Monday, August 04, 2008

The Adman and the Cows

A long time ago, I was running advertising for my Company, a maker of semiconductor test systems. Other companies made similar systems, but our differentiator was reliability. Every one of our systems came with a 10-year warranty, which, when you think about it, was not that brave in a field where anything you bought would probably be obsolete in three or four years. Still, it was a brilliant marketing stroke, and enough systems were still chugging at age ten to prove the point.

But how to dramatize system longevity in an ad? Ads for electronic products were notoriously dull, featuring catalog photographs and lots of specifications (i.e. numbers). The bright, fresh ideas came from Madison Avenue (or from Rock Hudson, for the VIP account). The electronics industry would have no truck with that kind of hucksterism. But this time the ball was in my court, and I was determined not to be dull. So, at a fateful meeting of product managers, account executives, and sales management, I rolled out my undull Big Idea.

The tag line for the new series of ads and collateral would be “Till The Cows Come Home,” and the visuals would feature pictures of the new systems surrounded by cows. Applause. Adulation. One sourpuss pointed out that the cows in the picture might be thought to be coming home, which would ruin the whole idea, but he was shouted down. Most people thought it was devilishly clever.

The agency quickly lined up the site, about 30 miles south of Boston, and the schedule was set. I wrote the copy for the first ad. Space was booked in the leading trade magazines. I was on a high. I was bringing what one of my colleagues called “zonk” to our advertising.

Early on the appointed morning, we all showed up in the hired pasture. When I say “all” I mean “all” – truck with test system, a crew to set the system in the field, people (cowboys?) to manage the herd, photographers, and about a dozen others from the agency. And yours truly, to see that my Big Idea was handled right. The shoot went off without a hitch, and a few weeks later the ad campaign was launched. And then died a quick death.

The problem: “Till the Cows Come Home” sounded great in English. But it made no sense at all in Germany, as our German sales manager told me, rather indelicately. Lord knows how it sounded to Koreans or Japanese or Italians. Since a great deal of our business came from overseas, it was a monumental oversight on my part. It was no consolation to consider that the agency, product manager, and sales manager had also missed it.

We pulled the ads, but not until the first one ran. Somewhere in Bavaria, I imagine, a reader of a trade magazine looked at the headline in puzzlement and said, “was ist los mit den K├╝hen?”