REALITY CHECK: Just because an ad is brilliant doesn’t mean it works
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In 1998, when Cyberian Outpost Inc. set out to promote its Outpost.com computer-selling site, it was relatively unknown. What was called for, its managers thought, was a campaign loud and expensive enough to make it a big name. The company hired Cliff Freeman and Partners, an award-winning New York City agency with credits like the Little Caesars “Pizza! Pizza!” spots. Freeman more than lived up to its reputation for producing memorable ads. Its spots for Outpost.com featured gerbils being shot from cannons and wolves attacking a high school marching band.
The $7-million campaign generated a lot of buzz. It won the Freeman agency a Grand Clio, the Oscar of the advertising industry. But it wasn’t so good for Outpost.com. Even though its name was all over the place, nobody knew what the company did. The ads mentioned “computer stuff,” but as Bob Bowman, Outpost.com’s new CEO, says, “the ads were so dominating that people missed that.”
The ads increased site hits. “The second they ran, traffic would go up by 10,000 to 15,000,” Bowman says. “We had a lot of visitors — but no buyers.”
The campaign had failed to go beyond name recognition and explain why customers should visit the site. “They didn’t know that we sold computers,” Bowman says. “They thought we sold clothes or didn’t sell anything.”
Jay Chiat, dot-com CEO and the veteran ad guru who created the “Big Brother” commercial for Apple Computer, agrees that the ads were a waste. “I thought they were outrageously funny spots that never told me what they were doing,” he says.
Today both Bowman and Chiat believe that a quick follow-up campaign would have helped, but it wasn’t in the plan. A year after the first ads ran, Outpost.com attacked the 1999 holidays with a new, $4-million campaign that was chock-full of information about the company. That included telling audiences that yes, Outpost.com did the gerbil ads and it’s kinda sorry for that, but it also sells computers and will ship them overnight free. The result: traffic went up 40%. But even more important, more of the people who were visiting the site were also buying.
It’s not that the original gerbil ads were a total waste. Outpost.com gained name recognition. The company will need it, says Chiat, who believes the dot-com ads now flooding the airwaves will be quickly forgotten. “I don’t think that people are going to remember a lot of the companies, either,” he adds.
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