Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Candle Hats and Christmases: Season’s Greetings from Signalwrite Marketing.

In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrandt looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of
“Come in,” he would say, “I was just painting myself,”
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

This Billy Collins poem appeared in the mid-1990s. Always a great favorite or mine, its message is pointedly related to the holiday wishes from Signalwrite this year.

Its warm-hearted sense of humor, about one of the world’s great artists who was himself known for a sense of self-amusement, is just right for wishing my clients and colleagues, family and friends a wonderful Christmas season and an outstanding 2012.

Signalwrite Marketing’s professional and personal life have been filled with laughter and you have all played a part in it. The number of adventures, conversations, meetings, programs, and visits during which laughter broke out is uncountable…but pretty large.

“Laughing like a birthday cake” has made my professional life wonderful. Merry Christmas to everyone. May you keep it in your hearts all year long. Happy New Year too, when all good things will come to you and bad ones never appear.

Next Christmas, let’s plan on getting together and wearing candle hats. For now, the very best of the holiday season.

Goya: “Self-portrait in the studio” (c. 1790-1795). Oil on canvas, 42 x 28 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Madrid, Spain). See No 20 here. Minor photo: Stellan Skarsgård from Warner Bros film “Goya’s Ghosts.”

Sunday, December 18, 2011

See Christmas Ads. Buy Christmas Ornaments. May the Force Be with You.

Doing some mild holiday shopping, I note that the Hallmark Star Wars Christmas Ornament Collection for 2011 includes a Darth Vader in Lego version. The mind boggles, for $39.95 especially. Checking online, there’s a more…festive… R2 set: the black and bronze bodied R2-Q5 and red-trimmed R2-A3 from the original trilogy of films, first offered at the 2011 New York Comic Con – the pair’s available for $119.95 via the web.

LA-based writer Kristie Bertucci has a post on the GadgetReview blog wherein she reveals her top 16 Star Wars Christmas ornaments. From 1997 to the present, here they are to liven up your 2011 Yuletide trees. (Not ours, sorry: I was never quite this much of a fanboy.) According to Hallmark itself, though:

Since 1996, both Hallmark and Star Wars collectors anxiously await the release of the new Star Wars Hallmark ornaments. Always some of the most anticipated ornaments released annually…

The company’s advertising continues to be as heart-grabbing as ever – see one spot running now on YouTube. Evocative stuff given our troops are finally coming home, home from Iraq. My favorite isn’t on Bertucci’s list. Hallmark had a rather early 1998 Boba Fett ornament – see upper left. In the words of Stan Hope, “For bounty hunting the Xmas bounty…” Now $25-$40 on eBay.

That was then, this is now: the 8.5” Boba Fett with Carbonite Christmas Statue from Kurt S Adler. C’mon: the gift-wrapped Han Solo carbonite panel. The thermal detonator with the red bow. The candy cane!

Just six shopping days left. Seriously, how does this not say the Spirit of Christmas to you?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Old-Time Charm at Christmas? Leave Out Radios, Telephones and Billboards.

Some of you may have noticed that Signalwrite Marketing sent out old-time, small-town Christmas scenes this year. There were several different cards with paintings by a Wisconsin artist, Mary Singleton. Her artworks are “filled with details and vivid colors of everyday life in simpler times and friendly old fashioned places.” Yet at the same time, her website admits:

Mary Singleton's paintings bring us into an idealistic vision of the it could be…

These visions are popular today. Many of us remember growing up in just such idyllic towns and villages. (Me? No – I’m a city boy. Barbara Nytes-Baron was born and raised in New Prague, MN; she enjoyed Christmases much like this one…but with newer-model cars.)

In the painting there are no billboards and no telephone wires: the “good old days.” Still, Singleton envisioned this scene somewhere around 1925 or 1926, judging by the cars and trucks on her Main Street.

By 1925 there were millions of radio receivers in American homes, according to one source. The modern world had already arrived – just not washed into small-town America yet.

By 1925, radio programs had already become inextricably connected to major American companies; the first radio ad appearing in 1922 costs $100 for ten minutes of air time. By ‘23, brands like Eveready Batteries were sponsoring radio variety shows.

