Nerve Collective

Thoughts & Musings

Warts-and-All Marketing or Just Good Old-Fashioned Mysticism?

A series of print ads for Guillow’s balsa wood toy airplanes by The Johnson Group in Chattanooga, Tennessee has been getting some attention lately. The ads appeared in the most recent Communication Arts advertising annual, and they're pretty darn good looking things. They sport lovely photo/illustrations of Guillow's planes in various states of distress, with the thin wooden wings and tail falling off, or the fuselage broken. "Built to last. An afternoon." is one headline. "Some assembly required. Plus, even more re-assembly." is another. They're a lot of fun in other words, mostly because they ring so true. A kid gets about a dozen throws out of a Guillow's plane before the wings and tail start to splinter, crack and break.

Which raises a question: how much business sense does it really make to call out Guillow's planes' break-ability so boldly? We've heard it argued that headlines like these — that fearlessly proclaim negatives — are part of the brave new world of advertising, the one where manufacturers don't hesitate to talk about their own product's drawbacks. Age of transparency, getting real with the consumer and all that.

No doubt consumers both want and deserve more transparency. But let's be honest: how far can transparency really be taken as a strategy? Imagine a totally transparent car insurance ad. "We'll pay to fix your car if you get into an accident. Unless we total it. In which case you'll have neither a car nor enough money to buy a new one." How about a wireless provider? "Crystal clear, low-cost calling throughout the continental USA. But then there's the 2-year contract. Also if you ever have a problem that requires talking to an actual person, well, good luck with that."  

We'd argue that there really is no such thing as warts-and-all marketing. Even in the case of this toy campaign. We'd simply call it good mysticism. And by mysticism we mean the ability to see to the heart of matters and perceive deeper truths (altered state of consciousness optional). The deeper truth here is that a broken Guillow's plane isn't really broken, it's just a different kind of toy, one that opens a door to a different kind of play.

Ask any kid. Cobbling one of these planes back together and trying to get it to fly straight after a tail wing splits is actually part of the fun. The whole thing becomes an exercise in experimental aviation until you've mixed, matched, swapped out, pared down and trimmed every piece seven or eight times, until there's virtually nothing left. The play finally ends when you can't get more than a few feet's worth of float out of it. All that's left to do at that point is attach a lit firecracker to the fuselage and re-enact the final aircraft carrier sequence from the movie Midway

Or so we've been told.

All of which is to say that what The Johnson Group has achieved here has very little to do with transparency, and much more to do with identifying and illustrating a deeper dimension of value. Three bucks buys you one darn good afternoon's worth of play, whatever shape the plane may be in. It's terrific insight and skillful writing. We salute it!

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