Of all the reactions to the super bowl ads, the most interesting to me by far was the backlash to the Martin Luther King Jr Ram spot.

Putting my cards on the table: the backlash delighted me.

Brands do this kind of nonsense all the time, using altruism as window dressing for their wares. What’s curious to me is why audiences haven’t objected to all the other equally ham-fisted attempts at this same ploy as much as they did this one.

It’s certainly partly because of the particular heightened racial complexity of this moment in the NFL, so the audience’s dissonance detectors may well be more sensitive right now.

But I think it’s more than that. The more we advertisers use tired tools, the wiser the audience gets to them. Today’s audience is so much better at detecting disingenuousness than the audience of even a couple years ago. And man was this ad disingenuous.

brands do this kind of nonsense

The saddest part is that it would have taken two very minor changes to turn this ad from disingenuous to sincere.

First: lose the giant Ram grill beauty shot that mars the sentiment before the spot even gets going. That clichéd truck fording mud porn comes as such a damn disappointment in the middle of an historic sermon like this. You can feel the collective groan. If you want to make this kind of advertising work, your branding has to take a distant back seat to the message. Save it to the very end. Anything else is a huge fail.

Second: imagine Ram had ended the spot with a simple line like, “To further Dr. King’s legacy, Ram is donating 100 trucks this year to service organizations doing important work.”

There. Now Ram means it. Spot fixed.

Elevating the least loved category in all of advertising – Free Big Idea #3

Over my 18 years of somehow making a living off of nothing but ideas, only a small fraction of those ideas have ever seen the light of day. Generally in this business it’s not good self-care to spend so much as a second mourning the death of particular favorite children. But one dead sweet-idea-child-o-mine is so far and away my all-time favorite, I still find myself shedding the occasional tear. In the cold November rain (self-imposed GNR-reference moratorium from here on out). And also poke my toe at its motionless body now and then to, you know, be sure.

This is the idea that made Kickstand Kickstand.

I'm thinking it's overdue for a toe-poke.

So honestly, this is the idea that made Kickstand Kickstand. It’s the one we launched with, the one we used as our own first non-actual-case-study case-study, the one that felt big enough and new enough that going into business with the goal of making ideas like this one come to life felt just plausible enough.

I even auditioned for a TEDx talk with this idea (which I lost to a banjo player. In my defense, he was a fairly above-average banjo player).

Anyway, on to the idea.

Femcare Marketing Imagery!

But first, restrain yourselves, cause a man is about to get all sincere and stuff about menstrual pads. I'm not clear whether that's strictly allowed or not.

This idea came out of our work with A Drop In the Bucket, a water well charity working in East Africa. One of the many, many interesting things about Drop is they don’t think of themselves as a water charity, but as an education charity. Their ultimate goal is to get more kids to complete school and use their education help improve their own communities. Water, they found, was the quickest way to improve school attendance. (Gathering water is often a full-family, all-day affair). So Drop started going in to villages and putting wells at every school and watching attendance skyrocket.

Side note: my daughter’s school raised enough money to dig a well in Uganda, which now has their school’s name on it: here’s a picture of it in action.

Drop In the Bucket - Apopong Primary School - William B Travis well photo


Anyway, the next attendance challenge is disease, which can spread quickly and knock out a whole school for weeks at a time. So to prevent that, Drop adds sanitation and hygiene facilities. Oh, and they make the priming system for the toilets a merry go round, so the kids have something to play on and the system becomes self-sustaining. Brilliant stuff, and when it’s all in place, once again, attendance goes up and stays up. Until …

the well breaks.

Turns out something like 80% of all wells in Africa fail the first year from overuse.

Which no other water well charity is in any hurry to admit. Drop, though, makes it a point of pride. When they dig a well, they also start a community microfinance fund that the whole village pays in to for things like buying replacement pump parts. They also train the locals in repair, so their wells stay in action far, far longer than the NGO average.

When they do all this, school attendance goes up and it stays up.


Girls hit puberty.

