Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Apple Gets an FDA Letter

April 23, 2012

Mr. Tim Cook
CEO, Apple Inc
1 Infinite Loop
Cupertino, CA 95014

Mr. Cook:

As I hope you are aware, under USC Title 15, Chapter 48, Section 2101, Congress has expanded the FDA's regulatory powers to cover all businesses that a consumer could reasonably (or unreasonably) believe are in some way involved in the production or distribution of ingested substances. Obviously, a company named Apple is now well within our purview. (And, if I may be frank with you, the use of a business name that creates the expectation of nutritional value when none is provided may, in and of itself, be the violation of several key regulations.)

However, it is my purpose today to provide a warning about Apple's current non-compliant marketing practices, hereafter to be referred to as NCMPs, and an order to cease and desist all such practices immediately. As these issues may be unfamiliar to a businessman who has not had previous dealings, I would encourage you to discuss the contents of this letter (subject to the counsel of your internal legal department) with executives from any pharmaceutical company, who are more than familiar with these regulations and how to comply with them.

Topic A: Promotion of product feature "Siri" included with Apple iPhone 4s

Our regulators have been deeply disturbed by numerous NCMPs associated with your introduction of "Siri". First, our scientific advisors challenge the often-repeated notion that this application represents "artificial intelligence" in any meaningful way. The literature on AI is well-established, and establishing that a device demonstrates it requires, at minimum, that it pass a Turing Test.  As there is no evidence Siri has done so, you are hereby not allowed to use this phrasing, or any similar phrasing, in promotional messages. Additionally, it is an NCMP to refer to Siri as a "personal assistant", as this implies human characteristics and abilities that it cannot possess. (You may use the word "assist" to describe the applications MOA.) To avoid any possible confusion, all television advertisements depicting human users easily and naturally interacting with Siri are deemed not compliant and must be removed from all media immediately. Finally, there is a lack of fair balance in your Siri-related communications. To avoid future NCMPs, you must include the rate at which Siri misinterprets commands given to it, and any possible safety risks associated with such errors.

Topic B: Promotion of "The New iPad"

First, we find the naming of the iPad problematic, and ask you to find a more suitable name within 90 days to avoid the product being withdrawn from the market and the levying of significant financial penalties. As you should realize, there is a high risk of confusion between the iPad and the iPod, which is a completely distinct product with a different indication. Without being too prescriptive, we would suggest that a name like "TouchTablet" would be more clear, and thus in the best interests of users. Additionally, it is a significant NCMP to use the neologism "Resolutionary" to promote the product. The obvious intent is to imply that this is a revolutionary product, when most experts believe that a sharper screen and better cameras represent, at best, an incremental improvement over previous models

Topic C: The Apple Store

An audit of your retail locations has unearthed a number of violations that must be addressed immediately. First, it seems you have been offering free setup of your products for some time, which is an obvious NCMP. Any incentive to purchase a product other than offering certain permitted discounts is a violation of regulations. Second, you are henceforth no longer permitted to call your technical support area a "Genius Bar" unless you can document that the average IQ of your support staff is over 135.

We find that these are the most severe regulatory violations, although we would strongly suggest you establish a registry to help investigators determine whether, as some initial studies indicate, your iPhone products are in fact addictive.

The attached 274 page form should help you get started in your reply to this letter. We look forward to working with you to clear up these violations, and ensure, for the good of the consumer, that your future marketing efforts are conducted in a more thoughtful and balanced way.


Dan Reed
High Inquisitor for Ridiculously Regulated Products

Editor's Note: I have fortunately never received an FDA letter myself, and I'm sure they're a bit more nuanced than my parody. But all of these theoretical violations on Apple's part do parallel the type of rules that pharmaceutical companies have to comply with when they want to talk about their products. So here's my question for my readers: do you think strictly limiting communications in this way actually helps consumers? Or, as I believe, do these rules actually makes it harder to communicate clearly about how health products can help people?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Reflections on My Next Decade in Advertising

Last year, I wrote two posts about the state of the advertising industry, and why I felt like it might be a good time to get out of it. At the time, I was moving to Google, and wondered if and when I would ever haunt the halls of an ad agency again.

It didn't take very long. I'm now back at my old agency, and as I reread those two posts this morning, I started thinking about what was right and wrong about my not-so-old take on the business. So I wanted to take the time to revisit those ideas, and sketch out why I think advertising has a bright future.

First, a note for those of you who think that advertising as a business is going to be dismantled by tech companies like Google: you are missing out on amazing opportunities to build brands and do more meaningful work because you're in love with old, unaccountable media. Right now, media supply is the constraining factor for most marketers, meaning you have to spend a lot to connect with the right people. With the improvements in targeting (which moving into the offline world as well) along with the explosion of engaging content, it will be increasingly possible to spend less in reaching your audience. With less money going into buying your reach, it leaves more to create content your audience might actually enjoy, even seek out. This should be a great thing for advertising agencies. (And if you don't believe this is possible at mass audience scale, don't believe me, believe P&G, which has already moved pretty far down this path.)

