The Saint Croix Courier

St. Stephen, NB

2007 May 15

Life on the Edge

All together now: "You, sir, are no John Kennedy."

by Gerald McEachern

Back in the days when I was a shameless marketer, one of my clients was a large forest products company. At the time one particular province was planning to restrict cutting on some fairly large tracts of Crown Land. The rationale was pretty clear. The province was attempting to balance land use issues, and it wanted to give recreational users some open access to land without stumbling across seemingly endless clear cuts.

Naturally, or should I say, of course, my client took exception to the proposed regulations. And of course, or should I say, naturally, the various environmental groups supported the change, and were getting a lot of sympathetic media attention for their views. The forest products company didn't like the fact that their opponents were getting the upper hand, so they asked me to do up a series of newspaper ads to make them appear to be good stewards of the forests. They wanted to show that they were an outfit that enjoyed sharing "their" forest resources with all kinds of other users.

I was early for the meeting with them. It was just after lunch and aftera long while all the top brass wandered in. There was a bit of preamble, and just as I started to make my presentation, I noticed that the VP of the woodlands division was nodding off to sleep and so was the director of communications. I'd never seen such a thing before, but then again I was young and unaccustomed to the long standing tradition of "wet lunches" among these executive elite.

I said my piece, even though I'm pretty sure no one was listening too hard. And what I told them was this: the ad campaign they wanted to run would have the opposite effect on the readers. Instead of convincing them, it was going to turn them off. The three guys who were still awake in the room disagreed with me and told me to get the campaign going.

So I did. The first ad ran two days later. The next morning the ad was being ripped to shreds by the folks at the local CBC station. Apparently, ordinary people hated the ad. They felt like they were being manipulated, and they said so, publicly. Instead of dropping the rest of the campaign, the company kept it up, until almost no one supported their position, and almost everyone became convinced that the new regulations would be a good thing. And so it was.

Flash forward a whole lot of years. Just last week I was reading the local weekly newspaper and happened across a half-page advocacy ad for the U.S.-based LNG company trying to locate just across the bay from where I live. The ad looked a lot like the kind of ads I'd run for the forestry company. Now I don't want to knock the LNG company.That's what the letters to the editor are for. It's the marketing strategy working behind the scenes over there that interests me.

I'm sure I won't be the only one taking notice of the JFK quote in the headline. It's a pretty interesting quote. It's one of those classic speechwriter kinds of quotes with a lot of short parallel sentences. "Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends..." and so on, to tighten up the relationship between Canada and the U.S. I'm wondering if the LNG company marketers think this angle is going to work with Canadians. My personal bet is no.

As a former ad man, I'd be pretty cautious about using the quote at all. Kennedy had a lot of good quotes, but this one is a bit heavy handed, given the sensitivity of the issue. The quote wraps up with: "Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder."

The wording strikes me as a more than bit paternalistic, which I doubt would be my strategy in aiming an American message at a foreign audience (Canada). And then there's the clear reference to marriage vows with the unwritten sub-text around matrimonial sharing, as in "what's yours is mine." And well, maybe some Canadians do feel as if they're in a marriage contract, what with Free Trade and U.S. ownership of Canadian businesses and all. But I think most of us would just prefer to remain good neighbours and leave it at that.

Therein lies the real, but unwritten message of the ad. This LNG company needs to use its neighbouring Canadian waterways to get to its proposed plant in the U.S. So we'll see whether the Canadians are convinced to share their waterway with LNG tankers as a result of reading this ad. But I guess the ad works better than the alternative, which would be: "Hi neighbour, can I drive my big LNG tanker through that narrow waterway you're got hiding in your backyard?" Not an exactly diplomatic kind of headline, is it?

No matter how you slice it, advocacy advertising is a tricky thing, especially when a monied corporation is taking aim at a few ordinary citizens who oppose them. Personally, I think there are better ways than advertising to create buy-in for a project. Long before firm plans are laid for a new venture, the proponents might actively try to find out whether their project is palatable to its immediate neighbours. And if most of those neighbours don't want it, perhaps there's a better location. Why bother trying to ram it down anyone's throat?

Obviously, some people do want these kinds of projects in their neighbourhoods. Saint John,N.B., seems to be one of those places. Point Lepreau is another. Personally, I would not be moving anywhere near an LNG or nuclear facility. But that's just me. Some people may like it just fine. No amount of advertising is going to change my mind on that.

I think what Kennedy had in mind for that "no man put asunder" quote had more to do with the combined will of the two nations with respect to continental defense. In the Cold War era, these two countries, once aligned, were much stronger than each on its own. I think the ad does considerable disservice to Kennedy's memory in invoking the quote in such a crassly commercial manner. Good taste still has a role to play in successful advertising, although there's always plenty of bad taste and unsuccessful advertising out there, for sure.

So before you get too upset with the newspaper(s) that ran this ad, or run other ads like these, think about this. Ads like these are pretty transparent. Like all advertising, they try to manipulate the facts to win a onesided argument. The only people they convince are the weak-minded or those who are already convinced. The large majority of readers are very often turned right off by this kind of advertising — and by the perceived cost of the ads, as well. Creating, producing, and inserting big newspaper ads can be expensive. At least more expensive than the ordinary opponent of LNG could afford.

So what would Jack Kennedy do if he lived in neighbouring Washington County? Well, he and his brother Robert would probably have toured the area and created a list of inequities and opportunities. They would have tried to tackle the foundational problems by applying political pressure higher up the line. I doubt they would have put personal gain at the top of the agenda by trying to establish an industrial plant here that most other places had turned down.

And what kind of a half-page ad would Jack Kennedy actually aim at his Canadian neighbours? Maybe it would be something like, "Partners across a bay. Partners in tourism." Or "Sharing one nature. Preserving a diverse ecology." Something kinda visionary, I'd like to think.

But unfortunately, the marketing guy at the LNG company is no Jack Kennedy.

Gerald McEachern is a writer, marketer and business consultant living in St. Andrews. He can be reached at: .


© 2007 Advocate Media
Article republished on Save Passamaquoddy Bay website with permission.

The Saint Croix Courier, St. Stephen, NB