and then said ‘I was done.'”

So if you read some of the old VW ads, Think Small, they always gave you a smile at the end. There was more of a sense of a value exchange. And we’re both using the word yelling. It wasn’t yelling. It was, “Let me help you with this conundrum, this question you’re facing.”

So there’s a guy called Bob Levenson who was the head of copy at DDB, at Doyle Dan, in its glory days, and he wrote more of the great Volkswagen ads than anyone else. And a guy called Dominik Imseng, who’s from Germany, wrote a book about the VW ads called Ugly Is Only Skin-Deep.

And he quoted, it’s in Bob Levenson’s obituary, if you look up his New York Times obituary, he quoted a conversation he had with Levenson, and Levenson said when he sat down to write a piece of copy for VW, he typed, “Dear Charlie …” It was typewriter days. He typed, “Dear Charlie,” at the top of a page and write the copy like he was writing a letter to a friend, and then he’d take it out, take the copy out of his typewriter, cross out, “Dear Charlie,” and then said “I was done.” He was talking one to one like he’s talking to a friend. He’s not just saying, “You’ll get this and you’ll get this and you’ll get this and act now, do this.” I mean, that’s not the way you treat people.

I mean, even just to be kind of a jerk about it-

Gabe Harris:

Jerk is good.

George Tannenbaum:

The big question all clients, or even your colleagues in an agency say to you now is, “Well, where’s the call to action?” So let me ask you a question. If you’re on top of a 30-foot diving board and you’re afraid of water and somebody says, “Dive now,” are you more inclined to do it? No.

What’s a call to action really do? If you hadn’t been convinced that this is important to do, a call to action isn’t going to make you do it. The whole advertisement is supposed to be a call to action. So again, it’s kind of like … Do you have any kids?

Gabe Harris:

I do not.

George Tannenbaum:

Okay. But it’s like, if you take a kid horseback riding and they’re afraid of horses, you can’t just go, “Get on the horse now. Act now. You get on the horse.” No, you have to convince them for weeks.

Like, “Oh, a horse is such a kind animal. You’re really going to have fun. You’re going to be like a cowboy or a cowgirl.” Then when they get to the stable and you say, “Come on, let’s get on the horse now,” they’ll be inclined to do it. It’s not the call to action though. It’s the selling you’ve done.

So I don’t understand the lack of courtesy in a lot of stuff. And I know I’m old fashioned, because I think people want to be treated with courtesy.

Gabe Harris:

I would agree with you there. So my focus is paid social ads and I’ve done a lot of different testing, because you’ll try to get it underneath 15 seconds if you can, or that’s like a variant test, you might be able to get this under 15 seconds. And I’ve had videos that are 20 seconds, the last five seconds is an end card with the CTA, yada, yada, yada. I’ve eliminated that part.

By cutting off that CTA, that actually performs better because the audience already knows what the value is because they watch the video up to that point. They don’t need to be told what to do. They already know.

George Tannenbaum:

You know, I got in a fight with a boss 35 years ago because I said the Federal Express fast talking man commercial, you know the one I mean, right?

Gabe Harris:

Remind me again, or give me like a-

George Tannenbaum:

If you Google ‘Federal Express fast talking man,’ it’s a guy talking a mile a minute about how important it is that this package get there overnight. One of the greatest commercials ever done.

Gabe Harris:

I remember that face. Oh, I just looked it up.

George Tannenbaum:

Yeah, yeah. And there’s no call to action in it, but you know totally what to do, and it’s like, oh, gee whiz. And it creates an impression, an indelible thing in your head, and you can relate to it. It’s like, yeah, that’s what a commercial is supposed to do. It’s supposed to make you want the product.

I don’t know. To me, it’s like telling me to do it now is not making me want it. I’m not in the Marines. I don’t need to be told to do a hundred sit ups. If I want to stay in shape, I’ll do it myself. If I don’t, I won’t. But someone yelling at me to do it doesn’t make me want to do it. And if I do do it, it’s because I feel compelled, not because I want to, and I don’t think that’s great from a relationship point of view.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah, I would agree. Actually, one of the hardest things to do in life is motivate people, and this isn’t from an advertising standpoint. But if you know your friend is, say, 30, 40 pounds overweight, I have done this before, telling them, “You need to lose weight. You need to lose weight,” giving them that call to action, do you know what actually happens when you force your opinions on somebody? They get farther away from you.