(Full disclosure: there’s some argument in the aid world as to why this is, and to whether it’s even a real phenomenon. There’s an interesting analysis here, if you’re interested. But, for my money, while Drop’s evidence is still anecdotal, their systemic, one-step-at-a-time approach deals with the variables raised in that article, and nevertheless, the effect appears to remain. And there are enough other players (SHE being the big one) in East Africa seeing the same issue, intervening, and tracking the results that I’m inclined to go with a where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire approach, personally, but YMMV).

According to the people on the ground, what’s going on is this: girls in that part of the world do not have access to or cultural examples around feminine hygiene products. So they reach puberty and just stay home a week out of every month. Falling further and further behind, until they give up and drop out.

This is a problem with an obvious and simple solution, in comparison to most developing world interventions. There are already charities and for-profit companies on the ground making reusable, low-cost, locally produced products that work, and that girls actually use. What’s missing is the power to scale the solutions up to meet the size of the need.

So here’s the idea.

A major US femcare brand steps up and does just that. Scales up the local solution to fit the size of the problem.


I'm so glad you asked.

PadPalsPad Pals.

Here, we even did a down and dirty placeholder logo for a presentation a while back. (A real logo would look way better, but this is, I remind you, a free idea).

Imagine a brand like Always adopts this (it’s yours if you want it, Always), and takes it to every middle school in the US.

Imagine that when a teenaged US girl sits through the usual, gender-segregated health class, she gets a branded care package from Always. Inside are a survival kit with pads and tampons, and a small booklet explaining the situation in sub-saharan Africa, and the serious importance of a simple product that most American girls take so for granted, they’d prefer not even think about it.

The booklet ends with an invitation to adopt not a pen pal, but a pad pal. A commitment, for a few dollars a month, to keep a girl her own age in school with a simple gift.

That’s marketing dream territory.

This is the kind of bold good brands can do when they let their own self interest and their altruism hang out meaningfully and get to be best buddies. That's our whole pitch, right there, no matter who you are. Imagine the brand loyalty this would engender in American girls. Imagine the feel-good power they could package into every product, in a crowded, parity ridden category no less. Girls with an emotional connection to their pad brand? That’s marketing dream territory. And not just an emotional connection, but a deeper understanding, even gratitude, for a product has always seemed as much a nuisance as anything?

Girls standing up for girls to stand together and say that a simple fact of biology shouldn’t get to say who gets ahead and who gets behind.

That’s Pad Pals.

My favorite idea ever. And now we’re making it anybody’s idea who wants it. If you know someone at a femcare brand interested in trying something new and brave and memorable, please share it with her.


Drones and Sharks – Free Big Idea #2

Last week’s post got shared way beyond our expectations (thanks for that), which means it’s time to squander our momentum by scaling our ambitions way, way back.

Not really. But we do want to show that not every cause campaign has to be on a multimillion dollar, planet-altering scale to be interesting.

It just has to be smart.

For your consideration: a ridiculously simple, cheap, and so-obvious-we-have-to-assume-someone’s-already-doing-it-without-getting-credit-for-it idea for DJI, the largest manufacturer of consumer quad copter drones in the world.

First let’s talk about drones.

DJI Phantom Drones

If all you knew about drones came from the popular media, you’d think the entire industry was held afloat by fascists and creepy guys with trench coats and restraining orders.

What doesn’t get reported is all the good that drones are doing right now.

The press narrative about mass-market drones manages to stoke alarmism in equal amounts from both ends of the political spectrum, privacy advocates and government haters alike. Add to that the slowness of the FAA in deciding what’s an OK commercial use of drones and what’s not (see if you can even begin to make sense of their guidelines here ), and you have an artificially stagnant category.

What doesn’t get reported is all the good that drones are doing right now. But considering the biggest drone-related PR stories so far have been things like wide-spectrum crop analysis and wind turbine inspection, that’s not entirely surprising. Crop monitoring is hardly a large enough good to overcome the undeniable terror of being watched from the sky.

What the drone market needs is to unite people over an enemy everyone can agree on.

badass great white sharkSharks.

Nothing produces more outsized fear as compared to its actual gross carnage output than a shark. Perfect opportunity for a smart brand to step up, do a lot of good for a little money, and be a hero.

shark attacks on local beachesOur idea: DJI picks a beach in shark heavy waters, maybe in the Carolinas or Northeast Florida, and brings it under their watchful, constant protection.