America, in its first giant step down the road to the future, became a consumer society even though you can’t see it here in Singleton’s “After Choir Practice.” Mid-1920s, Americans spent $430 million on radio products which was real money in 1925.

Telephones? The beginning of social interconnection? No sign of them in this little town. But in 1925, the telephone was already 50 years old. There were 12 million phones in American homes and business – one-and-a-half million of these were the new-fangled dial models. (The “First Internet,” the telegraph, was even more embedded in the US.)

How about billboards? One of the best known billboard companies, Foster, began in 1898. Lamar in 1908. In the case of this wistful wintry town, though, it’s more likely drivers would have seen the outdoor boards on the highways outside of it. Burma-Shave’s famous outdoor campaign started in…1925.

You can’t escape the people who send you collections of “the way it used to be” photos and gags on the Internet these days. Yet embedded in the nostalgia of Singleton’s paintings is today’s America, waiting to spread itself nationwide…even in the forms of advertising and social media.

Charles Kettering, inventor of the electric starter for automobiles, said, “You can't have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time.” Whatever’s next after YouTube corporate videos and company Facebook pages and interactive billboards, I say bring it.

Painting: “After Choir Practice,” 16x20 inches. Copyright © Mary Singleton 2002-2010.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Maker’s Mark® – the Bourbon in the Red (Trade) Dress – Still Defending the Wax.

Trade dress – a product or product package’s non-functional physical details and design identifies the product's source and sets it apart from others’ products.

I love trade dress. For many companies and their products, it’s a crucial component of their successful marketing and key to maintaining a competitive position. Think McDonald’s Golden Arches. Think “The milk chocolate melts in your mouth, not in your hands” – the candy’s trademark double-M shape began in 1941. Think Yellow Freight, whose ubiquitous trucks are painted Swamp Holy Orange.* In previous Signalwriter posts about trade dress, such as here, I haven’t much changed my position over the years.

One seven-year-long trade dress war ended in 2010, so everyone thought. Maker’s Mark won an order in 2010 awarding it exclusive rights to the dripping wax seal. Maker’s Mark gained an injunction prohibiting any other company from using a similar seal and look. US District Judge John G Heyburn II said that the bourbon maker held a valid trademark. End of story? Nope.

This past Thursday, the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday stepped into the long-running argument over whether Maker’s Mark owner, Beam Inc, can keep the trademark on the wax seal and enforce that injunction stopping any other liquor company from using a similar top.

It’s clear that a lot of people – even many marketers – don’t completely understand the value of trade dress. When Dennis Yang reported in April, 2010, that Judge Heyburn ruled the dripping red wax seal can only be used by Maker’s Mark bourbon, I was fascinated by some of the comments appended to his post.

ElijahBlue: “How many great ideas are abandoned, bursts of inspiration are extinguished because of these abusive (and stupid) copyright, patent and trademark lawsuits?”

Jedidiah: “This sort of BS makes me want to go to my favorite purveyor of strong drink and buy some of this Maker’s Mark crap (never bought it before actually) just so I can have the pleasure of smashing the bottle in protest.”

ABC gum: “Maybe others think wax is a big deal ... I cannot envision why.”

Another forum commenter, Stephen, tells why. Identifying himself as a Maker’s Mark Ambassador, he properly noted:

It’s the basis for their brand’s recognition, like Tiffany blue. A representation of the wax in that particular shade of red adorns all the things they put out, whether it be note cards or golf balls, so that when you see the red wax you think MM. While it’s hardly a novel idea to seal a bottle with wax, the tequila company is clearly trying to glom onto Maker’s Mark’s high-end symbol for their own game, a symbol the bourbon has developed over 50 years.

When clients say they want to be the Mercedes-Benz of their particular industry or – right now – look like Apple, it’s touchy to remind them that many of these highly identifiable companies have spent many years and millions of dollars establishing their trade dress. (Maker’s Mark spends about $22 million annually to market its bourbon whereas would-be infringer Cuervo has spent only about $500,000 of its overall branding budget on the Reserva tequila it was going to “wax.”)

