Goodbye Mr. Whipple: Advertising in the Digital Age with Professor Edward Boches

Professor Edward Boches has been in advertising for 37 years.  The former creative director for Mullen helped build the agency from a small twelve-person firm to one of the biggest in the country.  Boches started teaching at Boston University in 2012, and is eager to share his professional experience with students. He has a lot to say about how advertising has changed since he started: the demand for brands is higher, but it’s a brave new frontier.

Advertising used to be about one-way communication and buying air time.  There were a lot of good ads, but it was easier to be effective since there were fewer media channels.

“Essentially it was about repetition, frequency, and big ideas, because you could buy attention,” Boches says.  “Users and viewers and readers had little control over anything. There were four or five or six magazines, a few daily newspapers, three network television channels, and there was no such thing as remote controls yet.  So it was pretty easy to build a customer base and generate awareness with a decent idea and a media budget.”

Technology has changed that.  Now, the standards are higher for brands to create meaningful experiences.

Gone are the days of Mr. Whipple’s “please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” an ad Boches calls “the single most heinous advertising campaign” in the history of advertising.  It involves an elderly store clerk chastising people for squeezing his Charmin toilet paper. Who could blame them? It was so darn soft! The narrative makes little sense: Why was squeezing toilet paper forbidden, and why did Mr. Whipple care?  Is toilet paper really that irresistible? The ad was annoying, but it sold a lot of toilet paper.

“In those days you could do advertising like that and still be effective,” Boches says.  “And that’s the single biggest thing that’s changed: Brands can’t buy attention anymore. They have to earn attention.”

Boches says that advertisers need to get comfortable relinquishing control of their brands.  Consumers can choose what to watch and when. Viewers even pay premium prices for services like Netflix and Hulu to avoid ads.  The focus then becomes how to build communities instead of followings.

Boches says that “a community of loyal customers” can be more crucial in building a brand than traditional advertising methods.  Thousands of personal recommendations or reviews on Yelp might speak louder than a thirty-second ad that airs on a prime time slot.

Brands also exist in a matrix of other “mini brands” with which they need to cooperate. Boches says that if Samsung wants a “micro-celebrity” like Casey Neistat to promote their product, “he’s not going to shill their product.  He’s going to do what he wants to do that serves his purpose and respects his audience.”   

To build communities, advertisers need to understand the thousands of mini brands and micro-celebrities they can align themselves with.

Given that audiences can more easily ignore advertisements, the standards are higher for brands to, in Boches’ words, “do things rather than say things, to create content that adds value or is remarkably interesting.”

And that’s the thing, Boches says, that hasn’t changed at all.  A good ad is still a good ad.

Technology has raised the bar for ads to stand out and be memorable–but not annoying.  That’s always been the challenge, except now, it’s easier for audiences to ignore ads. The challenge today is for advertisers to capture people’s attention and provide an experience.

Boches refers to an ad thought up by one of his former students when working at Mullen.

Designed as a Mother’s Day promotion for Jet Blue, she conceived “fly babies,” a play on the idea that everybody hates a crying baby on an airplane. In an almost three-minute video, passengers are told that for every crying baby, they’ll receive 25% off their next JetBlue flight. As each baby cries, people–instead of frowning–smirk, smile, and eventually start to clap.  When the fourth baby cries, the babies – and their mothers – are practically heroes.

Soon the ad went viral and was on outlets from USA Today to CNN to the Huffington Post.  It started because Mullen went above and beyond to create a unique experience for JetBlue’s audience. It wasn’t about buying air time.

“So that’s a new kind of advertising,” Boches said.  “It’s not doing advertising that’s self serving; it’s doing advertising that is a service to and for your customers.”

“Fly babies” is an exciting example of an agency going beyond a thirty second spot and creating long-form content.  If this is the type of work you see for yourself, Boches encourages you not to give up.

“Don’t settle for anything less than your goal, even if you don’t find it right away.  Because everyone I know who said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ has gotten to that place if they didn’t give up.  The people who don’t get there, it’s not because they have less talent; they just gave up too soon, or they settled for something less.”


Daniel Novak, Contributing Writer

Daniel Novak is currently pursuing a master’s degree in communication studies at Boston University.  He graduated from Whittier College in 2017 with a background in English literature.  Following graduation, Daniel is planning to work in the public relations field.  In his free time, Daniel enjoys cooking, long jogs, and watching movies.

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