Barbed and wired:Picture this

how do you tell the difference between a company that is merely trying to market itself and one that is trying to project its...

how do you tell the difference between a company that is merely trying to market itself and one that is trying to project its failings onto others? It's a tough one, says nick booth, and there's no easy answer.

We've all seen that IBM advert on TV where a nameless 'top drawer' consultant writes a brilliant plan costing two million dollars.

Oh come on, you have seen it. The one where that character, let's call him Lard E. Bucket II jnr, addresses a photogenic collection of IT experts and asks: "One question. Is this plan implementable, given ow-er coorant tuck-gnarl-er-gee?" With me now? And the models/techies answer: "No".

And that's when it hits you, as the advert's pay-off says. Well actually... no. What really hits you (apart from the fact that this is the only IT department in the world that doesn't resemble the crew of the Starship Enterprise) is that this advert turns everything on its head. It's exactly the opposite of the real life negative associations we have with IBM.

By all accounts, it's got its act together and is a far more open company these days. But if we were to cast any company in the role of fiends who charge millions for systems that are not terribly compatible, whose name would crop up?

And another thing. The adverts premise seems to be that IBM is being called in to deal with a problem that some other company has caused. So what happened at the original tender? How did IBM get overlooked in favour of some competitor whose products are more expensive by all accounts, but which must have won by superior branding?

Pointing the finger
Psychologists call this projection, where you accuse someone else of all the faults you recognise in yourself. In the advertising industry, they call it... well, to be honest I don't know what they call it, but it's probably got a name like brand repositioning or reassertion, or projection.

In essence, you accuse others of things to detract attention from your own failings in that department. It'll have a poncy name that over-complicates a well under-stood phenomenon, in order to justify a gargantuan invoice.

You couldn't charge someone tens of thousands of pounds for services on a 'he who smelt it dealt it' project, so it'll have to be called positive brand re-alignment - or something else. You get the picture?

It's a bit rich!
You don't have to look far for proof. BT is running an advertising campaign where it pokes fun at companies that waste time and money on trendy management training courses, when they should be getting back to basics.

Yes, the same BT that puts its staff on diversity training courses! Some people might find it a bit rich for BT to laugh at companies that squander their resources, fail to get even the basics right and hide behind ludicrous jargon.

The most striking contrast I ever saw was at a Cisco reseller event in Las Vegas. After sitting through syrupy soft focus videos about how Cisco was bringing the world together and empowering us through the use of its routers, the first podium speaker was Cisco's international vice president of something or other.

He didn't do much to maintain the theme of promoting global welfare through selling routers. His first words (in an attempt to endear himself to the mostly American audience) was to tell some tale about a recent trip to London, the highlight of which seemed to be finding some evidence that we're as ghastly as Hollywood portrays us.

Sneering the words "I guess that tells you all you need to know about the British" didn't seem to fit with the image Cisco was trying to portray.

Spot the difference
OK, so a pattern is emerging. Whenever a company seems to be trying too hard to push a message, you know that the opposite is true. But how do you tell the difference between a company that's merely trying to market itself and one that's trying to project its failings onto others?

That's a tough one. The only distinction I can make is that whenever an advert is couched in bland meaningless terms, punctuated by phrases like competitive advantage, world class service and fit for the 21st century, then you know the company is boring but harmless.

If the advert is controversial or hard hitting, then you know the company is projecting. If the advert is interesting, then it's probably a lie.And that's when it hits you: tough business advertising.
Nick Booth is a freelance journalist

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