Super Bowl Ads Predict End of World. Unless You Drive a Chevy.

If you watched Super Bowl XLVI , you might’ve guessed that the Apocalypse was upon us. Not because the New England Patriots lost. Because of the ads.

If you mash up this year’s Super Bowl ads, it might look something like this: the end of the world is coming but if you buy a new car, take a day off work, or take your car out for a joy ride, especially a Chevy, you’ll be OK. Since they’re paying $3.5+ million per spot, advertisers certainly hope you’ll find their ads fine, too.

But are they effective? Hmmmm. These are the messages I took home from the Super Bowl ad blitz:

Buying a car will save your life… Ads promoting movies like G.I. Joe, Avenger, and John Carter and Chevy trucks all had prominent doomsday themes. To the strains of Barry Manilow’s “Looks Like We Made It” — in and of itself apocalyptic —  the Chevy ad shows a burly guy driving his truck through debris and falling buildings as the world comes to an end. He finally meets up with several other guys, also driving Chevy trucks. When he asks “what happened to Dave?”, one of the men responds with a tongue-in-cheek spiel about the toughness of Chevy trucks. Then he notes that Dave drove a Ford. Nice dig at Ford, who’s the leader in full-size truck sales (though some car execs claim Chevy and GMC pickups combined typically outsell Ford).

And then there was Clint Eastwood, gravely reminding us right after half-time that it was half-time in America, and life is tough, but Americans would survive these hard times by….buying Chrysler cars and trucks.  So, to get out of our economic rut, we need to buy more cars? Really?

.. and it’ll also enable you to relive your youth. I love the fact that Matthew Broderick is featured in an updated version of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” cruising around town in his CR-V. Honda knows who’s in the Super Bowl audience –Boomers who want a car to handle all of their adventures. Same goes for Acura, who roped in car-fanatics Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno to play off our competitive streaks. The Chevy Camaro ad was cute and the bungee-jumping, aerobatic car in the Chevy Sonic ad was great for thrill-seekers. At least Chevy was clearly targeting different consumers who were watching. Not sure who Audi was targeting with an ad about its uber-headlights that vanquish vampires.  And Hyundai — does anyone under the age of 30 know the theme from “Rocky,” ’cause I’m not sure what the advertising message was other than “we try hard.”

Some ads are clearly not targeted to women..., with its naked model and spokeswomen Danica Patrick and Jillian Michaels, clearly isn’t going for the soccer mom audience. All I could envision were salivating adolescent boys. And the ETrade baby is cute but his schtick is getting old.

..some are (?). Clothing retailer H&M reinvents the Mark Wahlberg-Calvin Klein ad with David Beckham showing off his new line of “bodywear” (and waaaay too many tatoos). Mr. Quigley, the dog in red Skechers who smoked his other four-legged competitors on the race track, was funny but, as a runner, I can’t imagine Skechers as anything more than those wacky “shape-up” shoes.

Some advertisers are still living off their 1980s-90s hype. I used to look forward to ads created for the Super Bowl by Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola and Doritos (confession: I once worked for Pepsi). These companies spend millions wooing celebrity spokespeople to outshine their competitors on television. But now I think these advertisers are on the Super Bowl because it’s expected of them. Coke’s polar bears were cute and Elton John’s famed platform shoes were a nice touch, but that’s about it. After watching the Doritos slingshot ad, I wondered if old ladies and babies are the next new market for the corn chip snack. Evidently, all three brands score pretty high on the ad engagement scale, but they didn’t engage me.

Budweiser is the only beer sold in America. You’d think based on the amount of ads that the King of Beers aired during this Super Bowl, and Super Bowls past, that it’s found the event to be a big sales generator. Wrong.  According to, Budweiser finished last in a survey of likely Super Bowl watchers “in its ability to receive a solid return on its investment for this year’s game.” Ouch. Guess sales of Bud have actually declined, despite their multi-million dollar ad buys.

Like it or not, Super Bowl advertising is part of the American consciousness. My 12-year-old daughter told me she didn’t discuss the game itself at lunch today in school. She and her friends discussed their favorite ads. Now that’s apocalyptic.

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How Running Makes You a Better Communicator

Running is a solitary sport. It’s you, your shoes and the road. The motivation to get out there comes from you, plus you learn things about yourself and the environment that you never noticed before.

This fall I learned how running makes you a better communicator.

In September, I ran a 24-hour relay race called “Reach the Beach.” It starts in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire and ends 24 hours and 250 miles later on the New Hampshire seacoast. It’s a crazy event – you laugh a lot, sleep very little, eat, drink caffeinated beverages (and yes, sometimes a beer or glass of wine) and run. This was the 5th year I ran with a 12-woman team called the Sole Sistahs. The key is teamwork and communication.

Here’s what I learned during those sleep-deprived 24 hours:

Plan, Plan, Plan

There are plenty of challenges in an overnight relay race: darkness; injury; running on rural roads where there may not be other runners. Your team is your lifeline. They provide food, water, moral support when the run is long, and laughs when necessary. Running teams rent large, white cargo vans that are distinguished by goofy slogans on the windows or wacky objects taped to their sides. In the past, we’ve taped high heels to our vans; this year, each of our two vans had a giant red shoe on top (Sole Sistas – get it?). After six years, we know how to pack and pick each other up when someone is down. Planning is key.

