It’s A Tagless World

The default radio channel in my car is National Public Radio, but I also toggle to my guilty pleasure – sports talk radio. Who are the Chicago Bears eyeing in the draft, can our beloved Blackhawks repeat as Stanley Cup champions? The ads come fast and furious – ads for ticket brokers, remedies for low T (i.e. testosterone), hair restoration, male diapers for dribblers. I am reminded of the fishing term bycatch, referring to the inevitable harvest of undesirable fish in creels or trawling nets. As a woman, that’s what I am to these advertisers, nothing more than a scrap of disposable bycatch. I don’t take offense, in fact the male dominance just makes it easier to tamp the ads down to deep background, but occasionally there is leakage in my defense. One ad has just snagged my full attention, an ad for the new “tagless” line of Hanes T-shirts.

The implications of taglessness almost forced me off the road. Really, can tags be that annoying? And if so, are Americans so lazy that they can’t just snip it out? Perhaps as a group we are intimidated by the tags on mattresses and pillows that warn us that their removal is a heinous crime punishable by law. Can a whole ad campaign be built around such a trivial problem?

When I got home I discovered that there is a federally-mandated Care Labeling Rule that requires manufacturers and importers to attach care instructions to all garments. Apparently the Feds think that Americans have the inalienable right to know whether they need to wash or dry clean their dirties. This clothes captioning has traditionally involved a tag sewn onto the collar or waistband. The radio ads want me to believe that these tags are a supremely annoying situation. After all a flapping tag out could irritate my neck’s nape, or the tag could become visible to all. I don’t see this as a problem since I can self correct, or rely on friends who might give me a knowing nod, but the implication from the ads is that a visible tag is a real social faux pas.

The Hanes ad I heard was not just a random radio spot, but part of a full-on multi-media campaign, including a kick-off event in Times Square where celebrities such as Mr. T witnessed the unveiling of the new T-shirt.  TV ads  showed embarrassing moments involving exposed tags. One suburbanite muffed his hamburgers on the grill when he simultaneously tried to tuck in his tag. Other commercials featured talking tags, all peppy and excited to see the light of day – until Michael Jordan comes by and rips them out. The commercials end with anguished cries as the tags go through a shredder.

The concept of taglessness was now fully ensconced in my consciousness. I thought there must be a bigger story behind this ad campaign, of nation-wide focus groups probing the intersection of tags and annoyance, of harried advertising executives in a desperate search for any little thing that could provide a competitive edge for their T-shirts.

Scene: A conference room in the plush offices of Hanes Underwear. Seated around the table are Nick Dymes, product manager, T-shirt division, Penelope Pincher, head of consumer research, and Mahoola Muchmore, head of product research. On either side of Nick sits a young intern and an older gentleman. Everyone is dressed casually except the older man, who wears a tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows.

All right group, let’s get started. I’m sure you saw the numbers I circulated earlier. I’ve been working at Hanes my entire life and have never seen anything like this. We’re getting clobbered by the big box stores. For decades our T-shirts have meant quality, durability and fit. But Costco has now reduced them to nothing more than a commodity. Okay team, we have to find a way to get our identity back.

Nick’s voice catches. The rest of the room shifts uncomfortably in their seats.

Before we really dig into this, I want to introduce two important guests. This young man to my right is a summer intern and a real marketing genius in the making. Saw his potential years ago. It was a hot Sunday and we were all sweating up a storm in church as the minister nattered on. We just burst out of there at the last blessing and the first thing that we saw was this kid’s lemonade stand. I still remember the ice cubes bobbing in the pitcher and water droplets running down the side. What a relief.

Nick gives the intern a playful cuff on the head.

That day I learned a thing or two about product placement.  The kid was a hard-worker too, stuck around for both the 9 and 11 o’clock service. Group, I would like you to meet Billy Buck.

Thanks Uncle Nick, er, I mean Nick.

And I can’t tell you how honored I am to introduce this gentleman on the left. A legend in our field – what he did for straws and the upside down catsup bottle will be case studies for years. Ladies and gentleman, give Chuck Pease a warm Hanes welcome.

A smattering of applause.

Chuck, I could hear your story about straws again and again, so please give this group a run-down, it’s an important lesson for our dire situation.

As he speaks, Chuck has the disconcerting habit of pulling on the tufts of hair sprouting from his ears.

Glad to be here, pleased to help. Yes, I’ve made my career out of turning commodities into branded products. It all started with straws in the 1940s. Back then, straws were nothing more than hollow tubes, probably unchanged since Ooga MaGook sat in his cave and sucked on a reed. So I happened to be sitting in my backyard hammock with an iced tea, but every time I wanted to take a sip I had to lift my head because the straw was stiff and stuck straight out of the glass. If I didn’t aim the straw just right the straw would jab up my nose, or ice tea would drip on my shirt. Annoying, right? I thought there must be a better way – I’m an American, and Americans shouldn’t have to put up with annoyances! Then came my AHA moment.

Chuck pauses for dramatic effect.

I noticed the wind bending the grass and realized that if I could make the straw bend at a right angle my problem would be solved. Yes, I was the one who put the crinkle in the straw. Got some engineers involved, did a little research on angles and pliability, and we put the crinkle right where it counted. Made a fortune until the patent ran out.

Nick, I know that straw changed a lot of lives. Now we need to find a crinkle for our T-shirt. I want you to sit here and just soak it all in. Jump in anytime with your insights. Okay group, let’s go around the room. Mahoola, give us an update on research. Any news from the armpit lab?