George Tannenbaum:

Right. Right. And in a way, the closer the relationship, the quicker they are to remove themselves because you’ve not just become forceful, you’ve kind of betrayed them in a sense.

So I think if more advertisers treated people … or, forget about treating people. If more advertisers said, “I have to act like a person. I have to make myself likable, I have to treat people with respect and courtesy.”

What the magic of Amazon was is they recreated digitally what a small town was like in 1950.”

This is going to be a little vague, but going back almost two decades when more and more of the world was moving toward eCommerce, I thought very long and hard about the magic of Amazon. This was when Amazon was really just a bookstore. And I said, to my mind, if I had to be very reductive, at the time, this is, say, 2002, let’s just say. What the magic of Amazon was is they recreated digitally what a small town was like in 1950.

So when you came back, they said, “Hey Gabe, welcome back. You read that book on whales? Well, there’s a new one out on penguins. Are you interested?” And you go, “Oh God. It’s like they know me in this little store, and they’re making recommendations based …” I mean, that’s what small towns used to do. Right?

And the real kicker for me, the thing that really got me — and maybe this is kind of like a fantasy of America or Andy Griffith or something like that — was when you came back in the store and they said, “You know what? Gabe, weird thing. After you left last time, those eggs you bought went down seven cents in price. We’re giving you back seven cents.” You’ve got a customer for life and it cost you seven cents. I mean, because they treated you with respect.

“They’re treating you like your mom would. They’re treating you nicely.”

You know, I read something from a friend of mine, Jenny Nicholson, a writer, very good writer. She wrote a piece the other day on Medium. I saw it, about how much, what is it? Double Tree Hotels, about the Double Tree Cookie.

I mean, here you have something that costs 20 cents, and it’s probably in four out of 10 Double Tree online reviews, the cookies. And because they’re treating you like your mom would. They’re treating you nicely.

I mean, it’s a cookie. You can go to the store and buy a cookie. But all of a sudden, it’s something that separates them from everyone else. They’ve made themselves unique.

I mean, even, I own a German car, and so when I take it in for repair, you have to make an appointment, of course. And you drive up the driveway in the city, in New York, and you drive up, and I guess you have some sort of, what do you call it? Reader, like an easy pass reader on your car that they pick up in the dealership. And on the big flat screen it says, “Welcome George.”

Okay. That’s nice. It’s a little thing, but when people come to your house, you go to the door and welcome them in. I mean, that’s what we do, and we try to do it with some sincerity, not just, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Come on in.” We try to do it with some kindness. That’s what brands are supposed to do. The problem is it takes a little extra time and money, and people don’t want to spend it.

Gabe Harris:

And I would see people think only short term. They are blinded by what’s the impact or the effort they can be able to do for long term and actually get those customers to be able to stay around for a longer period of time. Everybody just wants to be able to look at acquisition, what happened over the past day or week, not what’s happening over a lifetime with the customer.

George Tannenbaum:

Yeah. That’s short-term-ism. I mean, I don’t think that’s really good. I mean, I think it kills brands, to tell you the truth, because it kills uniqueness.

Gabe Harris:

I have a saying that short-term thinking is for the weak, and that’s almost in any part of life. If you’re thinking of short-term, that means you don’t have the confidence to actually think about what you are going to be five, 10 years down the line, or whatever it may be.

George Tannenbaum:

I remember it wasn’t that long ago that I read something, one of the airlines decided they weren’t going to give out lemons when they had beverage service and they would save, let’s say, $110,000 a year not buying lemons. Well, that to me seems penny-wise and pound foolish.

I realize $110,000 is not insignificant, but if one person comes off that plane and says, “They gave me a martini and that’s great, but I wanted a lemon, and they couldn’t … We don’t do lemons anymore?” Like, come on, guys. Come on. Again, it’s not how you treat people.

It would be like you going to a restaurant and saying, “Could I have some salt for my fries?” And they go, “Well, that’s a nickel.” It’s not the nickel. You don’t care about the nickel. That’s not how you treat people.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah. Or to go on the fry theme, it’s throwing a couple extra fries in the bag to be courteous to the person, and they’re going to be thinking the world of you because you gave them five cents of fries for a little bit extra.

George Tannenbaum:

I mean, when I was a kid, and this was a long time ago, if my mother sent me to the store to buy a dozen corn, they always gave you 13. They gave you a baker’s dozen. I mean, same thing at the bakery. That’s what they did, so you felt like you got something.

“They feel like you kind of gave them credit for being intelligent or funny or witty, and there’s a little bit of an IKEA effect, in that you’re allowing participation.”

