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Marketing campaign presses the right buttons

About two years ago, the office-supply chain, Staples, began a new advertising campaign.

According to Shira Goodman, Staples Inc.'s top marketing executive, the Framingham -based chain decided to peddle the perception that it's a particularly easy place in which to shop. "All of our ad gurus got together and said, 'How do we make this amorphous concept of 'easy' very tangible, so our consumers can really hang on to it?' "

The answer was a series of television commercials showing various people accomplishing tedious or onerous tasks, instantly, by pressing a big red "Easy" button. The commercials were, in other words, silly, prop-comedy gags.

And the outcome? Among other things, there is a demand from consumers for the prop. About seven months after the commercials started, the Easy Button migrated onto the shelves at Staples, where it was priced at $4.99. Goodman said the chain has sold nearly 1.5 million of them.

In real life, of course, the Easy Button does not magically solve problems as it does in the commercials. (In one memorable spot, it's an Easy Button that builds the Great Wall of China, just in time to thwart an invading army.) Instead, when you push on the thing, which says "Easy" on top and "Staples" along the side, it emits a recording of Staples' slogan: "That was easy!"

At a time when many people -- including ad gurus -- insist that the pitch-saturated public is fed up with marketing in all its forms, it seems peculiar that hundreds of thousands of consumers would actually pay to own a physical hunk of advertising. Such a rare occurrence is, as the trade magazine, Brandweek, recently observed, "a marketer's dream."

The Easy Button campaign this year won an advertising award called the Gold Effie. "It's clearly touched a nerve with the public," observed Linda Cornelius, a senior partner at the ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, and president of the Effie Awards board.

And it suggests that "not only are people more receptive than perhaps they'd like to admit to advertising," Cornelius said, "but they want to be connected to the brand experience." (Her son, she added, chose a Burger King costume for Halloween this year.)

Staples' Goodman -- who noted that part of the Easy Button proceeds goes to the Boys and Girls Club of America -- said that the company has received letters and tracked reports of a dizzying array of Easy Button uses, from people pressing it to cheer on their kids during kitchen homework sessions to, somewhat incredibly, a woman who took one to her mother's chemotherapy sessions. The Canadian prime minister was famously filmed with an Easy Button in his office.

"This one is a little scary," Goodman said, "but I've personally been on airplanes and seen them in the cockpit." Actually, that's pretty funny.

And in the endless other examples found in writings, photographs, and videos online, the home-brew uses of Easy Buttons tend to involve, basically, prop comedy. Like the YouTube contributor who rewired an Easy Button to chant "peanut-butter-jelly time!" Or the blogger who made sardonic Easy Button jokes a recurring theme in a series of video posts about her hassles buying a filing cabinet from Staples. (One of her readers recommended that she buy one of the buttons: "Next time you're having problems at Staples, just pull it out, set it on the counter, and start slamming your fist on it!")

Other online commentators have noted that the Easy Button is an ideal solution to the annoying obligations of a mandatory office Secret Santa ritual, and that it may be particularly attractive to cubicle-dwellers who can expense it back to the company, hiding it among real office-supply purchases on a Staples receipt.

One ad executive speculated in Brandweek that the gizmo's success is derived from being an "elegant metaphor," speaking to a yearning for solutions to the complexities of the modern world. Maybe.

Although if you want to get all grad-studenty about it, couldn't you also read the button as a satire that exposes and subverts lives already drenched in push-button solutions?

Maybe the answer is less complicated: The Easy Button is simply the latest in a long line of amusing but otherwise useless geegaws, like the Magic 8-Ball, Big Mouth Billy Bass, and the Pet Rock. Which isn't to say that its success isn't impressive.

Making a hit product, wherever it may fall on the spectrum of utility, is really, really hard.

Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine.

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