Tamara Miller, an intellectual property lawyer at Leydig, Voit and Mayer, encapsulated the massive value of trade dress in a single paragraph:

When my little boy sees a red box with a girl on it, he knows the “Sun-Maid” raisins he likes are inside. My husband knows that any black, dome-topped grill is a “Weber,” and that the goldfish-shaped crackers in our pantry come from Pepperidge Farm. In order to find my “Cheerios” at the store, I look for the yellow box with the big red heart on it. Without a doubt, my family relies on trade dress to recognize our favorite products, and so do countless consumers every day.

Red wax seal equals Maker’s Mark. This is the business of marketing. Cuervo and brand owner Diageo should spend their time and money on their own creative trade dress. Not stealing someone else’s.
*Yellow has changed its brand to YRC – I understand what economics drove this transformation but regret the passing of a super trade dress. Bottom photo credit: © Shannon Graham.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

At Farmers® University, We All Know Prof Burke. Don’t We? Then Who’s Prof Allen?

An RPA press release announced last March that Farmers Insurance was going to launch five new TV spots and eight new print ads to build on the successful University of Farmers campaign. John Ingersoll, Farmers Group VP-Advertising was quoted:

We've found that consumers are remembering the University of Farmers campaign and it is bringing the brand to life for them. Consumer response to the icon, Professor Nathaniel Burke, has been very strong. They like him from his other film and TV roles but also feel his character is a good fit for the brand.

Prof Burke is the classroom character developed for Farmers by its ad agency, RPA. He’s portrayed in commercials, print and website by J K Simmons – you've seen him in “Burn After Reading,” “I Love You Man,” “The Mexican” and “Spider-Man.” A terrific character actor, he carries the role even in the print ads photographed by Nadav Kander.

That’s Burke. So who’s this Professor Miles Allen I spotted in the print ad you see, second above, in yesterday’s Black Enterprise magazine? The African American version?

Of course. It’s the first execution from multi-cultural agency Muse Communications which launched new ads for Farmers Insurance. Chairman/CEO Jo Muse noted in a press announcement:

The brand campaign continues the University of Farmers theme while targeting an African American audience. The commercials introduce the newest faculty member, Professor Allen, played by actor Orlando Jones.

I can’t think of better casting, since Jones is also an accomplished actor although it took me a while to match him up with a recognizable face. The entire African American story in re Farmers is all over the Web…but in bits and pieces.

So here’s additional thanks to the outstanding photographer involved with the Muse version of the UF campaign, Matthew Jordan Smith. He keeps a blog. His details about the assignment, about Jones and the photoshoot are right here.

The story’s fun reading, rare even in our biz where everybody talks about everything, because most of us like nuts and bolts, the how-to. (Possibly that’s more of a creative’s thing versus a marketer’s.) Press releases inform. Participants’ blogs and posts really give a story like this texture.

Maybe because it caught me by surprise, the Prof Allen “Home Insurance Quiz” ad also caught my attention, even though it builds on the existing RPA/Prof Burke campaign. There are new perspectives to it – like the chalkboard maze’s visual reference, perhaps, to the challenges African Americans face in buying a home in the first place due to redlining or subprime loans.

A couple of additional thoughts occur. First, by casting Jones in the African American print campaign, Farmers and Muse are clearly setting the stage for Jones-as-Allen in TV commercials.

Second, when you look at the RPA website, let me know if you find the Farmers Insurance campaigns under “Our Work” because I can’t. Kind of a shame, that.

It looks like the Allen print campaign’ll be running in Essence, Ebony, Jet and Black Enterprise. An online banner campaign will be geographically targeted in key markets in addition to running on top Web sites such as, and

So third, why isn’t Farmers Insurance running these ads in their general rotation? That way, the rest of America could meet Prof Allen.

FYI: Ads © Farmers Group, Inc. I’m sure all rights are reserved. And many thanks to photographers Kander and Smith for their print-shooting. The polished apple on Allen’s desk is my fave touch.