I mean, at that point when corn was a dime, what’s a dime? I’m from New York and I was born in the late ’50s, but even like, I was thinking the other day, there was an article not too long ago in Harvard Business Review called The IKEA Effect, and that people have a special affection for IKEA because they put the furniture together themselves.

And part of me wondered if, in advertising, in messaging, when you ask people to fill in a blank in the headline, that they feel a similar sense of creation. They feel like you kind of gave them credit for being intelligent or funny or witty, and there’s a little bit of an IKEA effect, in that you’re allowing participation. And I think that’s right.

If you go to a concert and you’re asked to sing along, you feel something special. And I think brands can do … I mean, I’m obviously speaking metaphorically, but I think brands can involve people, and when they do, they get much more loyal customers.

I don’t mean loyalty in the traditional CRM kind of loyalty thing, I just mean people who talk about you with positiveness and things like that.

Gabe Harris:

I agree about that. I have a theory about food. The more that you’re able to touch it, like say for a Korean barbecue or Mongolian barbecue, or like you can grill your own patty, the more that you actually are able to make your own food, the better experience it is because you are able to put yourself even further into the process, which makes you have a deeper emotional attachment to it.

George Tannenbaum:

I believe that is completely true. The old story about, it’s a General Mills story right after World War II, when we had a lot of macro trends happening in America, the move to the suburbs, housewives, and then kind of modern food. When General Mills first came out with cake mix, it was a failure. It was instant cake mix. You pour the mix, add water, stir it up, put it in a cake pan and bake it. Women hated it. General Mills actually called in psychologists to say, “Why is this failing? The product itself is good. It’s easy.”

What they did was they actually reformulated the mix so you had to put an egg in it, you had to crack an egg in it. And semiotically, and I’m saying women and I’m not being gendered. It was more women. It was geared towards women. Women didn’t feel like it was cooking if they didn’t crack an egg.

And when you invited participation, when you invited involvement, it would be like in the old days when you used to get your oil checked, the guy would always show you the dipstick. Like, I know what to do? I have no idea. Believe me, I have no idea. But there were little things like that, that said, “Yeah.” And you became more involved.

Gabe Harris:

I love that story about putting the egg. And it sounds like the end of the story, that completely made the difference, and General Mills probably saw a huge spike because of that.

George Tannenbaum:

I mean, you can look it up. If you type in General Mills cake mix egg, you’ll find it on Google. I mean, it’s one of those things. It’s like, you have to invite people in.

Everything isn’t fix it and forget it. I mean, sometimes you have to involve people. I mean, that’s the IKEA effect, but I think the same thing happens in advertising.

If you can get people to think rather than just tell them what to do… Let them draw their own conclusions. I think we all kind of want to do that at some level. That was supposed to be part of the promise of interactivity, that I was supposed to be able to put a little bit of myself in it. There was supposed to be a little aspect of ‘choose your own adventure,’ that was genuinely about me.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah. I agree. I agree. Yeah. Going through our conversation now, you’re making me reevaluate all the other storyboards that are in queue right now about how they can get the audience actually wanting to be more involved, and maybe not write the entire script but leave a little bit open for them to be able to interpret how it actually speaks to them personally.

George Tannenbaum:

When I was a little boy, I have a brother who’s two years old than I was, and we were only one grade apart but two years. And when my father would read to us Dr. Seuss, that was the year of Dr. Seuss before he got banned, Dr. Seuss always had a rhyme at the end of the line and my father always stopped.

Yeah. My father would always stop before the rhyme and my brother and I would have to compete to fill in the rhyme.

“We weren’t just being read to. We were invited in. And as a species, I think we like that.”

So in all the whole town, the most marvelous spot is behind Sneelock’s Store in the big open lot. And that’s how we would play it. But it gave us a sense of satisfaction where being read a book was not just a passive activity. It involved our minds.

We weren’t just being read to. We were invited in. And as a species, I think we like that. I think an anthropologist could probably look at 200,000 years of human storytelling and say, “Yeah, humans like when they participate.” And you can’t be forced to participate, you have to want to.

Otherwise it’s like you’re in fourth grade and being yelled at by a teacher. That’s no good. But feeling like you belong and you’re adding is what we’re supposed to do as advertisers. That’s how we involve people.

Gabe Harris:

And your father used to work, he was in advertising as well, if I’m correct, right?

