Gold Medals, Paid for by the Colbert Nation

ColbertNationStephen Colbert, the funny guy whose show follows Jon Stewart’s on Comedy Central, is sponsoring the American national speedskating team.  The team faced a $300,000 budget shortfall after its primary sponsor, Dutch bank DSB, went under last month.  The Colbert Report is helping bail out the speedskating team by offering promotional consideration — including asking Colbert’s fans (a.k.a. the Colbert Nation) to send donations — and featuring speedskating segments on the show.  So far, the Colbert Nation has contributed $40,000 to the team.  In exchange, the U.S. Speedskating team is putting Colbert Nation logos on their uniforms in the run-up to the Winter Olympics.

While the pairing of The Colbert Report with the national speedskating team seems beneficial to both parties, it’s also an example of how promotional content is becoming increasingly, insidiously embedded into “real life.”  In the past couple years, advertisers have begun experimenting with paid placements and sponsorships in which promotional content is closely aligned with programming content.  Consider L’Oreal’s prominent role in Project Runway, for instance.  Or the Beijing Summer Olympics, where the U.S. team sported enormous Ralph Lauren polo ponies on their jackets during the opening ceremony.

Promotional messages have become so enmeshed with regular television programming in some cases that the FTC is considering requiring advertisers and programmers to identify when they’re doing a paid-for product pitch.  Proposals include — get this — a flashing red light on the TV screen to alert viewers that they’re being exposed to promotional material.


Last month, the FTC enacted some vague regulations requiring bloggers to disclose when they’ve been paid or given something of value to talk about a product.  Now, they’re talking about trying to protect people from insidious forms of product placement.  The simple fact is, as DVRs, Internet-streamed video and other on-demand content become the norm, advertisers will adapt their approach to get their messages heard.  The coming years will present an interesting range of ethical dilemmas in what constitutes fair disclosure of paid product promotions.  At this point, however, it may be premature to enact national regulations governing product placement.

Fun as the Ultimate Incentive
October 20, 2009, 4:51 pm
Filed under: communication, Leadership, Oddities | Tags: , ,

Volkswagen is sponsoring an “initiative” that induces people to do things they should do anyway — recycle bottles, take the stairs for exercise, not litter — by making it fun to do  so. is “dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better.”

You’ll definitely want to visit site for other examples — or to enter the global competition for behavior-changing ideas.  The concept of the World’s Deepest Trash Bin is sheer genius.

As marketers, we tend to default to to rational appeals, believing we can motivate desired behaviors by touting cost benefits, product features — or even more powerful, complex incentives such as self-interest and pride of association.  What I’m taking away from these videos is maybe, if we dig deeper, we can uncover some wonder, novelty and ingenuity in whatever it is we’re pitching.  Fun as a motive.  How disconcertingly obvious.

Maybe They Should Rename It Burger King University?
September 8, 2009, 5:08 pm
Filed under: branding, marketing, Media | Tags: ,

Phoenix logoWhich of these brands spends the most on advertising?

a.  Revlon
b.  FedEx
c.  Cheerios
d.  The University of Phoenix

The unexpected (and correct) answer is the University of Phoenix.  The online institution spent an estimated $134 million on measured media in 2008.  It’s on track to spend even more in 2009, buying $75 million in ads in the first half of the year.

For its money, the University of Phoenix has generated significant brand awareness, but it hasn’t built much of a brand.  Its ad spending has helped the school attract a record number of students, generate $3.1 billion in 2008 revenue and cultivate a reputation for quality similar to Burger King‘s and the Russian ruble’s.  The University of Phoenix brand is probably associated with convenience, accessibility and maybe low cost.  These are not the attributes of an enduring brand.  Even Burger King — also convenient, accessible and cheap — offers other attractions, such as made-to-order service (“You can have it your way!”) and, of course, onion rings.

The University of Phoenix, on the other hand, offers an intangible “product” that’s harder to measure.  Because of this, it’ll have to work doubly hard to imbue its brand with attributes such as legitimacy and achievement.  Such attributes are essential to the long-term growth of the franchise and to countering skepticism about the value of a University of Phoenix degree.

If nothing else, the online institution should try to create some pride of association.  The school may not be exclusive or rigorous, but it is extremely large.  To build esprit de corps, perhaps the University of Phoenix’s 420,000 virtual students could pick a fight with the neighboring city of Scottsdale (population 240,000) and Arizona State University (53,000 students).  Or, to highlight the school’s international presence, maybe Phoenix’s students could lay siege to Halifax, Nova Scotia (population 373,000)?