Expect the Unexpected

Trite but true. For the first time since I’ve run the race, we “lost” one of our runners on the course because our van wasn’t at the designated area to meet her. It was dark and she was running on a rural road where there weren’t many runners. She got scared, so she kept running until she got almost to the next race stop – 4 miles further than she needed to run.

How did we miss her? Everyone in the van was chatting and socializing and no one was paying attention to where we were going. We lost focus. When we showed up at the spot where she was supposed to hand off to the next runner, we realized we were in the wrong place. So we backtracked 6 miles to find her. Fortunately she was OK, but she had a near panic-attack.

Talk Talk

This year we had a new van driver. Drivers are expected to maneuver the ridiculously large vans up and down mountain roads, dodging runners and race officials, as well as stop on a dime if a runner needs something. Plus, they drive for 6-10 hours straight. Our driver hadn’t driven the race route before; she needed someone helping her with directions. We didn’t discuss her needs and she didn’t speak up. After we lost our runner, one of us made sure to sit up front and help the driver with directions. And she became more vocal.

There’s No “Me” in Teamwork

Remember that saying “there’s no ‘me’ in teamwork”? You have to roll with the unpredictable nature of Reach the Beach (it might be raining, snowing, cold, hot, whatever). You sleep where/when you can. At one point, we had two hours to sleep before running again yet one of the women was rummaging around the van trying to find food. As we finally settled to sleep, she got up to use the bathroom. Then she couldn’t sleep because she’d forgotten her sleeping bag. Every time we stopped during the race route, she’d wander off and we had to track her down. She also expected us to cheer and take photos of her during her run. The race became mostly about her needs. We not only lost precious sleep time, we expended a lot of needless energy.

Ultimately, we finished the race – and managed to have fun! But many team members aren’t sure they’re running the race next year, a testament to just how “off” we were. One thing’s for sure: if I run again next year, speaking up will be as important as remembering my running shoes.

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School Dazed: Communications 101

Remember middle school? Boy, I do.

School bus by Benrd Moehl,

I’m reliving those angst-filled years as the parent of a middle-school student. But the angst isn’t over my daughter; it’s over our school’s poor communications with parents. It drives me crazy.

Not long ago, our middle school hosted a parent information night. The purpose: to explain the school’s reorganization plan, which the administration worked on for over a year. It was an important meeting to keep parents informed.

The school held two info nights for parents: the first was for parents of incoming 6th graders (new students to the school); the second was for parents of current students. The first presentation was a disaster; the second one more successful. Only about 400 total parents showed up  — for a school with 1800 students.

What went wrong?

1) Vague communications. The administration’s lousy communications nearly derailed their plans. An email “blast” sent to parents prior to the meeting was vague about its purpose: “please come and hear about our school’s house system.” There’s no explanation of what a “house system” is. You need a compelling, persuasive reason to get busy moms and dads to spend their evenings at school. For example: join us for a presentation explaining how upcoming organizational changes at the school will affect your child.

2) Send detailed communications to parents in advance of the event. A no-brainer, right? Many parents — including me — received a detailed letter about the event AFTER it happened. The school could’ve used its automated “Alert Now” phone and email systems to emphasize the importance of the meeting.

3) Know your audience. One of the cardinal rules of public relations, after identifying your problem, is knowing your audience and tailoring your communication strategies accordingly. Another no-brainer. Yet during the first parent info night, the administrator did a poor job explaining the new school plan, used confusing visuals, and was surprised when parents were hostile because they didn’t understand the changes. By the time the second parent meeting was scheduled, the school had learned its lesson — an articulate administrator who’d been part of the reorganization process conducted the presentation and spent extra time addressing parent questions in a manner that respected their concerns.

4) Follow-up. The school didn’t follow-up with parents (though a copy of the reorganization plan was posted on the school website). They should’ve gone one step further and sent parents a letter stating where they could find a copy of the reorganization plan (online) and giving them a name and phone number of a school administrator to contact if they had additional questions.

If you’re a parent, what’s your experience with school-related communications? How can schools use technology more effectively to reach busy parents?

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Lofty Aspirations

Music Hall Executive Director Patricia Lynch in front of the Loft. Photo by David Murray, Clear Eye Photo.

The Music Hall in Portsmouth may be 133 years old, but it’s still attracting new audiences.

The theater recently opened The Loft, officially defined as a “center for performing arts, literature and education.” A lofty aspiration, but one that fits the theater’s mission to a T.

The Loft provides additional performance, education and administrative space for The Music Hall. With only 120 seats, the Loft is cozier than the original historic theater. It also offers a sleek, full-service bar in the lobby where you can grab a drink or a snack and bring it to your seat.

The Loft is a plus for the New Hampshire Seacoast and, in a period of shrinking arts support by state and federal governments, a huge boost for the arts.

Music Hall Trustee Barbara Henry, a former newspaper publisher, joined the theater’s board last year and helped raise money for Loft programming. “It’s amazing to have a venue like The Music Hall in Portsmouth,” she says. “You want to be involved. There’s lots of innovation here that other organizations would kill for.”

