Napster's ad: Forget fashion, music's a value play

Contrast with Apple on style as well as substance draws mixed reviews for "rental" music offer.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
The difference between Napster and Apple Computer music offerings was made clear during Sunday's Super Bowl: Apple is a high-end fashion statement, while Napster is about value shopping.

That may be an extreme take, but it isn't far from the advertising messages the two companies are now sending as they square off at different poles of the digital-music markets.

Napster's Super Bowl ad was the kickoff for a $30 million marketing campaign aimed at introducing a mainstream audience to the music "rental" model. It's the first time any company has spent a substantial amount of money marketing the online subscription model, an idea that many analysts have said will take some serious explaining for consumers to understand.

Did it work? It's too early to say, but the reviews were decidedly mixed. USA Today's focus group, for instance, rated Napster's ad dead last in terms of popularity.

The company responded somewhat testily, saying the newspaper's rating and other ho-hum reactions had missed the point.

"Did it have pigs or monkeys in it? No," said Napster spokeswoman Dana Harris. "We weren't trying to make people laugh; we were trying to make people understand something."

Indeed, with another few months to go in its expensive advertising campaign, Napster has bet its future that people will ultimately understand its message.

Napster's new "Napster to Go" subscription service offers access to an unlimited amount of music per month for a $14.99 fee. That music can be put on compatible MP3 players, but can only be played as long as the subscriber keeps paying the fee.

Because most consumers are used to paying for CDs and owning the music forever, that "rental" model will take considerable explaining, analysts say.

It's true that the most popular advertisements aren't necessarily the most effective. GoDaddy's wardrobe malfunction-themed ad on Sunday caused tongues to wag, but some viewers were left scratching their heads trying to remember what exactly the company did.

Nevertheless, some advertising consultants said that a powerful ad first needed to engage the emotions, even if an appeal to a consumer's logical side is also important.

"It's what you lead with," said Jordan Fisher, director of brand planning at Perceive, an advertising agency in Los Angeles. "It's like when the iPod launched, they focused on that great sense of freedom. Then at the end of the spot, they also said it could hold 10,000 songs."

But even on the effectiveness rating, Napster's advertisement, which

featured a series of equations comparing the value of its offer to the $1 per song downloads from Apple, got mixed reviews.

In a blog posting on Monday, Forrester Research advertising analyst Jim Nail gave his "ad champion" award to Napster's spot.

"Simple. Clear. Compelling," Nail wrote. "This ad won't make the Advertising Hall of Fame, but it will generate a lot of Napster 30-day trials tomorrow."

The company concurred, saying its traffic spiked after the ad, and it gave away 1,000 bundles of subscriptions plus MP3 players in just minutes.

Not all viewers agreed, however. Blogger Daniel Fienberg, reviewing the advertisements on Zap2It.com, called the Napster ad "both needlessly complicated and just plain silly."

Only time will tell whether Napster's math-wonk advertising will ultimately undermine Apple's fashionista zeitgeist. For now, Wall Street's reaction is the only one with immediate impact, and the traders proved to be harsh critics.

Napster's share prices fell nearly 10 percent Monday, following a quick rise last week after news of the advertisements broke.

"We knew (the ad) would be polarizing," Napster CEO Chris Gorog said in a statement. "Some people loved it. Some people hated it. But everybody's talking about it. That's what we wanted."