In the early 1970s, I was a copywriter for the subscription-services department of McGraw-Hill which published a variety of specialized industry journals. Among them was a magazine called Power that served utilities and power-generation equipment companies.
Being young — and being what today I might call terminally hip — I came up with a headline/graphic concept which I thought was wildly funny and ever so current, something to be used in ads, direct mail pieces, or issue insert cards.
I recruited an acquaintance to pose for a photo in the then-typical protest posture, his right arm raised, but with a light bulb in his hand. The headline read…
Power to the People…
…the People who Know
What Power’s All About
Our assistant art director, a talented young lady about my age, did a quick layout, and I showed it to the Mail Promotion Manager — our internal equivalent of an ad agency account executive — who handled Power’s marketing campaigns. I was sure this concept was going to knock his socks off.
The MPM, whose name was Leon, chuckled at the image, volunteered that the idea was cute, and then handed the layout back to me.
“What’s the matter with it?” I asked. “It’s timely. It’s topical. It’s humorous.”
“Oh yes, it’s all of that,” Leon said. “But the people who read Power are a bunch of sturdy engineer types. Pragmatic and conservative. They’d see the guy in that picture as somebody who’d likely blow up a power plant.”
Looking at the layout with new eyes, I grudgingly conceded that Leon had a point. And so I learned something about perception in advertising.
This episode came to mind when I read about the little dustup surrounding Coca-Cola’s “America the Beautiful” Super Bowl spot.
I’m sure whoever thought of having people of different ethnic types singing this cherished national song in their native languages saw it as a heartwarming expression of the nation’s cultural diversity — the great American melting pot, as it were. They may well have expected their commercial to become a 21st-Century equivalent of Coke’s famous “I’d like to teach the world to sing…” campaign. But they missed the same thing I’d failed to see in my Power ad concept: people’s underlying assumptions.