The Music Hall understands its audiences and connects with them. Programming offers something for everyone: timely films, live music and performance offerings, Writers on a New England Stage, Met@The Music Hall, and kids’ programming. Live event ticket sales are up 67% since 2004; membership has more than tripled in seven years, from 900 households to more than 3,000, and corporate sponsorship is up 56%. That’s a pretty strong connection.

The Music Hall board of trustees and staff understand synergy. Sponsorship opportunities abound for local businesses trying to connect with Music Hall audiences, whether it’s underwriting a performance or sponsoring an event. The Music Hall was a key player in developing Vintage Christmas, a collaboration between  Strawbery Banke Museum, the City of Portsmouth, downtown hotels, and the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce to make Portsmouth a destination in December.  In 2008, the theater  unveiled its renovated and reconstructed $2.2 million Beaux Arts-inspired lobby, part of its long term plan to establish itself as a  premier arts center.

Music Hall Executive Director Patricia Lynch calls the Loft’s opening “a new golden age for this region.” I call it another bravura performance.

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Is Blogging for the Birds?

Ever watch chickadees at a bird feeder?

One bird lands, looks around to see if there are any cats or predators lurking, then he quickly pecks at the seeds. He might fly away, but the easy food lures him back. Then a friend happens by too, and pretty soon there’s a whole flock of chickadees chowing down.

A successful blog is like that bird feeder: fill it up with tasty stuff and your readers will return repeatedly. That’s what I’m hoping.

I’m a blogging newbie. I spent two years agonizing over what this blog would be, its purpose, and who would read it. I’ve learned a lot in the three weeks since I got it going, thanks to How to Make a Living Writing, Copyblogger, my writers’ group, and Scott Graham of True Azimuth (my business coach).

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

1) Blogging is for the birds (i.e., your readers). Identify your audience before you start writing. Initially, I couldn’t figure out who my audience was. Write2engage is about how successful businesses, non-profits and people connect with their customers. That’s also my audience.

2) What’s your blog’s goal? There are a lot of aimless blogs out there. Which is fine, if you’re blogging as a form of diary-keeping. I’m blogging because I want to showcase my writing skills and showcase smart marketers and communicators. Carol Tice at Make A Living Writing recommends developing 52 potential blog posts — one for each week of the year — before you start writing. Do that and you’ll know pretty quickly if you have something to say.

3) Ask questions. It’s difficult to admit that I’m a technophobe. Scott Graham encouraged me to ask questions on LinkedIn and elsewhere on the Web. People online are amazingly helpful. There are also many people out there with the same questions you have.

4) Learn enough to get going. SEO, keywords, tags, it’s alphabet soup to me and was enough to stop me from starting my blog. Fortunately, there are plenty of online resources to help. MediaBistro offers seminars on SEO and blogging; SEOmoz has a great online tutorial about SEO; and LinkedIn has a great, supportive group of writers and editors, LinkEds & Writers. Many local business groups and chambers of commerce also offer in expensive continuing education sessions on blogging and social media.

No doubt this blogging experience is an enlightening journey.  For me, it’s an exciting ride.

What do you think? Is blogging for the birds?

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Character + Creativity = Customers


Anna Hardy Evans is a character.

She’s also an artist, woodworker, welder, and an uber-do-it-yourselfer. Evans owns In-Home, a retail store in Exeter, NH, that features unusual home furnishings and gifts. Her store is filled with one-of-a-kind pieces she’s discovered at flea markets, barn sales, salvage yards or on the side of the road (and in occasional trash bins). She has a knack for “repurposing” her finds: creating a mirror out of bicycle parts, say, or welding twig-shaped legs together and topping them with a round pane of glass to create a table.

Evans’ creativity extends to her marketing. She has a website (full disclosure: I helped write it), a Facebook page and emails store news to customers via Constant Contact. Her real talent is building her customer base via word-of-mouth. Local designers stop by In-Home to shop for clients, who in turn visit on their own. Her shop interior and windows change weekly depending on what’s she found, created or sold.

Her best idea to-date is hosting monthly in-store design workshops. These include wine, munchies, and an opportunity to learn about, for example, painting furniture or decorating for the holidays. The most recent evening, co-hosted by PK Surroundings, an Exeter-based kitchen and bath design firm, featured a discussion about about kitchen and bathroom remodeling. After designer Janice Page spoke to our small but attentive group, Evans talked about lighting, pulling out several lamps that she sells in the store. Each guest received a 10% off In-Home gift card and at least half the group used theirs before leaving that night.

Evans is smart: she used the design event to cross-market her store and a local design business. She’s reaching out to a small but select audience that wants unique items for their homes and appreciates repurposed furnishings. Two other home furnishing and gift stores are within 500 feet of In-Home yet Evans has managed to make her store stand apart. The store opened last summer, in the midst of the economic downturn, and is holding its own.

By the way, Evans notes that it’s easy to rewire a lamp. This is someone who also makes her own paint. Really.

What about in your town?  Who are the retailers trying creative ways to pull in customers?

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