E-letter: Looking to differentiate?

The U.S. Senate (then) hopeful from Iowa, Joni Ernst, made marketing history last March as she broke into campaign mode with a hog-castration ad. “I’m Joni Ernst,” the ad opened. “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”

Cheap attention getter? The last line: “Let’s make them squeal.”

A recent issue of Advertising Age notes that shock ads can get you millions of “views” worldwide, but a bus ticket home as an election-night loser. It also notes that this time the shocker won. Joni Ernst is the new U.S. Senator from Iowa. For that accomplishment, Ad Age speculates Squeal will be the Political Ad of the Year.

Conventional wisdom has it that marketers should avoid “weird” ads, and well they should. However, I am interested in studying whether Ernst’s ad is weird.

First, I will issue the Archie Bunker disclaimer: some of my best friends are reformed pig castrators. Me, for example.


It was hot on the prairies in the summer of ’66, and my dad decided farm work would give me discipline. At the age of 14, I was not given a vote. My dad was raised on a farm, and you will find that all farmers think farm work gives kids discipline. However, they only have one reason to say this: it does; 4:30 comes early for a 14-year-old.

Kerry Knudsen
Kerry Knudsen

Early in the first week on the job, John The Farmer said we were going to cut pigs. It sounded to this city kid like a round-up: cut ‘em out, ride ‘em in, rope ‘em up and brand ‘em.

As we approached the feeder-pig house, I noted we had no rope, no horse, no hats and the boots I wore may have been new, but would not have passed muster at any rodeo. Neither would the dog panting at John’s side. Something was going wrong.

When we got inside, there was an old, wooden table. The windows were coated with dust, and the air was filled with it. The sunlight streaming in drew clear, defined shafts from the windows and cracks to the floor. John pointed at a pig near the wall, and said, “Get that one.”

He must have been in it for the entertainment, because feeder pigs don’t stand there waiting. On the other hand, this 14-year-old city kid was not going to be mocked by a dirt farmer. There was pride at stake.

Let’s just say I finally got the pig, and John said to put it on the table, which I did, unceremoniously. He then said to reach over the pig, grab its far front and far back leg, flip it on its side and cross the front and back legs, which I did. It was a small pig.

Out of nowhere, John was at the pig’s back end with a pocket knife. The dog had frozen, vibrating, and his eyes were fixed and steely.

The pig was already emitting an ear-splitting scream, John’s knife went slit, slit, he flipped his wrist and two creamy lumps floated into the dust-laden air, flashing in the light beams.

The dog jumped, there was a kind of nasal/guttural, dog-slurping belly sound and I was outside, leaning over the railing while John and his son, who had showed up from nowhere, laughed.

It was the kid that did it. I went back in, grabbed another pig and we were off to the races. My recollection is that we did 18,000 in the next three days, but it was probably closer to a few dozen.

I saw a news segment two days before last week’s election in which an anchorwoman was interviewing Ernst. A New York girl, she simply could not grasp that castrating male livestock is a necessary and integral part of the food chain. People like Joni Ernst are working today in hog operations worldwide, doing a very noisy, hot and smelly job so people in New York and Moscow can eat their ham, chops and sausage without the offence of boar taint.


Which brings us back to the shock ad. Was it a shock ad? If the purpose of a shock ad is to grab the attention of an audience with a frivolous interruption, like a guy firing a starter’s pistol in a crowded university lecture hall, then it was not a shock ad. Ernst was illustrating the discipline of an Iowa farm upbringing.

The purpose of an ad is to differentiate your goods or services from your competitor, and, hopefully, initiate a sale. In today’s market, that has become very difficult, leading to every kind of attention-grabbing device that is legal, and many that are not. People lie about their reach in terms of clicks, and they bait people in with vanishing discounts and pirated brands. It is a shark pond out there.

In Ernst’s case, the first test New York anchorpeople put the ad to was the test of truth: did this thing really happen? People were fascinated. Ernst was matter-of-fact. She lived on a farm. They sold pigs. Somebody had to cut pigs.

Then she won one of the most powerful positions on the planet, and Ad Age is showing the pigs and the prize as a cause-and-effect relationship.

Why did she win? Because she grossed people out? Not likely. The more likely explanation is that people are weary of sleight-of-hand marketing tricks and just want somebody helping them that is real.


Farming is a lot like the wood industry. The owners are diverse in geography, culture and practice. The production model is based on the family unit. The owners are independent and will work for low wages if they can work independently. It is a cyclical business that is under fire from overregulation. Importantly, its practitioners are in the business because they belong there. It is where they want to be.

People that live in the world of risk and consequence need a special touch when approached to buy a product or service, including a U.S. Senator. Suppliers to the wood industry need to learn that to thrive. On the other hand, people on the manufacturing side equally need to understand that the rest of the world simply does not understand what goes into making quality furniture, functional cabinetry or impressive millwork, any more than they know what goes into makin’ bacon.


Some of you saw our annual survey come around last week. In it, you saw that we continue to poke at how our industry can best represent itself and market itself post-manufacturing. The blast will go out again on Thursday, so if you got it once and did not fill it out, it’s only 10 minutes, and we are asking for your benefit. Who knows? Your daughter may be the next Prime Minister.


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