You can tell a lot about the nature of a region by what gets advertised.
In the Los Angeles area, where I lived for seven years before becoming New To Seattle, the electronic media was always full of ads for cancer hospitals and rehab centers. The former category is probably not surprising given the Los Angeles basin’s poor air quality. It’s been that way for a very long time. Nearly five centuries ago, in 1542, Juan Cabrillo, the first Spanish explorer to sail up the California coast, noticed the lingering cloud around the future City of Angels caused by fires in the villages of the indigenous Indians (who eventually all were killed or run off) and actually named the offshore waters the Bay of Smokes.
As for rehab centers, they seem to be as much a product of L.A.’s heady mix of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous wealth. Given the smoggy atmosphere, the joke goes, the best place to observed burned-out stars is not in the heavens with a telescope but at the Betty Ford Clinic.
In Seattle, I also hear ads for rehab centers and cancer treatment facilities, which, like the spots in L.A., are a little long on evocative language and a little short on, shall we say, documented outcome probabilities. Not nearly as many ads as in L.A., though. But my focus in this post is on marketing I haven’t encountered elsewhere that seems, ah, distinctive.
Like for vitamin D.
Although the days are really getting shorter, they’re still bright most of the time. But as everyone has told me, the sun will disappear within a month or so, not to emerge in any sustained way until next summer. In what seems to be a sign of the seasonal change to come, I have started hearing ads on the radio for stores selling containers of vitamin D, which the body can synthesize from exposure to the sun but can’t when it’s cloudy all the time.
It’s been clear to me that people in Seattle obsess about the sun, or lack thereof, during the legendarily long winters. (Whether that prolonged darkness accounts for the widely believed proposition that Seattle has a high suicide rate is a topic I hope some day to explore.) So I guess “sunless in Seattle”–there I go again–is behind the vitamin D push.
But even if it’s a huge market here, can anybody make a killing selling this stuff? I mean, at Costco No. 1, the chain’s mother ship on 4th Avenue S, the house-brand jar of 600 softgels–which should last you more than two years if you subtract the sunny days—sets you back less than $11. Maybe it’s just a lost leader by merchants to get you in stores to sell you some really overpriced herbal supplement like ginseng.
Another item touted here in a big way are gutter shields, which are filters that sit on top of your house’s gutters to let the rain go through but keep out clogging stuff like leaves. Now, thanks to its nearly perpetual rain, Seattle has a lot of trees, and therefore a lot of leaves. But this is hardly the only place in the country with a wet climate. Yet nowhere else have I seen the profusion of print and electronic ads warning about the danger of not having covers over your gutters. It’s like you’re not green enough, or something.
But so far, the ad that has me the most puzzled is the promotion by the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. It’s to the right. Yes, it is a large billboard facing eastbound traffic on Nickerson St. near the Fremont Bridge about two miles from the campus.
Now, the U-Dub B-school ranks near the top in all the major ratings; Forbes, for example, puts it 36th. It accepts fewer than one in three applicants. It has prominent alums. It’s part of one of the country’s finest public universities. Foster ain’t a schlock operation or one of those online-only, get-your-degree-quick outfits.
So why does it market itself like one?
I have told several Foster alums I have run into here that their tony alma mater is soliciting students in the fashion of Puget Sound-area strip clubs and fast-food restaurants. They were astonished and chagrined.
Granted, the location is very clever. The Fremont Bridge, which is the next left turn, is among the nation’s most-opened drawbridges. So the sign gets extended face time all day and night with large numbers of backed-up, waiting, frustrated drivers.
But really, what are the chances a favorable consumer response will be triggered, maybe after a car conversation going something like this:
Driver: Damn bridge! We’re going to be late!
Passenger: Hey, look at that billboard! Foster! Your ticket outta that sweatshop warehouse job with Amazon!
Driver: Yeah! Foster! Move over, Bezos!
More likely, in my judgment, would be notice taken of the sign immediately to the right. “COLD BEER HERE,” it reads, with a finger pointing to the bar’s entrance. You can see that sign in the picture, too.
It’s another reason the Foster pitch strikes me as more high brew than high brow.