They donate four Phantom 3 drones (two in the regular flight rotation, two emergency backups) plus a couple dozen backup batteries and chargers to a single beach, ensuring that (with a flying time of 25 minutes per battery) one drone is in a stable hover over the water with an eye on the entire beach for every hour of daylight.

They’ll also need to put a little effort into some shark-specific image recognition. The drone’s camera will upload continuously to a server running real-time image analysis to spot shark shapes. The server will then send alert texts with flagged images to an active lifeguard’s mobile phone, who can then shut down the beach at a moment’s notice.

guy racing a sharkIf this were an actual paying client exploration, we’d do a full-scale naming study for this, and land on something catchy, domain-available, and trademark free. But since this is a free idea, we’ll call it the first thing I think of. Which is SharkScan.

Ok, meh. Sometimes you get what you pay for.

While I was waiting on Bo to proofread this, I sketched up a quick logo for SharkScan, too. It’s horrible and you can’t see it.

Anyway, so you walk up to a beach, and a sign there has a nice DJI logo and reassuringly declares that This Beach is Protected By SharkScan. Think how great that would make you feel. I don’t even worry about sharks at beaches, but I’d still feel, like, three-mai-tai-level placid if I saw that sign.

Great. Sell it. Just be sure to keep giving it away, too.

Let’s go ahead and admit that this could easily prove to be as much of a potential revenue stream as a strict charitable endeavor. And we’re OK with that, as long as DJI commits (and scales up) their charity component as this effort grows. They should begin by establishing, for instance, an endowment for victims of shark attacks (at non-shark-scan beaches, obv) to help offset medical expenses, and the endowment should grow as the program grows. And it will grow. Once it’s proven to work, every tourism-dependent beach in the world will want the SharkScan package. Great. Sell it. Just be sure to keep giving it away, too. The point isn’t to turn coastal municipalities into a new drone revenue stream. The point is even bigger: to let the halo effect of doing good rub off on the entire category, to start to shift attitudes in the press, the public, and (perhaps most importantly) the FAA.

This is the kind of self-interested charity we want to see more of. Charity that sells is charity that changes the world. No 501(c)3 on the planet, no matter how great their fundraiser dinners are, could ever hope to wipe out shark attacks planet-wide once and for all. But a single profit-minded drone manufacturer looking for a great PR opportunity? Absolutely they could. And they damn well should.

Consider this idea now yours, DJI. Or any drone company that wants to run with it. Happy shark scanning. (If you want a better name than that – and yes, you want a better name than that – we know some guys that would be happy to help.)

Come back next week for something more, I dunno, heartwarming? Unless you’re uncomfortable with feminine hygiene conversations, in which case, get over it and come back anyway.

Hey Orkin – Free Big Idea #1

An idea of how to end malaria in Haiti

So if you’ve poked around on our site much, you may have noticed a small disconnect. Actually, it’s a big disconnect. There is a sizable gap between the work we talk about being interested in and the type of work we’ve actually done.

We’ve done some great work for nonprofits, one in particular we’re especially proud of. And we’ve done great work for for-profits and are doing more every day. But our hope from the beginning has been to bridge those two domains in meaningful, sustainable ways. That, it turns out, has been harder to do than we expected. To be fair, we’re in development on a few things that we’re excited about, campaigns that hit that sweet spot pretty damn well. And we’ll report back as they come to life.

But the big brand committing to a big Good … that’s been a hard sell.

We could talk at length about all the subtle reasons why – the psychology of charity in tension with the logic of commerce, the balkanization of intracorporate disciplines, etc etc – but one of the most difficult obstacles is also the most glaringly obvious: the brands with the resources to try something big enough to matter are unlikely to engage in a costly experiment with a three-person shop in Oak Cliff. You don’t get to be a Fortune 500 company by being reckless.

… we’re going to give our thinking away.

So, here’s what we’re gonna do. Instead of holding on to our best ideas and guarding our IP in hopes of landing a big fish, we’re going to give our thinking away. Let’s use this space to show those big brands the kind of good they could be doing, if they would just allow themselves to think bigger.

We’ll start with an idea we had for Orkin, the pest control company.

