Friday, 15 April 2011


You can tell everything you need to know about a product by the way it's being sold. As an advertising man, you quickly learn to recognize a dog of a product when you see one.

Thanks to its Unique Selling Proposition.

Advertisers have known for eons - it's the world's oldest profession, after all, pre-empting the other one by a matter of minutes - that consumers can only ever absorb one piece of information at a time about a new product. This one "fact" or single-minded thought will then become the way the consumer perceives the product, and the way they excitedly pass on the benefits of this new-fangled gizmo to others via word-of-mouth.

The new iPad is even cooler. The new Big Mac is a little bit fancy. The new Volvo is even safer. Nurofen works even faster. And so on.

But when the product itself doesn't actually work, or perform in the way it is supposed to, advertisers have become extremely skilled at concocting a new benefit with which to mesmerise the crowds. Otherwise no-one will buy it. The dodgier the product, the more outlandish the Unique Selling Proposition with which they tout it.

"You'll stand out in the crowd in our new car" actually means "it looks bloody awful." "Full of natural goodness" actually means "it tastes bloody awful." And "where the bloody hell are you?" obviously meant "nobody wants to come here any more."

"One million people will be better off" is the USP with which Greg Combet hopes to persuade the public to purchase his shiny new Carbon Tax.

I almost choked on my 100% natural grain Wheaties.

This really must be a crappy product.

There can only be one genuine and honest way to sell the Carbon Tax, and that is by advertising the fact that it will prevent anthropogenic warming from occurring. That's what the consumer wants. Full stop. Nothing else. It's like Mortein. I buy it because I have a nasty problem that needs eradicating - now! Excessive CO2 emissions around your home? Stop them dead with the new Carbon-Tax! Available at all good stores. Get your Carbon-Tax today and make pesky Climate Change a thing of the past.

It's instructive to think of how the GST was sold to a less than enthusiastic public.
Basically, it was the Castor Oil strategy - this stuff is going to taste slightly unpleasant, but it's going to do us all a power of (economic) good. And it worked. We bought it. Arguably, that is the only possible truthful and honest way of selling the Carbon Tax, too. Self-sacrifice for the greater good. In this case, of mankind.   

Yet despite all the hoopla and political shenanigans of the last few years (you soon lose count of how many U-turns, backflips and political stabbings have occurred in Canberra on the issue) and despite a massive teaser campaign across all media for more than a decade (rising sea-levels, end of the world, Al Gore, yadda yadda) astonishingly, “the greater good” isn’t the USP with which the government has chosen to sell this product.

Which must mean, to put it bluntly, that the product doesn't work.

Here's what happened behind the scenes. The advertising agency researched what a Carbon Tax might mean to people. They were seeking a single-minded proposition with which to flog it. To do so, they assembled typical groups of consumers - Mums and Dads, single parents, uni students; anyone, in fact, who was prepared to give up an evening for fifty bucks and some free food - and stuck them in groups of up to ten in specially designed research rooms in various locations dotted across the capital cities and outlying suburbs. These were the focus groups, and their every utterance would be observed, taped and scrutinized. The topic was Climate Change. To a man and a woman -apart from one or two irritating skeptics - the groups agreed "something must be done." The polite, well-spoken researcher then introduced the concept of a Carbon Tax. The focus groups were wary, but accepted the idea so long as it actually solved the problem of Global Warming. Sandwiches and pizza were handed around. The researcher then showed the groups numerous concepts that attempted to distill the idea that the Carbon Tax couldn't actually fix the problem in and of itself, but rather, was a pre-emptive action that would require many other changes throughout the world over which Australia has no control before any useful reduction in carbon emissions could or might occur. Things started to get a little sticky in the close confines of the research rooms. When, via a detailed analysis and discussion of variously spun phrases and carefully constructed catch-words the focus group cottoned on to the fact that the tax was not going to do what they hoped for, they became angry. And the advertising dudes, watching them from behind a specially built one-way mirror, became extremely nervous. At this point, the researcher, her hands sweating slightly, popped some different boards under the noses of the focus groups. These new concepts and phrases introduced the idea that some people, due to the structure of the rebates, would find themselves better off under the new tax. And suddenly the conversations took a dramatic turn. The focus groups became pacified. Heads started nodding. Then greed kicked in. And the more the focus groups became convinced that they as
individuals might be better off, the happier they became.

And forgot all about that pesky problem of eradicating Global Warming.

Meanwhile, behind the one-way mirror, the advertising folk and government consultants heaved an inaudible sigh of relief.

Now that they had found their USP, all they needed was a catchy phrase and the job was done.

One million people will be better off. You can't get any catchier than that.

copyright Rowan Dean 2011

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