I’d love to see what a giant student body backed by an even larger ad budget could really accomplish.  With such resources, Phoenix should at least be able to shape a brand that’s differentiated from Burger King’s.

Extreme Sports + Advertising = Sign Spinners
August 18, 2009, 10:29 am
Filed under: branding, marketing, Oddities | Tags: , , ,

While visiting the gorgeous High Line park in New York, I saw a guy twirling a cardboard advertisement.  I don’t remember what the ad was for, but the antics of the guy holding the ad were pretty impressive.  He was like the baton twirler for the Longhorn marching band (hook ’em!), without the makeup and spangles.

It turns out the “sign spinner” (that’s his job title) works for AARROW Advertising, a promotions company that mixes signboards and extreme sports to create an interactive “advertising experience with each person that passes, delivering what no other form of advertising can:  eye contact and a smile.”

This wasn’t the guy I saw, but it gives you an idea of what sign spinners do:

Each sign spinner is trained by AARROW, though many come into the job with a headstart from skateboarding, street dancing or some other acrobatic background in which there’s low regard for injury.  The sign spinners are paid about $20 an hour — plus tips sometimes — and, if they’re really good, they get to compete in the AARROW sign spinning championships.  No joke.

Sign spinning seems like a great way to build street cred for your brand.  I just wish I could remember what that spinning sign was advertising.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year …
August 17, 2009, 7:55 am
Filed under: marketing, Media | Tags: , ,

For this year’s Back to School season, Staples reprised its Most Wonderful Time of the Year commercial, which first aired in 1994.  The classic TV spot, which expresses the guilty, giddy joy many parents feel about the start of the school year, still seems current and relevant, despite being 15 years old.

It Pays to Be Socially Responsible
August 13, 2009, 9:40 am
Filed under: Leadership, marketing | Tags: , , ,

New research from WPP agencies Penn, Schoen & Berland, Landor Associates, and Burson-Marsteller shows that corporate social responsibility (CSR) pays off.

  • Despite the tough economy, 75 percent of consumers are willing pay extra for products from socially responsible companies.  More than half are ready to pay at least a 6 percent premium to support such companies.
  • Employees are willing to accept lower compensation to work for a socially responsible company, particularly employees between the ages of 25 and 49 with higher incomes.
  • Consumers also report that a company’s honesty and trustworthiness have more of an impact on purchase decisions than the quality or value of its products.

Consumers define CSR as treating employees well, engaging in environmentally sound business practices, and giving back to the community.  Here are some companies that fared well in the CSR reputation survey:


CSR has come a long way.  It used to be an investment avoidance tactic — not buying shares in tobacco companies, for instance — and now it’s a business strategy that delivers not only a price premium but also recruitment efficiencies and marketing differentiation. Clearly, CSR is the way to go.

More Twitter Factoids
August 12, 2009, 12:58 pm
Filed under: communication, Media, technology | Tags:

Rohit Bhargava’s Influential Marketing Blog analyzed a report on Twitter usage from Sysomos, a social media analytics provider.  These were some of Bhargava’s key takeaways:

  • 5% of users account for 75% of all activity, and 10% of users account for 86%.  “A steep curve of a small minority of actively engaged content creators generating most of the activity on a site is common among social networks,” notes Bhargava, “but it is steeper and more pronounced on Twitter.”
  • 21% of Twitter’s registered users have never posted a single tweet.  Bhargava speculates these dormant users are simply staking out a user name for later use or just never followed through after signing up.
  • 50.4% of all Twitter users post infrequently (less than once a week).
  • 94% of Twitter accounts have fewer than 100 followers.
  • The reciprocation limit for followers is around 150. Bhargava wrote, “In a particularly interesting data point from the survey, Sysomos found that Twitter users tended to ‘follow back’ all their followers up until about 150 connections. Then the reciprocation rate fell off dramatically.”
  • Tuesday tends to be the most popular day for tweets. The next most active days are Wednesday and Friday.
  • As Twitter users attract more followers, they tend to Tweet more often.  Someone with 1,000 followers will tweet six times per day, on average.  Someone with more than 1,750 followers will tweet 10 times per day.



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