Orkin manTo be clear, as far as we know, Orkin has never heard this idea. Despite connections (and interest) at their agency of record, we’ve been unable to land a real meeting with them. So when you hear this idea and think “Those assholes! How dare they pass this up,” just know they haven’t actually passed it up. But this is now public domain, it’s theirs to take and run with if they want it. So if this post were somehow to end up on the desk of, say, Glen Rollins, Orkin’s CEO, (or the desk of Bill Derwin, president of Orkin’s biggest competitor, Terminix) we would not complain.

Anyway here’s the idea.

Orkin. Given that pest-control is a fear-based industry (probably a reactionary purchase decision more often than not) it’s safe to assume that brands in this space, even at their best, don’t engender a lot of warm fuzzies. Coupled with the growing cultural trend toward so-called natural products and general suspicion toward whatever people think they mean when they use the word “chemicals” as an epithet, and you might imagine it’s time for brands here to take some big risks to get firmly into consumers’ good graces.

We may have just the risk for them.

Something so ridiculously idealistic and implausible that even failure would make a great story.

Orkin spends $15 million a year on media alone. Imagine if they took that money and tried something stupid. Something so ridiculously idealistic and implausible that even failure would make a great story.

What if they picked an island in the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean, an island where people still die regularly from malaria, and adopted it? It could be Hispaniola (Haiti/DR). It could be any number of small African islands still plagued by the mosquito-borne parasite. Orkin could commit to ending malaria for one island once and for all. A whole developing nation island where parents would be afforded the same luxury that we in every western nation have been for generations: not having to worry about a mosquito taking the life of a child.

Countries with ongoing transmission of malaria 2013


Might they fail? Of course. But is it doable? Absolutely.

… $18 million a year over 5 years to end malaria in Haiti and the DR.

The Clinton Health Access Initiative has estimated that it would take $18 million a year over 5 years to end malaria in Haiti and the DR. That’s roughly Orkin’s total ad spend, so OK, it’s not like it wouldn’t hurt. But. Choosing a smaller island than Hispaniola would bring that number way down. And that estimate is also based entirely on conventional measures, not new experimental techniques like sterile male mosquito introduction, which could cost a fraction of that. Hell, the Chinese government nearly wiped out malaria from the Comoros islands in a single blow in 2014 by giving an experimental, untested drug to every single native there. Which is a total super-villain move, except it also happened to work. But definitely don’t do that, Orkin. We’re just saying, you could make this work for a fraction of your ad spend if you were willing to entertain some untraditional thinking.

Bear in mind that this isn’t money taken out of Orkin’s ad budget and thrown away. Far from it. The press value alone of a stunt like this could well equal the cost. But there’s more value here than PR. I mean, branded content opportunities out the thorax. Orkin could partner with the WHO, sending their top pest experts to brainstorm with ecologists and international health experts on the best strategies for mosquito intervention, and document the entire process. While most of the effort would be focused on non-“chemical,” ecologically-sensitive interventions, Orkin could still demonstrate the safety and efficacy of their mosquito control projects as a major component of the campaign. They could make full-out retail ads based on the effort. They could attach their own sales funnel to it, “every home pest treatment provides four families in the Caribbean with antimalarial protection.”

… brands can do more and make their good more sustainable if they connect the dots between commerce and charity more audaciously.

Some brands don’t like attaching sales to charitable efforts, and we get that. But the point is brands can do more and make their good more sustainable if they connect the dots between commerce and charity more audaciously. If this works, if Orkin wipes out malaria on a whole island, they can follow it up with a bigger island. They could go city by city through sub-Saharan Africa in a careful campaign to end the number one killer of people for most countries on the globe.

As pie-in-the-sky as it sounds, audaciousness like this is entirely doable. Not just for Orkin, who isn’t even a fortune 500 company, but for so many even better equipped brands.

In the history of advertising, billions of dollars have been wasted creating and running ad campaigns that consumers ended up hating so much they actually harmed sales. Every ad spend is a big risk. The risk I’m asking for is one that in the worst case scenario saves hundreds of lives. And however consumers respond to that, I’m pretty damn confident they won’t hate it.

More free ridiculous ideas coming here soon.

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