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The Tao of 'duh'

An advertising philosophy so meaningless it's brilliant?

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DUH: It almost makes sense.
  • DUH: It almost makes sense.

It practically honks at you. In giant lowercase letters on a billboard, the word "duh" in quotes. After several times seeing it, you might notice a relatively small Stroman's logo at the bottom of the ad. After several more times and perhaps with the aid of binoculars, you might also be able to make out Stroman's otherwise illegible motto: "Where you get what you want."

Since the first incarnation of the ad late last year — simple black lettering on a white background — there have been six versions: "duh" topped with snow, "duh" with potted flowers in the foreground, "duh" over a background of what appears to be St. Augustine grass, "duh" on a red-checkered tablecloth with 25 ants marching near and on the lettering, "duh" over glistening swimming pool water and, most recently, "duh" on a sun-yellow backdrop above a pair of aviator sunglasses.

Those similarly blunt "JESUS" billboards that dot the interstates might make a fitting analogue if it wasn't so easy to reconcile their message and motive. But "duh"? Regardless of the background or your knowledge of Stroman's, it's as clear as a Zen koan, a "what's the sound of one hand clapping?" by comparison. What's more, it's a mean paradox, daring you to consider a deeper meaning while mocking you for not grasping the obvious significance in the same glance.

Or at least that's what I thought after months of mornings driving past one of the 30 "duhs" throughout Central Arkansas. Then I had lunch with Butler Yates, who, despite claiming that he merely "meanders about" at Stroman's; that he doesn't have a title (his ex-wife is a Stroman; "she takes pity" by keeping him around, he said), and that he's a candle maker and not an ad man (more on that later), is clearly the driving force behind the campaign.

Yates' brand of self-deprecation, genial smugness and casual charm make him what I think of as British in the best way: He's a good talker. And when he talks about "duh," it almost makes sense.

The trick, Yates said, was to figure out a strategy where a small, locally owned business could compete with big companies that bombard consumers with constant advertising.

"How many times does a car company tell you that you can save $12,000 this week, or 'We're going to shoot this kid. Plus, we'll give you a hot dog or Coke'? What we wanted was for you to make an effort. If you were inquisitive, you'd do something about it. And then the phone started ringing. People say, 'What's "duh" mean?' And we say, 'Well, it's obvious. Have you been to one of our stores?' "

If you're not familiar with Stroman's, much less what Yates calls its "obvious" appeal, the coyness of the enterprise is supposed to inspire you to visit one of the furniture and appliance business' eight outlets. According to Yates, it's working. Tying sales to advertising is a rough science at best, but Yates said Stroman's is up about 15% from where it was last year. Moreover, he said the stores have been flooded by calls — people calling to find out how many ants were on the tablecloth billboard, people calling to ask what next month's theme will be, people calling to let the store know that they understand. The concept now comes in button form, which Yates said are collectors' items. Newly, Stroman's sells "duh" T-shirts for $10 a pop. They come in Chinese take-out containers.

Next up for the campaign: Yates is trying to stage a contest in Little Rock schools, where kids submit a painting or drawing of what's obvious to them.

"It's nothing to do with us," Yates said. "We're the vehicle for them. I'm the guy that's dumb enough to give away a billboard."

With "duh" and the Stroman's logo on it of course.

Finally, about those candles. Yates started making them after he wrote a book of medieval aphorisms (yep, you read that right) several years back called "The Oculatum: A Book of Great Insight for Those Who Wish to See." You can buy his candles, which are created by "ancient apothecary aromatics," and the book at oculatum.com. The introduction to the book offers these words of preparation: "it is of no consequence that the reader remember, understand or comprehend the phrase; it matters only that it be read."

At lunch, Yates mentioned that a fan of the campaign suggested a book component: "The Tao of Duh." Surely, it's only a matter of time.

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