September 2, 2009

Randall Rothenberg’s Where the Suckers Moon: A Story About Falling for Stories

Where the Suckers Moon is a story about trying to sell a decent product by turning it into a political movement. Or a hip trend. Or a trend-free anti-trend. Or beautifully-produced anti-art. It’s a story about finding roundabout ways not to get to the point.

In short, it’s a story about an award-winning ad agency that burned through millions of dollars trying to sell an attractively-priced, middle-of-the-road product as anything but that. If you’ve ever wanted to waste millions of dollars on someone’s flash of creative insight (or wished someone would waste millions on yours), you should read it.

The basic plot goes something like this:

Some time after World War II hit the reset button on Japan’s political system and industrial base, good engineering and an undervalued Yen allowed Japanese exporters to become major economic players. One of those exporters made an absurdly small, unbeatably cheap car called the Subaru (so small it wasn’t, as far as regulators were concerned, a car at all. It was a four-wheeled, covered motorcycle).

Subaru’s cars gradually got better, and their profits got better, too: over the long run, they made more and more money as their cars got better and better. Over the short run, they made money when export quotas and currencies went their way, and lost money otherwise.

Somehow, they decided that the really important thing wasn’t making a decent car, or telling people that’s what they did—it was making good ads.

So they hired Wieden and Kennedy, and Wieden and Kennedy flailed around expensively until they got themselves fired. (The meat of the book contains details on what they pitched, what they made, and how they made it. But just try to use the Wieden and Kennedy website, and you’ll get the idea. Flashy, but unusable.)

Towards the end, they get around to illustrating what they did wrong. Wieden and Kennedy gathers a focus group to tell them what they think of the ads. The focus group sort of knows what Subarus are, but doesn’t really care. By being poked, prodded, and hinted, they’re finally convinced that they like the idea of a Subaru.

But a Subaru isn’t a Benz. You don’t buy it because you like the idea. You buy it because you need a car and it’s cheaper than a Honda.

WK made their reputation by marketing Nike. And when you’re marketing shoes, the kind of stuff they did works perfectly—if someone’s going to buy your cheap rubber sewn in a Malaysian factory, rather than someone else’s cheap rubber sewn in a Malaysian factory, image is important.

Even when they tried to sell Subaru as just-a-car, they did it in an obnoxious way: they sold their ads as a superior, luxury-brand product, while the car itself was a footnote. They did this in the same way that Nike turned athleticism into a commodity, and the Nike brand into a competing luxury.

The story they told themselves (and the story they told Subaru’s executives) was that it took a brilliant advertising company to sell a decent car. And if you look at the total value of autos sold in the US, and the total amount spent on advertising them, you might agree that ads sell cars. But if you look at the drop in car sales, and the subsequent drop in car ad spending, you could more accurately conclude that ad agencies sell car ads, and the number of cars sold determines what they’ll get for them.

Where the Suckers Moon is worth reading as an entertaining guide to how to get everything wrong. Don’t be Wieden Kennedy, do talk about what you’re selling as if your audience is not a) a moron, or b) an awards ceremony judge. And you’ll probably do okay.

  • http://www.byrnehobart.com/blog/why-car-ads-waste-so-much-money/ Why Car Ads Waste So Much Money | Byrne's Blog

    [...] do car company accounts make people so stupid? Where the Suckers Moon made me wonder. Everyone invoked knew how to make ads, sell cars, or both. And yet Wieden Kennedy [...]