George Tannenbaum:

That’s right. Yes. Yes. He was at an agency that subsumed in the holding company era called Kenyon & Eckhardt. Yeah. It was a top 20 agency, and then they got bought by Bozell, and then Bozell got bought by somebody. Oh, I guess there’s still a Bozell in Kansas or something, but the New York office got bought.

Gabe Harris:

That was cool. I imagine that there was inspiration from him to be able to teach you to rhyme and to be able to complete the rhyme.

That’s just pretty cool, that it is maybe a projection of what he was doing day to day to be able to help with his kids, to teach them about reading and to be able to actually get excited about stories.

George Tannenbaum:

Yeah. I mean, I think people with children wind up doing it because it’s a way of involving them. What do you think happened next? What’s going to happen to Cinderella? How’s she going to get to the ball? I mean, if you’re a good storyteller, that’s what you do. You don’t just read. You put a little peril and excitement and involvement in it. I mean, that’s what we do.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And those stories, not only did they keep you interested, but they may have made you a better copywriter once you got into the advertising world.

George Tannenbaum:

I mean, I think there’s certain, and I’m kind of an amateur classist, but if you go back to the epics, Homer, Gilgamesh, things like that, they knew how to … They came from an oral tradition, and we read them. We have printed, we have the cannon.

But if I were a roving storyteller in Old England or in Ancient Ithaca in Greece and I were coming to Detroit, I would tell the story in Detroit different than I would tell it in Cincinnati because my audience is different. And I’d want the heroes when I’m in Detroit to be from Detroit, and I’d want the heroes when I’m in Cincinnati to be from Cincinnati. I mean, it’s kind of what you would do to tailor the story to your audience.

And to my mind, that’s hard to do. I think a lot of direct marketers/digital marketers thought we could do that solely by personalization, solely by me saying, “Hey, Gabe, here’s a fishing rod just for you,” when you don’t even fish. It’s not going to work.

They have to really do something. And we don’t have that data yet. And I don’t think we want to because it feels like an invasion. All we have is your name.

Gabe Harris:

And I think we are now also leaving that sweet spots of getting very specific with the data, with the privacy that’s going on.

We’ll go with social media just because that’s more prevalent right now in the advertising world, but paid social is going to get more and more like traditional media where there’s going to be less data and it’s just going to be even more broad, to where calling out to people, guessing by their characteristics, is going to be less effective, say, five years from now than it is today.

George Tannenbaum:

Yeah. And if GDPR ever comes here in any form, I’m not sure it’s going to, and God knows, I see a lot of people already extolling the virtues of Web 3.0 and I’ve read nothing about privacy in Web 3.0. So I worry about that, but yeah, no, it makes sense.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We can get into Web 3.0 another time. I think there is an immense yelling on the Web 3.0 saying that, “I have the solution,” when I still have no idea … Nobody is talking. Everybody is just saying what they think is going to happen.

George Tannenbaum:

Yeah. Yeah. Bill Bernbach talked a lot about how all good communication is based on simple timeless human truths, and whether it’s Web 3.0, 2.0, or 6.0, if you’re not being kind to people and if you’re not serving them at some level, they’re not going to like you, because we’re borrowing people’s time.

We’re fighting for attention. And if you don’t give people something of value, they won’t waste their time. Because everybody is time pressed, and we’re taking time from people.

Gabe Harris:

I agree. Well, I have definitely taken a good amount of your time, but if people are wanting to be able to check you out, George, I know they can go to your blog, which is Ad Aged. You have some really good stories.

I’m a big baseball fan myself, so I had a good read through of, what is it, A Good Place, Bad Place about you playing baseball in the Mexican league, which was really cool, but it goes through you expressing yourself through different marketing ideas, but is there any other places that people can be able to check you out or anything else that you’d want to highlight?

George Tannenbaum:

I mean, they can find me on LinkedIn, and that’s it. Don’t be a stranger.

Gabe Harris:

Awesome. Well, George, it has been awesome to be able to talk.

George Tannenbaum:

Well, thank you.

Gabe Harris:

Yeah. This has been a great conversation. Like I said earlier, I am going to have to reevaluate some of the stuff that I’m working on right now to actually make it more of a personal conversation.

George Tannenbaum:

All right. Well, sorry to be of service.

Gabe Harris:

I look forward to every time I’m told that I’m wrong. It is most definitely a good thing.

George Tannenbaum:

Okay. That’s a smart attitude. Well, thanks, Gabe. I appreciate it.

Thanks for listening to our digital advertising episode with George Tannenbaum!

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