Nick, I know you’ve championed T-shirts that resisted yellow armpits. I agree this could be our difference maker, set us apart from our competitors, but I’m afraid that it just hasn’t been as easy as a crinkle in a straw. We’ve researched this for years, and the problem is that we’ve never been able to understand why armpits turn yellow in the first place, so we haven’t made any headway on a solution. Nick, I’m sorry, but with the last budget cuts, we just had to transfer the armpitters to the sock division. They’re having better luck with odor control.

Nick is wide-eyed, mouth agape. Mahoola nods to Penolope looking for support.

Nick, I know you’re disappointed, but consumer research supported this reorg. We did a whole series of focus groups with women. It’s the guys that buy the T-shirts, but it’s the women who do the laundry, and when they see yellow, they throw the T-shirt out and tell the guy to restock. And he usually just buys the same brand. We can say that our T-shirts are durable, but the truth is we need people to throw away their T-shirts and that’s what women will do. Bottom line is that repeat purchases are driven by yellow armpits. No upside for us to keep the pits white.

Nick, the reorg came from the top. Unless we can free up some money from the sock lab, underwear research is at a standstill. We’re going to have to find our crinkle in the product as is. Here I’ve brought a stack of T-shirts to pass around for brainstorming.

Nick remains wide-eyed and his shoulders slump. Billy Buck’s mouth is hanging open as he realizes the glittering career in marketing promised by his uncle could be reduced to the prosaic conundrum of yellow armpits.

Mahoola plops a box of shirts on the table and passes them out by sliding them to each team member. Chuck seems to have dozed off, and the T-shirt skids by him and onto the floor. Billy Buck leans down to pick it up and purposely nudges Chuck awake in the process. The group idly looks at the familiar T-shirts, rubbing, stretching and smelling the fabric.

Nick (regains his bearings and sits up in the chair):
Well in my 30 years at Hanes, I’ve learned not to argue with the C-suite. I’ve also learned that my team will know how to pull together and make do. Okay team, let’s brainstorm. Any ideas out there? Remember our pride in our product. We are Hanes-strong!

Voice from the back of the room:
Can’t we say that this is some sort of fancy cotton, hand-picked by beautiful Nubian women along the Nile? I know my wife insists on high thread-count Egyptian cotton for our sheets.

Nick (wearily looking down to the end of the table):
Thanks for the idea, but we tried that in the 1980s with the Silky Smooth line we put in the high-end stores. Men buy the T-shirts remember, but that’s not where they shop. They’d probably be happy if they could buy their T-shirts when they’re stocking up on beer at the liquor store. Beautiful Nubian women are just not part of the Hanes durable and tough image. I championed Silky Smooth and we got destroyed. Set my career back a good five years. Any others?

An awkward silence fills the room. Nick looks at Chuck expectantly, but he is absently staring at the ceiling, still pulling on his ear tufts. Billy startles as he feels a hand upon his knee, looks down and notices that Chuck is passing him a note. He discretely reads it.

Billy: (hesitantly and nervously)
What happened to the tags? I don’t see them anymore. There’s just this little printing on the fabric here. Hard to read, but looks like it has the same information that used to be on the tags.

Mahoola: (with pride)
Oh that. That’s just our new heat treatment labeling. Don’t have to pay to sew the label in, now we use a machine that stamps the info right onto the cotton. We save a few pennies a shirt, but it adds up. It’s a big deal to our bottom line. A couple of people down there in product development got nice bonuses out of this one.

Billy sees Chuck give him a slight go-ahead nod.

Billy: (with growing confidence)
Can’t we use this as our marketing campaign? Are we the only company with a tagless T-shirt?

I appreciate the thought Billy, but what do tags have to do with anything. How can you build a campaign around a tag for God’s sake?

Chuck (slowly stands up and moves to the lectern, speaking slowing with an authoritative voice):
Billy has a good idea. Find a way to make tags ANNOYING. Billy, here is my  advice. Remember it and you’ll go places in this world. In this great country of America, you can always market against annoyance. I told you about the straw. But how annoying was it to spank that catsup bottle, how about parking your ass on a cold car seat? Annoying, right? That’s why they put those heaters in there.

Make tags ANNOYING. Need I say more? I don’t think so. My job here is done.

He pats Billy on the back as he leaves the room. Nick is beaming at his nephew.

I told you this kid would be a marketing genius. Let’s kick off the campaign with a big “Go Tagless” celebration in Times Square. I’m sure we can entice some celebrity spokespeople.  I hear Mr. T is available.  We can have a countdown, just like New Year’s – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then BOOM, we reveal the T-shirt. It’ll be huge – several stories high.

Oh, oh, I’ve got it. Here’s an idea for a TV campaign. We could come up with a bunch of embarrassing scenarios, like someone at a bar trying to pick up a girl. She’s interested and then BOOM! she sees the tag and is instantly turned off. Wait, even better, the nerdy guy is sitting at the bar next to Michael Jordan and as the girl walks away, Jordan leans over and whispers in his ear, “I went tagless, my friend, and it has made all the difference.”

Excited chatter breaks out.

The missing words in the following poem are anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like spot, post, stop) and the number of asterisks indicates the number of letters. Your job is to solve the missing words based on the above rules and the context of the poem. Scroll down for answers.

Marketers who ******* to greatness, to becoming advertising kings,

Knew that Americans are annoyed by the most trivial things.

So ads ******* ketchup that came up of the bottle with a simple squirt,

Or extolled the virtues of a crinkled straw that won’t poke or hurt

But who knew that tags could cause such anguish and *******

That men would rush out and buy Hanes tagless underwear.











Answers: aspired, praised, despair


Posted in

Leave a Comment