The recent corporate marriage of General Mills and Pillsbury combined with a couple of strange encounters with household products got me to thinking about the world of advertising and marketing, specifically, and about the world of work, generally.

Now that General Mills’ fourteen different varieties of Cheerios and the baking of Betty Crocker is locking arms with the Doughboy and that baritone bean pitchman, the Green Giant, it’s a formidable combination. However, it also means that a cadre of good minds will be parked in meetings trying to see who can use the word “synergy” more creatively, or debating whether they should return to that lovable image of a finger poking the Pillsbury Doughboy in the gut because they’re uncertain if consumer attitudes over the next decade will promote or discourage physical contact with baked goods (The film, American Pie, may have created a watershed moment for Pillsbury’s promotions team).

While we have always been a nation of innovation and creativity and pooling our efforts, it’s difficult for me to witness significant amounts of time and intellectual energy devoted to endeavors some distance removed from that mother of invention: necessity. All that time spent on designing a better mousetrap, only to discover that peanut butter made better bait than cheese. It reminds me of my advertising days, when there would be weeks of meetings – most approaching the alleged importance of the presidential summit variety – to hash out the most arcane possibilities for finding some point of difference between our brand and our competitors. When I worked on Mr. Clean advertising, our product was never as strong as the Lysols and Pine-Sols, so we had to convince folks that we didn’t leave streaks on your floor like those others did. When I worked on Head and Shoulders, some competitor’s brand claimed to smell better or something, so our strategy sessions covered everything from changing the bottle and the color of the shampoo to putting the models in something other than the typical dandruff-free attire: the black turtle-neck. The discussions even ventured toward a tactic that would scare people about the microbes that could form on their scalp if they didn’t use our brand regularly. When I advertised Suave products, the claims started to approach that which was reasonable. There we simply complimented consumers on being smart enough to realize that all shampoos and deodorants are the same, so they should just buy the cheapest one – ours.

While this work may seem relatively harmless, the thing that troubled me most was the plethora of gifted and intelligent people involved. I often found myself daydreaming about the possibility of turning this brainpower loose on more pressing issues (What if these folks weren’t concerned about Mountain Dew portraying the right attitude for their target audience, but rather what it might take to stop some men from beating up their wives?). I started to believe that that time and effort just may have been better spent. It got to me a bit.

Last week as I functioned in the role of the consumer, my frustration about these matters was exacerbated. There was a new Kleenex … excuse me … facial tissue box in our household. It was one of those premium decorator boxes that have pleasant designs to match any décor. We typically end up with the designer-type boxes when there’s a sale of some sort, or if our household’s noses have been rubbed raw or are in need of some soothing comfort by week two of a cold. I think that’s what they call it, “soothing comfort.” It must come from the alleged lotion they put in the tissues. All I know is that when they come out of the box, they’re dry – ain’t no lotion to be found. And it was what came out of this box that got me going. As I opened it and tried to pull out one tissue, I shredded it three times before it finally emerged along with five others. The undersized box, I posited, must be some clever psychological ploy designed to give us the perception that these tissues are so darn thick and soft, they’re nearly too big for the box, dog gone it.

As a former advertising executive, this one baffled me a bit at first, for I recall myriad examples where the marketing wizards tried to make the package larger in order to gain a greater “presence” in the store aisle. Each package that faced the consumer was called a “facing,” and the marketers paid more money for more facings. So, for an extra hundred and fifty grand, they could have three bottles of Pepto-Bismol side-by-side on the shelf instead of just two, thereby reducing the chance that you’d miss this world-beater product in your haste. But the savvy marketers figured out that they should just make the package bigger. No need to spend money on a new facing when they could make the potato chip bag the size of a military issue duffel bag and still put only 13.25 ounces of chips inside.

I think my favorite, which could easily be embellished folklore but makes for a nice illustration, is the makers of 3-Muskateers candy bar reducing the amount of candy in the bar by increasing the amount of air injected into the middle of the whipped chocolate center. Same sized wrapper. Same sized candy bar. Just less weight & substance in the newfangled, shrinking product.

So, the Kleenex encounter bothered me because good minds had designed a box too small, and probably done it intentionally after much deliberation.

Then there’s the more recent case of the “Ice bag cometh.”   You see, we’ve got one of those refrigerators that lacks the high-tech, ice-making amenities. And to complicate matters, we bailed out on manually filling the ice trays a while back (I can’t remember why we did this, but I’m sure it was a well considered decision assessing space constraints and how many frozen concentrate orange juice containers we could precariously prop up against the Blue Bunny ice cream). So, we buy our ice by the bag. And as I opened the freezer door recently, I was startled by the marketing message blazoned across the side of the bag of ice. It said that their “Premium Ice is ‘frozen inside out’ in a process superior to homemade ice, producing a crystal clear, taste free, hard frozen ice.” Now certainly I’m part of the problem, for I’m buying, rather than making, our ice. But more troubling is the creative and intellectual energy employed to research and implement this alternative ice technology. From the scientists to the sales staff, there surely must have been better ways to spend their time.

However, in the midst of all my consternation and ranting about what I perceive to be a misuse of potential, I recall another advertising experience. I’m reminded of a television commercial I saw years ago for a bank. It featured the CEO of a company that manufactured buttons for clothing. He was ruminating about the obligation he felt toward his employees and how “buttons held their lives together.” He went on to mention that everyone needs buttons, which I considered for a moment, then conceded was true (unless there’s some Velcro, snap ‘n zipper cult I haven’t heard about). While this seemed like just another commercial initially, the next day when I buttoned up my shirt, I thought about those faceless button makers and how much they do contribute. I realized that each one of us should be thankful for the daily contributions that each one of us makes toward our collective well being, no matter how insignificant it may seem on the surface.

Seeming insignificant might explain why people would embarrass themselves on the Jerry Springer show or on one of those “reality-based” television programs like Big Brother. It’s as though they’re striving to secure their Whorholian fifteen minutes of fame, when they should realize that their daily work, their daily contribution, is invaluable. We do need those buttons and those cushioned in-soles, those rear bumpers and that tax advice, those colored toothpicks and those straight lines down the middle of the highway. They do make our lives better at some point in time and in some way.

So, as I smugly take shots at those who design the Kleenex boxes too small or develop an innovative way to freeze ice, I must remind myself that we are all in this together, contributing what we can for the collective good. We do what we do each day in the hopes that we will improve all of our lives, and we should celebrate these daily endeavors. And who the heck am I to cast judgements?

There. I hope I just effectively put myself back in my place. But just in case I didn’t get it, I’ll revisit this great work by Walt Whitman as he reminds us that our daily work for our daily bread is something to be celebrated, maybe even something to sing about:

I Hear America Singing … 

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand

     singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or

     at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of

     the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day–at night the party of young fellows,

     robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.