Second, a little bit of self-criticism. Last year, I wrote:
What do I mean about 'relationships before reach'? Simply put, that the number of people who saw your ad is no longer the standard for evaluating success. A campaign should be winning over converts, true believers who will help advocate for your brand. If you have a great product, this is very doable. Just create the story of why your product can improve your customers' lives, put the product in their hands, and watch the fireworks. (Easier said than done, I know.)
This now strikes me as a bit of digital magical thinking (and there's a lot of that out there) that isn't supported by the way we actually live. For example, I'm a big fan of Narragansett Beer. I follow them on Facebook, read their blog, and ask for my wife to go out-of-state to buy me some as a Christmas present. I am as much of an advocate as they can reasonably hope for, and yet as far as I can tell I haven't influenced anyone to go out and buy the stuff. Now, I'm sure they have other advocates who do drive sales for them, but activating your true believers is not often going to be enough to build your brand in a competitive marketplace unless your product is truly extraordinary. Like, "This pill made me grow five inches, cleared my skin, boosted my IQ and healed my broken leg," extraordinary. Otherwise, you're still going to want to get your message out their to a lot of people who have never heard of you before, which means reach still matters. A lot.

So what is the next decade going to hold? Well, last year I wrote: "What is this illness [in the advertising industry]? In short, it is a business model that is predicated on gaining efficiencies through scale, when that scale is likely to prove inefficient for the indefinite future."Advertising folks have made a lot of money because they could navigate the complexities of the 20th century communications world and get a message out there. As I wrote then, there is going to be pain as the models built up over decades collapse. But we can now reach consumers more efficiently, though the path to do so is often even more complex than the old model. So, I anticipate spending the next chunk of my career answering two questions:
  1. How do we reach the right people at the moments when they're receptive to what we have to say?
  2. How do we delight them once they've given us their attention?
A few people have started to figure this out. But there's lots of room for innovation, and the only sure way to fail at it is not to try, while the path to success probably involves failing fast. (By the way, I predict "fail fast" will become the new "think outside the box" in the next few years.)

My bedrock belief is that audience attention has replaced media spend as the limiting factor on advertising's success. So our starting question has to evolve from, "What do I want to say and where can I tell it to my audience?" to, "What does my audience care about and how can my brand connect with that?" That shifted focus will cause a cascade of other changes in the business, but ultimately make advertising more enjoyable to make and to consume.

But I'm still thinking all this through, people, so feel free to try and change my mind. Where is advertising going, and how do we get there?

Monday, April 2, 2012

When We Say the Wrong Thing

Did Rick Santorum come this close to calling Barack Obama the slur-that-shall-not-be-named? The answer is probably no, as evidenced by the fact that the media, instead of saying he did, merely pointed to the video and asked its audience, "what do you think?" If this was a blog about politics, I'd spend my time railing against what a scuzzy tactic it is to drive traffic by drumming up a non-existent controversy, or how this type of story reinforces the divisions in our society by implying that the "other side" is secretly thinking awful things.

But this is (supposed to be) a blog about the mind, and now that I've done the savvy blogger thing of connecting my post to a topical event, I'm going to give some time to discussing the "Freudian slip", and whether it is really the telling event we think it is.

I'd be remiss if I didn't say that Julie Sedivy got there first, her excellent post on the topic covers the current science on the subject of speech errors. I particularly liked this analogy:
Speech errors occur because when it comes to talking, the mind cares much more about speed than it does about accuracy. We literally speak before we’re done thinking about what we’re going to say, and this is true not just for the more impetuous amongst us, but for all speakers, all of the time. Speech production really is like an assembly line, but an astoundingly frenzied one in which an incomplete set of blueprints is snatched out of the hands of the designers by workers eager to begin assembling the product before it’s fully sketched out.
This "just in time" language production is inherently risky, in that our minds only have a broad sketch of how they're going to express the thought they have. Believe it or not, an entire book has been written on the topic: Um… Slips, Stumbles, And Verbal Blunders, And What They Mean. In a review by Charles Ester, I learned that we make errors in between 5% and 8% of the words we utter each day. What is generally agreed is that or mistakes as speakers are balanced by our skills as listeners. In other words, we quickly pick out the speaker's intent and discard the incorrect information from all of those slips and disfigurations in speech.

Unless, of course, the mistake ends up being particularly noteworthy or humorous, in which case it will be noticed. George W. Bush might have been at the far side of the bell curve in terms of language assembly errors, but he was known as a poor speaker in part because some of his miscues were very funny (I personally love, "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family") and of course were noteworthy as they were coming from the most powerful man in the world. 

But here's the thing: we knew exactly what caused Bush to mess up. His brain mixed up "put food on your table" and "feed your family" and out came a bizarre visual image. And of course, President Obama and everyone else who speaks in public has their share of mistakes. We recognize these as errors we could just as easily make, and yet we use them to help make our partisan arguments. Why? 

I think, perhaps, we've confused a slip of the tongue, meaning a speech construction error, with a gaffe, meaning a statement where a public figure accidentally says something they would rather not admit in public, or that reinforces the public's reason to dislike that figure. In this (otherwise excellent) Jonah Goldberg column about the "etch-a-sketch" remark made by Romney's communications director, the headline is, "A Fawlty Slip of the Tongue." That remark was not a slip of the tongue, but rather a gaffe, confirming the view of many people that Romney has no core, and just says what he needs to in the pursuit of power. 

In our public life, a gaffe can usefully highlight a fault in a public figure, but we should just let the slips of the tongue pass by without comment. It seems pretty clear from the science, and from common sense, that these errors don't carry the meaning we'd like to assign to them.